John Knowles American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2960

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...

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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 significantly within the mainstream of key American literary traditions: the young hero’s search for the true center within the self, the self-testing of an imposed view of life, the fall from moral innocence through the tragic experience of evil in one’s self and in trusted friends. John Crabbe, author of a critical review of A Separate Peace, calls Knowles’s works “a treatment of American innocence in the tradition of [Ernest] Hemingway, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald and [J. D.] Salinger.” To his list might be added Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, and many others.

Morning in Antibes clearly echoes the sense of rootlessness and the alienation from one’s homeland that is found in many of Hemingway’s works and particularly in The Sun Also Rises (1926). The young, iconoclastic hero of Knowles’s The Paragon bears close resemblance in word and action to the gullible, love-blinded Jay Gatsby of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925); Phineas, too, is akin to Gatsby in directing his actions by substanceless dreams and paying the same price of life itself. Though much has been suggested concerning the similarities between Gene in A Separate Peace and Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Gene realizes the root of evil within and reconciles himself with that knowledge, whereas Holden views evil only as a threat from without and seeks refuge from it in a temporary mental breakdown.

Knowles does come alarmingly close to reprising his own material in Peace Breaks Out, a rather weak rewriting of his highly successful A Separate Peace. He repeats the setting, character types, plotting, and resolution from the earlier work, and none of these elements is improved in the reworking. Indeed, one reviewer saw Peace Breaks Out as a stain on an otherwise unblemished career and wondered how Knowles could have allowed the novel to be published. In assessing Knowles’s writings, however, it is finally less important to consider whether such resemblances are to be censured as being too derivative than it is to approach them as the attempt by a writer of cultivated style and craftsmanship to demonstrate once again humankind’s enduring efforts to find meaning within the flawed human condition. The overall positive acceptance of Knowles’s work by the reading public is an acknowledgment of his success in achieving just such an end.

A Separate Peace

First published: 1959

Type of work: Novel

In a world at war a young schoolboy must fight his own inner moral battle and make peace within himself to achieve full maturity.

With its publication in the United States in 1960 (it was first published in England), John Knowles’s short novel A Separate Peace became an instant success with young readers. Within that year, the book was granted three awards: the first William Faulkner Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Association of Independent Schools Award.

The novel has a simple story line presented initially in the first-person voice, but it quickly modifies to a dual view of events as experienced in a flashback view of incidents that occurred fifteen years before the opening scene, coupled with a mature assessment of those incidents. This combination of narrative voices gives the tale the immediacy of an eyewitness account while providing the author wide-ranging possibilities for omniscient commentary on the larger meaning of events.

The main setting of the novel is the Devon School in the hills of New Hampshire during the summer session of 1942 and the academic year that follows. The action focuses on a small group of boys completing their junior year by taking accelerated summer courses to allow them the extra time they will need as seniors to participate in training activities readying them to join the armed forces at war in Europe and Asia. The war and their proximity to participation in it are sustained factors in the minds of the boys, though they feign a youthful indifference to its threat. Fear is their constant unacknowledged companion, fear of the unknown horrors that lie ahead and fear of their inability to conduct themselves well in battle.

Though they would not likely consider it as such, these boys are already engaged in a battle in the quiet halls of Devon. This is their battle with some of the many fears that teenagers must face while growing to maturity: fear of not belonging or being displaced in the affections of one’s friends; the proud fear of loss of status, of not performing up to others’ expectations; even fear of surrendering to irrational hatreds caused by jealousy and to the latent violence that each boy senses within himself and others. Knowles leads the reader through skirmishes of this battle by detailing the experiences of two boys in this group, Gene Forrester and Phineas.

Gene is an intelligent, cautious boy raised by a supportive southern family. He has enjoyed three academically successful years at Devon and is respected by his professors and classmates as a scholar and athlete. In contrast to Gene’s moderation in all things, Phineas, his Bostonian roommate, known to all as Finny, is possessed of a uniquely free spirit. Finny, who lives always for the exhilaration of the moment, is a peerless athlete of perfect physical coordination. He views life as a great playing field on which all are engaged in a romping game of friendly competition and everyone is a winner. With these two characters, Knowles presents the dichotomous aspects of the mythic American male—half conservative intellectual, half noble savage. A major premise of this novel is the necessity for the reconciliation of these two aspects as one.

Finny’s charming manner and facile tongue make it possible for him to escape with ease the usual disciplinary consequences of every wild scheme his unfettered imagination can propose. One such scheme is the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. Members of this elite club are initiated by a single perilous jump from the limb of a great tree into the Devon River, which runs through the school grounds. Gene and Finny, however, as the club’s only charter members, must make the leap every night.

As the summer moves toward its close, Gene becomes concerned about his grades and begins to resent Finny’s continual demands on his time through this and other impromptu interruptions of his study hours. He begins at first to feel that Finny is deliberately trying to make him fail in his bid for top student of the class, while Finny himself will continue to be lauded as the best athlete. Gene lacks self-awareness of the growing anger he feels toward his roommate and of his jealousy of Finny’s ability to get by with outrageous behavior. At first he is able to cloak these feelings with the self-lie that Finny is also envious of him. When he at last realizes that this is not so, he sees himself as inferior to Finny even in this, and his anger cannot be contained. At a nightly meeting of the suicide club, in an unreasoned, unplanned act that Gene later blames on “some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing . . . something blind,” he bounces the limb, causing Finny to fall awkwardly onto the bank below, splintering the bones of one leg so severely that the doctor predicts he will never play sports again.

