John Knowles Biography


John Knowles, American novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, was born September 16, 1926, in Fairmont, West Virginia, the son of the vice president of a major coal company. In 1945 Knowles completed his high school education at Phillips Exeter Academy, a private boys’ school in New Hampshire, and then went to Yale University, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1949. While at the university, he served as editor of the Yale Daily News, and several of his early stories were published in student magazines. From 1950 to 1952, Knowles was a reporter for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut. He then turned to freelance writing for several years, then served as an associate editor of Holiday magazine from 1957 to 1960.

During this ten-year period Knowles was already writing short sketches of what would later be the subject matter of his first novel; he detailed the struggles of adolescent boys striving to discover their mature selves within the restrictive environment of a boarding school. His short story “A Turn With the Sun,” written in 1949 when he was twenty-three years old, details the accidental death by drowning of a prep school boy scorned by his classmates. This was followed by “Phineas,” written in 1953 and published in May, 1956, by Cosmopolitan magazine, an early rendering of what would later be reworked as the first four chapters of A Separate Peace (1959). In this short tale, Knowles created the character of Phineas as “the essence of careless peace,” a...

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Although strong critical acclaim such as he received for A Separate Peace came to John Knowles only once in his prolific writing career, he is nevertheless generally recognized as a writer of considerable skill, able to create striking verbal images of that interior world in which everyone struggles with fear of failure in resisting seemingly uncontrollable pride and jealousy. His central theme is that the only true path to achieving victory over such a common human fear is through acceptance of the common human need for loving forgiveness of others’ and one’s own inner weaknesses. This theme has appeal for the reading public beyond that of Knowles’s literary skills. It is for his insightful expression of this theme, particularly in his tale of Gene and Phineas, that he is most noted.


John Knowles, the third of four children of James Myron and Mary Beatrice Shaw Knowles, was born in the coal mining town of Fairmont, West Virginia, in 1926. After attending public schools in Fairmont through the ninth grade, Knowles left home at fifteen to attend Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He entered the prestigious preparatory school in the fall of 1942 as a “lower middler,” or sophomore. He found Phillips Exeter very challenging. In 1943 he attended a special summer wartime session there and joined a group called the Suicide Society, the members of which jumped from a tall tree on the campus into a river below. Because of a bad fall from this tree, Knowles was on crutches for a while with a foot injury. After graduating from Exeter in 1945, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Aviation Cadet Program, qualifying as a pilot.

Subsequently, he attended Yale University, where he majored in English and was on the editorial board of the Yale Daily. While at Yale he also submitted stories to the Yale Record, the university’s humor magazine, was invited to join Yale’s Wiffenpoofs, and was a member of the varsity swimming team. For his senior essay at Yale he wrote a novel. He graduated from Yale in 1949 and went to work as a reporter and drama critic for the Hartford Courant. In 1952 he became a freelance writer and lived for the next several years in Europe. There he wrote a novel called “Descent to...

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John Knowles was born in 1926, in the small town of Fairmont, West Virginia, a declining coal-based town. He was the third of four children born to James Myron and Mary Beatrice Shaw Knowles. At age fifteen he left home and attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. After an early graduation, Knowles enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Cadet Program and qualified as a pilot. Discharged in 1945, Knowles attended Yale University, majored in English, and served as editor of the Yale Daily News. After receiving his degree, Knowles worked as a reporter for the Hartford Courant and later as a correspondent and editor for Holiday magazine. For several years he traveled and lived in southern...

(The entire section is 166 words.)