John Knowles was an American author best known for his novels which focus heavily on New England and private boarding schools. He is most well-known for his novel A Separate Peace, which follows the friendship of two teenagers and the destructive nature of self-doubt, set against the ever-looming backdrop of World War II.
John Knowles was born in West Virginia in 1926. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an all-boys boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire, where he graduated in 1945. He spent two years in the Army following his graduation, where he did not see any action in World War II.
His first and most well-known novel, A Separate Peace likely draws most of its inspiration from Knowles’ time at Phillips Exeter Academy. It follows the journey of two boys, Gene and Finny, whose friendship comes under threat as Gene’s own self-doubt causes him to see competition where there is none. This leads not to Gene’s own self-destruction, but that of his best friend Finny, whom he finally realizes that he was never at war with at all. The entirety of the novel is set against the backdrop of World War II in 1943, where the boys all have a very real fear of being drafted, or enlisting and being killed. The Devon School is an oasis away from the realities of war, but that is exactly what Gene finds himself battling as he comes to terms with his own insecurities.
Knowles followed up the novel in 1981 with a novel called Peace Breaks Out, set at the Devon School again, and also revolving around the antics of school-aged boys whose actions result in someone’s death, and they are plagued by their guilt. While also well-written in typical Knowles style, it was not as well-received as his first work.
Knowles’ writings were mostly set in the scenic New England area, especially in New Hampshire. He was known for capturing the beauty of the seasons and the atmosphere of the towns with his words. Knowles died in 2001.
“It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.”
“What I mean is, I love winter, and when you really love something, then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love.”
“There was no harm in taking aim, even if the target was a dream.”