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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
John Knowles was born on September 16, 1926, in Fairmont, West Virginia. He entered Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, when he was fifteen years old; he studied there during all of World War II. The setting of Devon in his first novel was based on Exeter. After completing Exeter in 1945, Knowles spent eight months in the Air Force Aviation Cadet Program; but he decided to continue his studies. He entered Yale University, graduating in 1949 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. It was during his years at Yale that he began his literary career, contributing stories to the undergraduate literary magazine and editing the school newspaper.
After leaving Yale, Knowles worked as a journalist and free-lance writer. He also traveled in Europe and began writing and publishing his short stories. In 1957, he became an associate editor for Holiday Magazine and continued to write his fiction. He published his first novel, A Separate Peace, in 1959. It became so popular that he was able to resign his position at the magazine in order to travel and write full time. The novel also won both the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the William Faulkner Foundation Award.
After A Separate Peace, Knowles published eight other novels, including Morning in Antibes (1962), Indian Summer (1966), The Paragon (1971), and Peace Breaks Out (1981); none of them received as much critical or popular acclaim as did his first novel. He has also published a travel book entitled Double Vision and a collection of short stories entitled Phineas. In addition to writing, Knowles has lectured widely and served as writer-in-residence at Princeton University.
Although World War II serves as the background for the entire novel, it is painted in vague terms. Few specific details are given, other than Finny's references to the American bombing of Central Europe, the passing of the troop trains near Devon, the presence of the military recruiters on campus, and Leper's Section 8 discharge. Instead of giving details, Knowles uses the war as a depressing backdrop for Gene's personal battles and as a contrast to the normally peaceful environment at Devon. What goes on in the war is not so important as the fact that there is a war going on to disturb the peace of the students.
John Knowles has clearly indicated that the Devon in his book was patterned after Exeter, the exclusive private boarding school that he attended during World War II. He said of Exeter, "It was more crucial in my life than in the lives of . . . almost anyone else who ever attended the school. It picked me up out of the hills of West Virginia, forced me to learn to study, tossed me into Yale, and a few years later inspired me to write . . . A Separate Peace.
Physically, Devon and Exeter are very similar. Both had expansive playing fields, a winding river, great trees, and pure air. Like Gene and Finny, Knowles attended the summer session in 1943. During that summer, the author met David Hackett, on whom he modeled Phineas. He also belonged to a club whose members jumped from the branch of a tree into the river as an initiation feat. In the fall of 1943, Knowles felt a change in the school. Many of the familiar teachers had left to fight in the war. The students at Exeter, like those at Devon in 1943, were expected to help with the apple harvest and the clearing of the railroad tracks.
Even though much of the novel is written out of personal experience, Knowles claims that he is not any one of the characters in the book. He says he was not a good enough athlete to be Finny and not a good enough student to be Gene. Instead, he has invested small parts of himself in several of the different characters.