John Knowles

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John Knowles American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

A view occasionally voiced among literary critics is that most writers have but a single message to share, and they simply repeat it in various guises from work to work throughout their writing careers. Such a judgment might be made concerning the majority of the novels and short stories of John Knowles. In his extended nonfiction piece Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad, he asserts that “the American character is unintegrated, unresolved, a careful Protestant with a savage stirring in his insides.” Knowles views life in American, Western culture as having “an orderly, rather dull and sober surface but with something berserk stirring in its depths.” It is this duality of character, this coexistence of the moderate, the gentle, and proper with the treacherous urge to destroy what cannot be controlled, that Knowles repeatedly presents to his readers for their understanding.

Knowles has placed his novels in settings that influenced his own worldview. He has made repeated use of the emotionally charged environment of boarding institutions such as he attended during his secondary and college years, finding there an ideal milieu for illustrating the effects of cultural duality. In such settings, characteristically ricocheting between the opposing demands of undisciplined and frequently cruel peer expectations and constrictive adult regulations, he found a microcosm of the wider society he wished to illustrate.

A particular talent of Knowles is the evocation of atmosphere through the careful presentation of physical details of a setting and the use of associative imagery. He stages his plot action using techniques similar to those of the theater set designer. The hot, turgid atmosphere of the summer Riviera reflects the emotional state of characters in Morning in Antibes; the ever-deepening grayness of the West Virginia coal town of A Vein of Riches mirrors the grim descent to poverty of the wealthy mine owner’s family. In A Separate Peace, Knowles employs meticulously developed details of landscape, such as a single great tree and two rivers, as symbolic devices around which he weaves his plot.

Knowles’s skillful use of imagery and his grace of phrase and metaphor are generally acknowledged by critics as his greatest strength. While praising him as a fine craftsman of language, these same critics are equally agreed that his shortcoming as a novelist is a lack of convincing character development. His protagonists, with the notable exception of Phineas of A Separate Peace, are seen as mediocre creations—as passive, ruminating characters, more acted upon than acting, unable to arouse reader empathy. There may be several sources for such a judgment.

Perhaps, having created the marvel of Phineas in his first novel, Knowles reached a level of characterization that he has not been able to achieve again, and all of his characters therefore seem pale in Phineas’s shadow. To have achieved that height even once in a literary career is far beyond the capacity of many writers. It may also be that critics view as underdevelopment the very qualities of character which Knowles strove to achieve. The men and women of his works are not exceptional beings of peerless courage and unassailable virtue. They are persons meagerly shaped by the meagerness of their environment; as sharers in the imperfect human condition, they search for the truth of themselves amid the savagery and greed of humankind masked by twentieth century hypocrisy. Their victories are small, the victories of ordinary people facing ordinary difficulties. Perhaps it is that very ordinariness that acts as a barrier to reader empathy; it is not comfortable to see one’s own experience as merely ordinary.

A few analysts of Knowles’s work label his novels, especially the later ones, as trite, disjointed, and derivative, stating that he reworks elements from his own and other writers’ works. What is viewed by some as derivative, however, is seen by others as placing Knowles...

(The entire section is 2,960 words.)