John Knowles Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Fairmont, West Virginia, 1926. Education: Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire, graduated 1945; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, B.A. 1949. Career: Reporter, Hartford Courant, Connecticut, 1950-52; freelance writer, 1952-56; associate editor, Holiday magazine, Philadelphia, 1956-60. Writer-in-residence, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1963-64, and Princeton University, New Jersey, 1968-69. Awards: Rosenthal Foundation award, 1961; Faulkner Foundation award, 1961; National Association of Independent Schools award, 1961.
A Separate Peace. London, Secker and Warburg, 1959; New York, Macmillan, 1960; edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Philadelphia, Chelsea House, 1999.
Morning in Antibes. New York, Macmillan, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1962.
Indian Summer. New York, Random House, and London, Secker andWarburg, 1966.
The Paragon. New York, Random House, 1971.
Spreading Fires. New York, Random House, 1974.
Vein of Riches. Boston, Little Brown, 1978.
Peace Breaks Out. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1981.
A Stolen Past. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1983; London, Constable, 1984.
The Private Life of Axie Reed. New York, Dutton, 1986.
Phineas: Six Stories. New York, Random House, 1968.
Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad. New York, Macmillan, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1964.
Backcasts: Memories and Recollections of Seventy Years as a Sportsman. Fowlerville, Michigan, Wilderness Adventure, 1993.
Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
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John Knowles writes, in general, not about his home turf but about New England or Europe. Only one novel, Vein of Riches, and that not his best, is about West Virginia, his childhood home. His fictional world is a cultivated, cosmopolitan, somewhat jaded world. He is a fine craftsman, a fine stylist, alert to the infinite resources and nuances of language. Yet, as he says, he is one of the live-around-the-world people, rootless, nomadic, and making a virtue of that rootlessness. He is a connoisseur of different cultures but master of none—or perhaps of one only, the sub-culture of the New England prep school. One defect of this very cosmopolitanism is the feeling of alienation that Knowles feels from his fictional world. As a veteran of many cultures he finds this trait an advantage when he writes graceful travel essays for Holiday magazine. He finds it a disadvantage when he wishes to create for Vein of Riches a thoroughly credible fictional character.
A Separate Peace, his first novel, is also by far his most important. It is a prep school novel about Gene Forrester and his close friend, Finney, and the studied set of ambiguities and ambivalences arising from the intense and complex relationship between the two. Gene, beset by a love-hate attitude toward Finney, causes Finney to suffer a serious injury and still later is the putative cause of his death from a second injury. But Finney's death is preceded by Gene's reconciliation with him, a redemptive act which to some degree assuages his feeling of guilt. Thus, the novel recounts Gene's initiation into manhood and into both worldly and moral maturity. Fifteen years after Finney's death, Gene returns to Devon to conclude the novel by thinking—"Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence." What does endure is the extraordinary popularity of this novel with prep school and college students.
Knowles's later books display his writing grace but not the inner strength of A Separate Peace. His second novel, Morning in Antibes, has a pot-pourri of comatose characters revolving about the deracinated Nicolas Petrovich Bodine in a kind of latter day The Sun Also Rises; it lacks, however, the Hemingway tone, atmosphere, and taut dialogue. The people are phony and maybe the novel is too. The long passivity of Nick makes him seem to move under water. The novel fails in characterization.
Indian Summer follows Cleet Kinsolving, World War II vet, in his jousting with his friend, Neil Reardon, Irish Catholic and heir to multi-millions (seemingly modeled on John Kennedy). Cleet's conviction, which he shares with T.S. Eliot's Sweeney, is that each man needs to do someone in. A good deal of cultural primitivism is spread about, but again the characters are unconvincing. The Paragon describes Lou Colfax, a brilliant, handsome sophomore in love with a beautiful actress four years older than he. In spite of the Yale ambiance and a plethora of cocktail parties and beautiful people the intended "Gatsby glamour" never comes to this novel. Perhaps because we miss the "yellow cocktail music" of Gatsby, perhaps because the characters remain partially developed. Spreading Fires, a brief novel of decadence and homosexual vagaries set in the south of France, deals with madness, potential madness, and the low life of the upper class.
Vein of Riches is a study of the great coal boom of 1910-1924 in a West Virginia town. Knowles shows a house, a family, and an industry, and the interactions of the three; he employs one of the central themes of American fiction, money versus land. It is a pleasant novel but the characters again are given perfunctory treatment. We do not have the empathy and zest that bubbled up from A Separate Peace. Coal does not interest Knowles the way New England prep school life did.
Peace Breaks Out is set in Devon School, New Hampshire, and is an attempt by Knowles to revisit the scene of his greatest fictional success, A Separate Peace. The parallels between the two novels are very strong: the place is the same school, the time is five years later and the crux of the plot is the wrongful death of a disliked schoolmate, Hochschwender, who dies of heart failure after being tortured by four of his classmates. Again, as in A Separate Peace, there is a legacy of guilt suffered by the four survivors. Knowles is much at home in the world of the private school and depicts it with grace and clarity. But it has all been done before in his earlier and better novel and thus lacks freshness and spontaneity. Many readers will find the excessive hypocrisy of Wexford, the ringleader of the torturers, a little unrealistic. This novel will not achieve the status of A Separate Peace, although it is well crafted and knowledgeably written.
In summary, Knowles is intelligent, highly literate, a skilled and sensitive craftsman and stylist. He is knowledgeable of the world, tolerant, a connoisseur of many cultures. He possesses in his own person that bifocal vision which he praises in Double Vision. He has created one extraordinary novel, A Separate Peace, which for many young people has truly caught the zeitgeist. There is also a negative side. Every novel but his first suffers from one fundamental defect—the characters are not plausible. There is not a single memorable woman character in his fiction and only two male characters—Gene Forrester and Phineas—that stay in our memory. The result is an imperfect empathy and a resultant lack of reader interest. In general his male protagonists are inert, deracinated, ambivalent, depersonalized, dehumanized. Why does Knowles create such types? Only he can answer this definitively, but perhaps he gives us the answer in his book Double Vision where he argues against roots and for rootlessness, the new form of nomadism. "We need to be nomadic and uprooted today," he maintains. As he says, he is not regional, does not come from a town or a city. He is one of the live-around-the-world people. So he is and so are the characters in his books. This is his fundamental failure and it is a major one. He may yet overcome this and give us again a convincing, brilliant novel as was A Separate Peace.
—Ruel E. Foster
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