John Knowles Biography

John Knowles was born in 1926 in Fairmont, West Virginia. He left home at fifteen to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, an exclusive boarding school located in New Hampshire. After graduating from Exeter in 1945, he spent eight months as an Air Force cadet before enrolling at Yale University, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949.

Over the next seven years, Knowles earned his living as a journalist and freelance writer, traveling in Europe and publishing a number of short stories. He befriended the noted playwright Thornton Wilder, a fellow Yale alumnus, who encouraged him in his vocation as a writer. In 1957, Knowles landed a job as an associate editor at Holiday magazine. Two years later, he published his first novel, A Separate Peace, to overwhelmingly favorable reviews; the commercial success of the book allowed him to devote himself to writing full-time. Knowles published several other novels, including Peace Breaks Out, the companion volume to A Separate Peace. None, however, garnered the acclaim or audience that A Separate Peace enjoyed. 

Later in life, Knowles served as a writer-in-residence at Princeton University and at the University of North Carolina. He died at the age of 75 in 2001 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Background on A Separate Peace

The plot and setting of A Separate Peace were largely inspired by Knowles’s experiences at Exeter. Like Gene Forrester, one of the novel’s two principal characters, Knowles was a student from a rural area studying in New Hampshire during World War II—although he graduated a year too late to serve overseas during the war. Like his characters, Knowles also attended two summer sessions in 1943 and 1944, and even participated in a club whose members had to jump out of a tall tree into a river as an initiation stunt—a club much like the “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session” founded by Gene and his friend Finny in A Separate Peace. He has told interviewers that he modeled the character of Finny after another member of this club named David Hackett, who later served under Robert F. Kennedy in the Department of Justice.

Read about J.D. Salinger, another author who used personal experience as inspiration for his most well-known novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

Yet while Knowles based many of the book’s circumstances on his own experiences at Exeter, he always emphatically noted that the book’s larger themes had no factual basis—that his own high school years were not plagued by the issues of envy, violence, and alienation that pervade the novel. He wrote that he thoroughly enjoyed his time at the school and added that he sought to convey his love and appreciation for it in A Separate Peace. Indeed, his treatment of “Devon” in the novel would seem to bear these statements out: despite its dark tone and perhaps pessimistic view of the human condition, the novel offers an ultimately positive and even nostalgic perspective of boarding-school life. Unlike many other accounts of exclusive boarding-school culture, which have tended to portray the educational system itself as an oppressive force (in such films as Dead Poets Society and Scent of a Woman), Knowles chose to locate his characters’ difficulties not in the strict boarding-school system but within their own hearts.

The enormous popularity of A Separate Peace at the time resulted in a film version of the novel directed by Larry Pearce in 1972. The movie received wildly mixed reviews, but the general consensus was that, although Pearce did an excellent job capturing period details of the 1940s and conveying the novel's nostalgic perspective, the film came up short in almost all other ways.