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 prototype of the free-spirited Finny of the later novel.
Following the immense success of his short novel A Separate Peace, Knowles devoted himself full time to writing. He traveled extensively for two years, recording his impressions in a narrative diary which served as a basis for Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad (1964), a nonfiction travelogue sparked with commentary on the foibles of the human condition as observed within the diverse cultures of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He served as writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina in 1963-1964 and at Princeton University in 1968-1969. During the 1960’s, Knowles published two more novels, Morning in Antibes (1962) and Indian Summer (1966), as well as a collection of short stories, Phineas: Six Stories (1968).
In The Paragon, published in 1971, Knowles returned to the depiction of bonding and bickering among young students with the tale of the tenuous and shifting relationship between two Yale University roommates of opposite temperament and lifestyle—post-adolescent cynical heroes, disillusioned with their parents, their country, and their world. Three years later, Knowles completed Spreading Fires (1974), a novel set on the Riviera in the south of France, an area whose decadent atmosphere had intrigued him during his earlier travels. This was followed by A Vein of Riches (1978), Knowles’s only novel set in his home territory of West Virginia. Here he depicted the struggles of a coal dynasty family faced with the loss of their fortune and power.
Knowles completed two more short novels in the 1980’s, Peace Breaks Out (1981) and A Stolen Past (1983). In Peace Breaks Out, he turned once more to the theme of maturation through the achievement of self-acceptance. The action takes place in the same Devon prep school setting as A Separate Peace, five years after the events of the earlier novel. The characters are again high-school lads whose careless cruelty results in the death of an unpopular classmate, a death whose circumstances might even be construed as murder. The boys must face their subsequent experiences of guilt as part of their growing into manhood. In 1986, the year that his last novel, The Private Life of Axie Reed, was published, he moved to Florida, where he taught creative writing at Florida Atlantic University. His last book, Backcasts: Memories and Recollections of Seventy Years as a Sportsman (1993), concerned hunting and fishing and celebrated the camaraderie that exists between sportsmen.