John Knowles was born on September 16, 1926, in Fairmont, West Virginia. He lived there until he enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1941, where he was on the swimming team. He entered Yale University in 1945, continuing to compete as a swimmer in addition to editing the Yale Daily News and contributing short fiction to the Yale magazine Lit. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1949, and he worked briefly as a reporter for the Hartford Courant before joining the Curtis Publishing Company. At Curtis, he eventually became the associate editor of Holiday magazine. He spent much of his free time traveling extensively in Europe, the Near East, and the islands of the Aegean. During this time, he contributed many essays to travel journals and began to publish his short stories in popular national magazines. In 1960 A Separate Peace, his first novel, was published. It met with widespread critical acclaim and enthusiastic public response. More than nine million copies have been sold since its publication. The book won the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the William Faulkner Foundation Award (the forerunner of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award), and it enabled Knowles to declare himself a “full-time writer.” He lived primarily on the French Riviera for the next eight years (although he undertook stints as a writer-in-residence at Princeton University and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and proceeded to publish Morning in Antibes (1962), Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad (1964), Indian Summer (1966), and The Paragon (1972).
None of these books approached the critical or commercial success of A Separate Peace, but each displayed Knowles’s intrinsic command of language and style. Morning in Antibes is marked by Knowles’s characteristic facility with mood and atmosphere, while Double Vision presents his belief “that living in, not just visiting, foreign countries is the best education.” Indian Summer and The Paragon both have their origins in Knowles’s experiences at Yale and the seven years he spent living in Connecticut, while a later work, Spreading Fires (1974), takes place on the French Riviera.
In 1981 Knowles published Peace Breaks Out, in which the narrator returns to the Devon School in New Hampshire (the site of A Separate Peace) after World War II to begin teaching at his alma mater. Most critics felt that the book was strongest in its depiction of the atmosphere of the school and in its rendering of life among the students, aspects of Knowles’s writing that have had a continuing appeal for young adults.