John Knowles was born in 1926 in Fairmont, West Virginia; at age 15, he became a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, a well-known boarding school in New Hampshire, not unlike Devon, the fictional school he writes about in A Separate Peace. He graduated from Exeter in 1945, but did not immediately proceed to college. Instead, he joined the war effort as part of the U. S. Army Air Force's Aviation Cadet Program, and became a student at Yale University after completing several months in the program. He obtained his bachelor's degree from Yale in 1949.
After graduation, Knowles traveled to Europe and worked as a journalist until the mid 1950's; his work also consisted of various free-lance pieces and short stories. He returned to the United States from Europe in 1957, and took a position as an associate editor at Holiday magazine. With encouragement from Thornton Wilder, who took interest in Knowles' writing, he started working on A Separate Peace, which became his first published novel. When the novel became successful, Knowles was able to quit his job with the magazine, and devote himself to his writing.
In addition to A Separate Peace, John Knowles has published eight other books; in addition, he wrote a travel book, and also published a collection of his short stories. Knowles was honored with the position of writer-in-residence at both Princeton University and the University of North Carolina, and has also given lectures at various schools across the country.
Knowles' biggest success was his first, and none of his other novels have achieved the status that A Separate Peace has enjoyed; however, as in his first work, his main themes are greed, competitiveness, and corruption in the lives of wealthy American characters. John Knowles is currently living in Florida, and continues to write.
Gene: The narrator of the book, a student at Devon during World War II. His best friend at school was Phineas, a superior athlete, while Gene was better known for his academic skills. Phineas and Gene spend a lovely summer together at Devon, which is ended when Phineas fell from a tree, an accident which Gene, either consciously or unconsciously, caused. Gene has a definite dark side lurking beneath the surface, though he appears to be a good, honest person in his everyday life. The book is spawned by a later visit to Devon, and of his strong memories and lingering feelings about what happened in 1942 at Devon.
Phineas: Gene's best friend and roommate, a remarkable athlete with a disregard for the rules and an innate ability to win people over. He gets Gene in quite a bit of trouble via his impulsive nature and instinctive disobedience, but he is very good at heart, and thinks the world of his best friend. After his accident, he is unable to play sports, which crushes him; but, he decides that Gene shall take over his old place, and become the wonderful athlete that he was before he shattered his leg.
Brinker Hadley: One of Gene's friends, and his main rival for the top academic spot in the class. Brinker is rather strange‹he makes long-running jokes with rather sinister undertones, seems very independent and determined, and seems like he's his own person. He is the one who starts enlistment fever on campus, and then stops it dead by chickening out since Gene won't go with him. He's a bit of a paradoxical character, and a kind of foil to the rebellious, free-spirited Finny.
Leper Lepellier: One of Gene and Finny's friends; he is a soft-spoken, nature-loving boy, with an old soul and ways that are quite idiosyncratic compared with the other boys. He is an avid skier and naturalist, but, rather uncharacteristically, he decides to enlist, and is the first boy from Devon to do so. He becomes, for a short while, the symbol of American victories abroad; but this is dashed when he deserts the service in a panic.
Chet Douglass: Another of Gene and Finny's friends, and part of the Super Suicide Society. He is not quite as brave with Finny's little stunts, and is a good trumpet player too. He's also one of the top students at the school, though Gene outpaces him because Chet's genuine curiosity for everything keeps him a little behind in class.
Bobby Zane: Another member of the Super Suicide Society, also not terribly adventurous. He likes to follow Finny around and go along with his inventions, but is a very minor character in the book.
Mr. Prud'homme: Gene and Finny's substitute house master for the summer. He is usually rather stern, although Finny is able to get the better of him and get out of trouble for skipping various events.
Mr. And Mrs. Patch-Withers: Other substitute masters for the summer, whom Gene describes as being especially stern and conventional. Nevertheless, Finny is able to weasel his way out of wearing the school tie as a belt during one of their teas, and also gets little moments of friendliness out of this otherwise rule-bent couple.
Dr. Stanpole: The head of the school's infirmary. He is a friendly man who takes care of Finny when he breaks his leg, and Gene seems to know and like him.
Quackenbush: The captain of the crew team, also a generally disliked figure on campus. He and Gene get into a fight, which means the end of Gene's days as assistant captain, though it is no loss. He is rather awkward and humorless, and no one seems to have special regard for him.
Mr. Ludsbury: Gene and Finny's term-time house master, a very stern and straight-laced rule monger who berates Gene for taking advantage of the summer masters, which he really didn't. Not a pleasant sort of fellow, and also not susceptible to Finny's vast charm.
Brownie Perkins: Brinker's roommate, a rather timid boy who is scared of Brinker and is easily bossed around by him. He tries to keep a low profile, and is not terribly involved at the school.
Phil Latham: The school wrestling coach, also an expert in first aid. He helps Finny after his second fall, and stays with him until the doctor arrives.