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John Knowles | Biography

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Early Life and Education

John Knowles was born on September 16, 1926, in Fairmont, West Virginia. His father was a coal company executive, so the family was relatively well-off. Knowles was sent to the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire when he was about 16 years old. The prep school experience was transformative for Knowles, who said that it "picked me up out of the hills of West Virginia." Knowles's experiences at Phillips Exeter were also the inspiration for his first novel, A Separate Peace.

Military Service and College

Knowles graduated from Phillips Exeter in 1945, while World War II (1939–45) was still raging. He quickly enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. He qualified as a pilot but was discharged from the military eight months later as the war drew to a close.

After leaving the military Knowles enrolled at Yale University in Connecticut. He graduated in 1949. Knowles then worked as a reporter and drama critic for the Hartford Courant. He remained at the paper until 1952. After leaving this job Knowles traveled through Europe, where he met American author Thornton Wilder. Wilder became a mentor to him and suggested that Knowles use his life experiences and memories to write a novel.

Early Writing

When Knowles returned to the United States in 1955 he got a job as an editor at the magazine Holiday. While working at the magazine Knowles began writing a novel, which would become the best seller A Separate Peace. Knowles stayed at Holiday until 1959, when the novel was published in the United Kingdom. Knowles had submitted the novel to numerous publishers in the United States, but all had rejected it. After receiving critical acclaim in England, the novel was finally published in the United States in 1960. The novel earned Knowles the William Faulkner Award for best first novel, and it was a finalist for a National Book Award.

Later Works and Life

Not only was A Separate Peace a critical success, but it gave Knowles the financial stability to devote all his time to writing novels. Some of his later novels, such as Indian Summer (1966), The Paragon (1971), and A Stolen Past (1983) were set at Yale and based on his experiences there. The novel Peace Breaks Out (1981) explores A Separate Peace's Devon School after the war when the students no longer had the war looming over them. Their competitiveness and rivalries are directed toward other students, making the atmosphere far darker in tone than that Knowles's first novel.

For the rest of his life Knowles wrote novels full time or wrote while employed as a writer-in-residence at various universities, including the University of North Carolina and Princeton University. He died after a brief illness on November 29, 2001.

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