John Knowles: Overview

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Author: J. Sydney Jones
Editor: Jim Kamp
Date: 1994
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,591 words

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First-novel success is both a blessing and a curse. It assures the young writer of an eager publisher and public for subsequent books, but also guarantees an uphill struggle with the critics. New novels will always be measured by the yardstick of the first, and often found to be lacking. Such is the case with the American novelist, John Knowles. His first novel, A Separate Peace, was an instant critical success, winning both the prestigious Rosenthal Award as well as the William Faulkner Award, and it established Knowles overnight as one of the bright young men of American letters. In the eight novels since, Knowles has fought to make people forget A Separate Peace and judge each succeeding book on its own merits. The fact of repeating themes in the subsequent novels has not made this task any easier. Knowles is an explorer of the borderland between rational and instinctual man; of the internal battle between a life lived by formula and one invented by experience. And in all his novels, Knowles—who is resonant of F. Scott Fitzgerald in this respect—surveys the terrain of the rich and affluent and describes their battle to feel, to burst out of the emotional bonds of the upper middle class.

It is a terrain Knowles understands quite well. Born the third of four children in 1926 to Mary Beatrice Shea Knowles and James Myron Knowles, John Knowles was brought up comfortably in Fairmont, West Virginia. His father was the vice president of Consolidation Coal Company; his was a childhood that wanted for little. At fifteen, Knowles became a student at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, a location which served as the inspiration for the private school in A Separate Peace. After a short stint in the U.S. Army Air Force, he attended Yale, both swimming for the university and editing the Yale Daily News. During his college years he began writing short stories and was mentored by the novelist Thornton Wilder. After graduation and a couple of years spent on a Connecticut paper, Knowles travelled in Europe, writing an unpublished first novel, Descent into Proselito, and taking up skin-diving on the Riviera. The year abroad was a valuable one: Knowles now had his major themes in hand as well as the two locations to which he returns over and over in his novels, New England and Europe.

By 1957 Knowles...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420004678