At the opening of the fall term, Gene visits Finny at his home in Boston, where he is still recuperating, and there makes an awkward attempt to confess his guilt for the supposed accident. Finny brusquely refuses to accept Gene’s admission; he is unable, in his total truthfulness, to believe that his closest friend could betray him. As the term goes forward, Gene sets himself to atone for his action against Finny by staying out of sports. He occasionally even wears some of Finny’s clothes in a vain attempt to put on the mind and spirit of the friend he has maimed through unreasoned jealousy. It is a period of moral agony and doubt for Gene as he feels the war within his heart increase in intensity parallel to that of the war raging across the world outside the haven of the Devon school.

Gene’s confession, blurted out clumsily in Finny’s home, is not enough to cleanse his guilt and fear. Reconciliation is vital for both boys; neither can escape the necessity of forgiving and being forgiven. Though they are able to avoid the pain of that action for several months after Finny returns to Devon, in the final week of their last term, the moment of reconciliation comes. A mock investigation is proposed as a jest by a few boys, purporting to uncover the facts of Finny’s accident. The truth of Gene’s action is finally forced upon Finny, and in dashing from the scene in angry confusion, Finny falls once again, injuring himself fatally. In their few moments together on the morning before his death, Gene and Finny at last find peace: Gene in the humbling self-acceptance of the potential for savagery within everyone, and Finny in an understanding and acceptance of such human frailty possible even within a closest friend.

Much allegorical and symbolic material is woven throughout this short novel, which opens it to multiple interpretations of its rich layers of meaning. It can be viewed, for example, as a tale of Original Sin, with the Devon School as an Eden enclosing the great Tree of Knowledge through which humankind falls from innocence but is redeemed by the suffering of a totally innocent one. It may also be approached as a reworking of the classic tale of the need to accept the potential evil within everyone and thus make peace with one’s true self.

A Vein of Riches

First published: 1978

Type of work: Novel

When his family’s fortunes fail, a young protagonist reevaluates his economic ideas and sense of identity and then learns to accept himself as he is.

In A Vein of Riches, told from an omniscient point of view, Knowles again takes as his protagonist a young man whose received views are tested by experience. Knowles sets his novel in Middleburg, West Virginia, the center of a coal boom and the home of oil barons whose castles and manors rival those of their counterparts in railroads and steel. While the story begins in 1909, the pivotal event in the novel occurs on April 1, 1919, when the coal miners strike against the owners of the mines.

Knowles begins A Vein of Riches by delineating the positions of the leading families in Middleburg and by satirizing the captains of industry.

Minnie Catherwood, wife of one of the leading coal mine owners, is somewhat of an anomaly in her set, for she alone seems bored with her meaningless existence. Looking for something more than her opium-laced tonics, she turns to religion and finds salvation through the Reverend Roanoke, an African American itinerant minister who serves the impoverished and exploited coal miners in Bennettown. When she first visits Bennettown, her eyes are opened to the wretched existence of the workers, and she comes to understand that Bennettown is a “sealed world,” one apart from Middleburg. When she attempts to discuss the miners’ plight with Clarkson, her husband, he indulgently treats her like a pet dog and pays the Reverend Roanoke to leave the area.

Her son, Lyle, also has questions about the coal-mining policies, especially the “Yellow Dog” contracts and the forced evictions, and Clarkson suspects that his son is not “fit” to assume control of the mining enterprise. After trouble breaks out in Logan County, Clarkson, Lyle, Virgil Pence, and Uncle George go to Charleston, but only Virgil and Clarkson go on to Logan. Lyle, who is supposed to return home, instead alters his name, poses as a newspaper reporter, goes to Logan, and is almost killed before he is reunited with his father. In the course of his “adventure,” he begins to question his values and identity and the justice of the owners’ actions. The letters of Virgil Pence, one of Clarkson’s trusted assistants, to his wife provide the answers. Virgil, at once a kind of chorus and Knowles’s spokesman, knows that the owners are at fault. Unfortunately, Virgil is accidentally shot to death.

The self-centered Lyle attempts to change and even meets with the providential Reverend Roanoke, but he does not know where he fits in. His mother tells him a story about Pompeii, but he is too blind to see the parallel between the doomed city and Middleburg. He meets Doris Lee, Virgil’s widow, and blames himself for Virgil’s death, but she tells him that “King Coal” was really responsible. He falls in love with her, but she is older than he and they are from different classes. Instead, she moves to Washington, D.C., meets Clarkson, and has an affair with him.

When oil replaces coal as fuel, the mine owners face bankruptcy. Minnie attributes the impending financial failure to greed. Lyle learns of his father’s affair with Doris and considers shooting him, but he bungles the attempt. His wealth all but gone, Clarkson ends the affair with Doris, and Lyle moves to Washington and wins her love. Minnie convinces Clarkson to close up their mansion and build a small home on the farm that she had him purchase for her. According to her, the coal is consumed and gone, but the farm renews itself. At the end of the novel, Minnie and Clarkson are anticipating the birth of a grandchild. After presenting an environmental message, criticizing the greed of the mine owners, and demonstrating how people are shaped by their physical and social environments, Knowles concludes his novel on a positive note, with the young protagonist having learned from his experiences and accepted the presence of a dark “seam” or “vein” within himself.

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