John Knowles was a god to generations of 10th-grade English classes. The author of A Separate Peace (1960), a coming-of-age story set in a New England prep school still shielded from World War II’s encroaching madness, passed away Nov. 29 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at age 75 after a short illness. He died without ever answering the question that high schoolers have wrestled with for 40 years: Does the novel’s protagonist intentionally cause the accident that leads to the death of his friend and competitor?
The knotty themes of his first novel earned Knowles awards and bold predictions. One reviewer asked: ”Is he the successor to Salinger for whom we’ve been waiting for so long?” But no reign as literature’s darling awaited the quiet and unassuming author. With over 10 million copies now in print, A Separate Peace was to be Knowles’ lone triumph. He would go on to publish eight more novels, including a revisit to his famous prep school’s idyllic campus, Peace Breaks Out, but none would garner the praise and mass audience of his debut. A Separate Peace is ”an albatross,” he once said. ”Everything is compared unfavorably to it afterward.”
In 1978, Knowles returned to the Phillips Exeter Academy, his alma mater and the inspiration for A Separate Peace’s setting, and endowed the school with his early longhand manuscripts. Jacquelyn Thomas, Exeter’s librarian, remembers Knowles as ”despondent over the fact that he’d written many more books that he’d thought to be good but never got the same recognition.” Knowles’ sadness lifted after she, he, and actor John Heyl, who starred in the 1972 film version of A Separate Peace, roamed the campus grounds in search of the real-life tree that plays such a pivotal role in the book. To Knowles’ gratification, they found it, off the beaten path, weathered and scarred but still standing. ”When he left, I think he felt much better than when he came,” says Thomas. ”He seemed at peace.”