Knowles, John 1926–
An American novelist, short story writer, and travel writer, Knowles is noted for his sensitive portrayals of the problems and joys of youth. Best known for his novel A Separate Peace, Knowles has received critical acclaim for his brisk, unaffected style and his adept use of imagery. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
In 1960 A Separate Peace catapulted Knowles both to international prominence and to life as a full-time novelist. Unfortunately, with each succeeding work … Knowles has gradually been relegated to the gloomy circle of those who fail to realize their initial promise. Sad to say, A Vein of Riches will not restore him to public and critical favor.
John Knowles's latest book chronicles the fortunes of the Catherwood family of Middleburg, West Virginia from the early 1900s to the mid 1920s….
To be a work of art a novel requires an inventive use of language, a meaningful design, and a compelling vision of life. A Vein of Riches lacks all of these. Knowles's prose is generally competent, but it can easily turn embarrassing or trite. At one point, Doris Lee reflects on her husband's lovemaking: "Virgil. He had possessed her as naturally as a stream flows down to the river, as clear and swift and exhilarating as a fast-flowing mountain stream." Lyle gushes that "Tot's biscuits were really the next best thing in this world to Canadian whiskey." Such sentences are set off by dialogue that resembles a catechism: When Lyle earnestly propounds solemn questions, his parents answer in brief soliloquies.
Many of the story elements of A Vein of Riches are so disturbingly familiar that one may suspect claim jumping. Several incidents strongly echo All the King's Men, Minnie's feeling of transience recalls Cather's A Lost Lady, the miners' struggle evokes the Steinbeck of the '30s, and Tot appears a first cousin of Faulkner's Dilsey. Virgil Pence's crucial and untimely end seems a weak homage to that masterly surprise death of Gerald in Forster's The Longest Journey. Even the name Catherwood is irritatingly close to that of Cowperwood, the hero of Dreiser's robber baron trilogy.
Knowles's treatment of his characters proves equally fragmented and unsatisfying. Minnie reveals some interior life, but she virtually drops out of the action after the first 60 pages. As may be appropriate to a man of affairs, Clarkson is viewed only from the outside, but nowhere are his business operations convincingly described. Lyle, who is intended to be the sensitive hero, comes across as merely insecure, shallow, and ignorant….
A long panoramic novel connecting business, social progress, and family life should achieve a certain grandeur. Yet the mystical religion of Minnie leads only to a snug little farm; the miner's ordeal results not in any transformed social consciousness, but in a love affair; the father and son's potentially tragic desire for the same woman is undercut by a fairy tale ending in Washington's Rock Creek Park. In brief, A Vein of Riches moves not with the inexorable rightness of art, but with the obvious contrivedness of the merely literary. It is a perfectly readable novel—R. F. Delderfield comes to West Virginia. But it should have been more.
Michael Dirda, "Mining the Delderfield Vein," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 19, 1978, p. E4.
Up to now John Knowles has been something of a miniaturist, his novels and stories set in close quarters: the boarding school of "A Separate Peace," the Yale campus of "The Paragon." At their best these short, intense novels are quite fine; in particular, Knowles has displayed a sensitive and unsentimental appreciation of the real and imagined agonies of young men as they go through the rites of passage.
But "A Vein of Riches" is something else again…. It pains me greatly to say so, but the novel does not possess a single redeeming virtue. Its characters and situations are clichés. Its irony is hamhanded. It is...
(The entire section is 1,139 words.)