MIAMI — John Knowles leaves behind a legacy that included nearly a half-century of writings and nine novels, but none matched the success of “A Separate Peace” — considered an enduring study of an adolescent’s inner conflict.
Knowles died Thursday after a short illness at a convalescent home in a Fort Lauderdale suburb. He was 75.
Written in 1959 and read by millions of students, “A Separate Peace” is considered an American literary classic.
The book recounts hero Gene Forrester’s allegiance to two fellow students: Brinker Hadley, a buttoned-down student leader who personifies New England conservatism, and Phineas, a natural athlete and eccentric who wears a bright pink shirt.
Forrester causes Phineas to break his leg in a fall from a tree and later is the putative cause of Phineas’ second, fatal fall down a flight of stairs. Before Phineas’ death, the two teen-agers reconcile, offering some help in assuaging Forrester’s guilt.
Knowles’ death leaves unanswered the main debate by the millions who have read the famous book: Did Forrester intentionally cause the accident that crippled Phineas?
“John used to say he would never answer that question,” Bob Maxwell, Knowles’ brother-in-law, said in announcing the author’s death. “He took that one with him.”
The book was voted the 67th best English-language novel in a 1998 Radcliffe College student poll. Millions of copies have been sold, and “A Separate Peace” was made into a movie in 1972.
According to the book, “Contemporary Novelists,” published this year: “Knowles is intelligent, highly literate, a skilled and sensitive craftsman and stylist. He is knowledgeable of the world, tolerant, a connoisseur of many cultures.”
Knowles failed, however, to match the success of “A Separate Peace” in any of his eight later novels.
Knowles’ later works had no plausible characters, according to “Contemporary Novelists.” Only Forrester and Phineas in his first work “stay in our memory,” the reference book says.
Knowles was born Sept. 16, 1926, in Fairmont, W. Va., and was sent at 15 to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he graduated in 1945.
The school became the model for Devon, the school in “A Separate Peace.”
”(Exeter) picked me up out of the hills of West Virginia, forced me to learn to study, tossed me into Yale and inspired me to write a book, my novel ’A Separate Peace,’ which, eschewing false modesty, made me quite famous and financially secure,” Knowles wrote in the school magazine in 1995.
After Exeter, Knowles qualified as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, then enrolled at Yale University before working as a reporter and drama critic at the Hartford Courant from 1950-52.
After touring Europe, he returned to New York in 1955, where he became an associate editor at the magazine “Holiday,” a job he quit after “A Separate Peace” was published.
In the 1960s, he served was writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina and at Princeton. Since moving to Fort Lauderdale 15 years ago, Knowles taught creative writing at Florida Atlantic University.
He is survived by sisters Dorothy Maxwell of Arizona and Marjorie Johnson of Texas, and a brother, James Knowles of San Francisco. Funeral services are private.