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Knowles was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, the son of James M. Knowles, a purchasing agent from Lowell, Massachusetts, and Mary Beatrice Shea Knowles from Concord, New Hampshire. In his home town, Knowles’ father was the vice president of a coal company and they received a steady income affording them a decent standard of living. He attended Oyster Bay High School in Oyster Bay, New York from 1940 until 1942, before continuing at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, graduating in 1945. He married Beth Hughes at the age of 19. Knowles graduated from Yale University as a member of the class of 1949. While at Yale, Knowles served on the Board of Yale Daily News during his sophomore, junior and senior years, specifically as Editorial Secretary during his senior year. He was a record-holding varsity swimmer during his sophomore year. A Separate Peace is based upon Knowles's experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy. The setting for The Devon Woolbert School is a thinly veiled fictionalization of Phillips Exeter Academy. The plot should not be taken as autobiographical, although many elements of the novel stem from personal experience, including Knowles' membership in a secret society and sustaining of a foot injury while jumping from a tree during society exercises. In his essay, "A Special Time, A Special Place," Knowles wrote:
The only elements in A Separate Peace which were not in that summer were anger, violence, and hatred. There was only friendship, athleticism, and loyalty.
The secondary character Finny (Phineas) was the best friend of the main character, Gene. Knowles has stated that he modeled Finny on David Hackett from Milton Academy, whom he met when both attended a summer session at Phillips Exeter Academy. Hackett was a friend of Robert Kennedy's, under whom he later served in the Justice Department. A Phineas Sprague lived in the same dormitory as Knowles during the summer session of 1943 and may have been an inspiration for the character's name.
Gore Vidal, in his memoir Palimpsest, acknowledges that he and Knowles concurrently attended Phillips Exeter Academy, with Vidal two years ahead. Vidal states that Knowles told him that the character Brinker, who precipitates the novel's crisis, is based on Vidal. "We have been friends for many years now," Vidal said, "and I admire the novel that he based on our school days, A Separate Peace."
Following his time at Phillips Exeter, Knowles spent eight months serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II after which he attended Yale. Early in Knowles's career, he wrote for the Hartford Courant and was assistant editor for Holiday magazine, while he concurrently began writing novels, of which he eventually completed seven.
A Separate Peace was first published in London by Secker and Warburg in 1959. The novel was published in New York in 1960 by Macmillan. Knowles's other significant works are Morning in Antibes, Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad, Indian Summer, The Paragon, and Peace Breaks Out. None of these later works were as well received as A Separate Peace.
As a resident of Southampton, New York, Knowles wrote seven novels, a book on travel, and a collection of stories. He was the winner of the William Faulkner Award and the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In his later years, Knowles lectured to university audiences.
Knowles died in 2001, at the age of 75 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
- A Separate Peace; a novel, London, Secker & Warburg, 1959; New York, Macmillan Co., 1960
- Morning in Antibes; a novel, New York, Macmillan, 1962
- Double Vision; American Thoughts Abroad, New York, Macmillan, 1964
- Indian Summer, New York, Random House, 1966
- Phineas; six stories, New York, Random House, 1968
- The Paragon; a novel, New York, Random House, c. 1971
- A Special Time, A Special Place, Exeter Bulletin, 1995 (autobiographical note on internet)
- Spreading Fires, New York, Random House, 1974
- A Vein of Riches, Boston, Little Brown, 1978
- Peace Breaks Out, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981
- A Stolen Past, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983
- The Private Life of Axie Reed, New York : John Knowles, 1986
Film and television adaptations of A Separate Peace
In 1972, Paramount Pictures released a film version of A Separate Peace, directed by Larry Peerce and starring Parker Stevenson (Gene) and John Heyl (Phineas). In 2004, a television version was produced by the Showtime network, directed by Peter Yates and starring J Barton (Gene) and Toby Moore (Phineas).