John Knowles

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Discussion Topics

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Most of John Knowles’s protagonists, with the exception of Axie Reed, are young men. What role do women play in his fiction, and how may they be categorized?

In what ways do societal rules and expectations affect Knowles’s characters?

How does Knowles use symbolic landscapes in his work?

What role does the “generation gap” play in Knowles’s fiction?

Knowles uses a variety of points of view in his work. Sometimes, as in A Vein of Riches, readers get the perspective of only certain characters. Which characters does he choose to use in this way, and why are they chosen?

In A Separate Peace, Knowles uses “Phineas” as the name of a character, thereby giving the book a mythic quality. How does Knowles use names to suggest character traits or symbolic meanings?

Other Literary Forms

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In addition to his short fiction, John Knowles published a volume of nonfiction, Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad (1964), and several novels, including A Separate Peace (1959), Indian Summer (1966), Spreading Fires (1974), A Stolen Past (1983), and The Private Life of Axie Reed (1986). He also wrote articles for Saturday Evening Post, Story, New World Writing, Reader’s Digest, and Holiday and a memoir, Backcasts: Memories and Recollections of Seventy Years as a Sportsman (1993).


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John Knowles established his literary reputation in the 1960’s when A Separate Peace won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for a first novel, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and an Independent Schools Education Board award. A Separate Peace explores the process of growing up, and it became a favorite with younger people in the 1960’s, along with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). In the novel, Knowles reveals the typical precise craftsmanship and handling of characteristic themes that run throughout all of his later work.

Other literary forms

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John Knowles (nohlz) has written in several genres in addition to long fiction. Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad, published in 1964, is Knowles’s account—in essay form—of his travels. The work discusses Arabian and Greek cultures and compares them to American Puritanism. Knowles also put together a collection of short stories titled Phineas: Six Stories in 1968. The collection, containing the story “Phineas,” on which A Separate Peace was based, deals with Knowles’s favorite subject—the condition of humanity. In addition, Knowles contributed to such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, New World Writing, Holiday, and Reader’s Digest. A collection of Knowles’s manuscripts is housed at Yale University.


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John Knowles, author of one of the most popularly taught novels, A Separate Peace, received appropriate acclaim for his work. For his first work he received awards from the William Faulkner Foundation and the Rosenthal Foundation in 1960. One year later he was presented with the National Association of Independent Schools Award. Knowles’s ability to paint a visual picture for his readers helps to build his characters in terms of form and content. Hisnarratives are insightful and free-flowing throughout all his novels, though none compares to his first work, his masterpiece, A Separate Peace.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” New York: Chelsea House, 2000. A useful collection of critical essays, excellent for students reading the novel in class.

Bryant, Hallman Bell. “A Separate Peace”: The War Within. Boston: Twayne, 1990. One of Twayne’s masterwork studies, this is a helpful guide for the student of the novel. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Bryant, Hallman Bell. Understanding “A Separate Peace”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents . Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Extensive background material for the study...

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of Knowles’s novel.

Degnan, James. “Sex Ex Machina and Other Problems.” The Kenyon Review 31 (Spring, 1969): 272-277. By analyzing “Phineas,” the source of material for A Separate Peace, Degnan shows how Knowles succeeds when he adheres to treating the torments of the sensitive intelligent male adolescent. In other novels, however, he fails because he leaves this theme.

Holborn, David G. “A Rationale for Reading John Knowles’ A Separate Peace.” In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1993. An essay championing the novel and its importance in the literary canon.

McEwen, Fred. “John Knowles: Overview.” In Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, edited by Laura Standley Berger. London: St. James Press, 1994. A standard introduction to the author and his works.

Weber, Ronald. “Narrative Method in A Separate Peace.” Studies in Short Fiction 3 (Fall, 1965): 63-72. To show how Knowles’s narrative method relates to his themes, Weber explores comparisons with J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). He shows how, because he is such a precise craftsman, Knowles provides the clearer statement about life.


Critical Essays