John Knowles

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Knowles 1926–

American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Fascinated by the era affected by World War II, Knowles often places his fiction during that period. He writes of young heroes facing the tests of modern life. His young male protagonists arrive at a painful awakening, the realization of the evil in society and in themselves. Knowles perceives this realization as their major step toward manhood.

Knowles's most famous novel, A Separate Peace, is characteristic of his greatest concerns. This fictional account of a young man's moral and emotional maturation has been consistently popular with young adults since its publication in 1960. Like most of Knowles's other works, A Separate Peace portrays two protagonists who battle with the love/hate relationship that evolves out of their strikingly different views of life. Gene and Phineas exemplify Knowles's use of doubles to portray the dichotomy in the American personality, which Knowles characterizes as "a careful Protestant with a savage stirring in his insides."

Following A Separate Peace, almost universally considered a classic, beautifully wrought novel, Knowles wrote several works which failed to attain the critical acclaim of this first novel. Even his recent Peace Breaks Out, which shares the elite prep school setting and a similar theme with A Separate Peace, does not fulfill its promise.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; Something about the Author, Vol. 8; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Simon Raven

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Separate Peace], modest as it is in tone, is likely to leave you thinking. The misuse of science now makes it necessary to articulate a new and purely practical form of Pacifism, a Pacifism which, free of crankiness and owing nothing to religious sensitivity, depends entirely on simple common sense. From now on, people must say, war will mean not only a shortage of cakes and ale but the end of everything. It is this form of protest, of personal withdrawal from political folly which, among other things, makes such pleasant reading of John Knowles's A Separate Peace. It is the story of two friends at a smart American preparatory school (for 'preparatory' read 'public' in this country) at the time when America first joined the Second World War. In the beginning the younger boys are more or less ignored while their elders are hurriedly prepared for the blood bath; but as time goes on the whole school is efficiently geared to the conditioning of cannon-fodder, and every aspect of work and play comes to be valued, by masters who are themselves too old to fight, only in so far as it is a preparation for the trial to come…. Gene, the intellectually inclined narrator, has a fit of insane resentment and causes his athletic friend, Phineas, to break his leg. Phineas, so badly crippled that he will be out of the war in any case, broods over the separate peace thus forced upon him and eventually decides that the war is entirely spurious, that the whole thing has been thought up by Roosevelt, Churchill and the authorities in gen-eral simply because they are old men jealous of youth and pleasure….

Phineas, of course, is in part rationalising his annoyance at being out of something; but the more sensitive Gene accepts what he says as an important truth. So privately and together they resist the war and all it implies until reality makes itself felt—sickeningly so—in its own good time…. In emphasising the wider theme of this book, I have done less than justice to other matters—the quietly told story of the boys' relationship and its crises, the sweat and hopeless melancholy which pervades the whole. But then the real importance of Mr. Knowles's novel does indeed lie in its account of the attempt, made by two powerless individuals, to dissociate themselves from them and the follies for which they are responsible. It is an attempt strictly in accord with the principles of the 'commonsense' pacifism I described above—but an attempt doomed...

(The entire section is 23,361 words.)