Authors: Jane Smiley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Barn Blind, 1980

At Paradise Gate, 1981

Duplicate Keys, 1984

The Greenlanders, 1988

A Thousand Acres, 1991

Moo, 1995

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, 1998

Horse Heaven, 2000

Good Faith, 2003

Short Fiction:

The Age of Grief: A Novella and Stories, 1987

“Ordinary Love” and “Good Will”: Two Novellas, 1989


Catskill Crafts: Artisans of the Catskill Mountains, 1988

Charles Dickens, 2002


Jane Graves Smiley has distinguished herself as a trenchant observer of the disruptive workings of human desire within middle-class American families in the late twentieth century. Born in Los Angeles in 1949 to James La Verne Smiley and Frances Graves Nuelle during her father’s military posting to California, she was reared in St. Louis. Although she never lived on a working farm, Smiley regards the Midwest, where both her parents had deep family ties, as having imprinted a decidedly rural stamp upon her imagination. She also credits her two principal themes, self-identified as “sex and apocalypse,” to her youthful attention to a culture simultaneously preoccupied with the twin threats of nuclear war and the newly available contraceptive pill.{$I[AN]9810001615}{$I[A]Smiley, Jane}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Smiley, Jane}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Smiley, Jane}{$I[tim]1949;Smiley, Jane}

Jane Smiley

(Stephan Mortensen)

Smiley’s proclivities as a budding writer began early. She completed her B.A. in English from Vassar College in 1971 by presenting a novel as her senior thesis. Later she undertook graduate work at the University of Iowa, securing not only a master’s in fine arts in 1976 but also an M.A. (in 1975) and Ph.D. (in 1978), both in medieval literature. This blend of interests and training is perhaps best evidenced in The Greenlanders, Smiley’s exhaustively researched 1988 epic novel about fourteenth century Scandinavian pioneers. It is based upon Norse sagas she had studied during a Fulbright Fellowship to Iceland in 1976 to 1977. The Greenlanders dramatizes Smiley’s affinities with the worldview of those medieval settlers. Their tragic vision of existence is as a grim round of harsh physical travail alleviated by contradictory human impulses toward both the intense, unpredictable pleasures of the body and the spiritual consolations of self-abnegation and transcendence.

Smiley’s Greenlanders resemble her more contemporaneous midwesterners in the degree to which their sense of place deeply infuses their sense of self. Moreover, characters in both worlds demonstrate a capacity to absorb disaster, commit themselves to the burdens of daily toil, and stumble toward personal responsibility and communal obligation at moments of stark moral crisis.

Smiley’s publishing career officially began with the appearance of Barn Blind in 1980. She joined the faculty at Iowa State University in Ames in 1981 and subsequently earned the rank of full professor, teaching classes in creative writing and literature. Smiley’s writing earned her grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and 1987; she also served as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa in 1981 and 1987. Her familiarity with academe was put to excellent use in the mordant satirical novel Moo, a contemporary fiction that skewers the careerist vanities of the professoriat alongside the moral evasions of university administrators and the anti-intellectualism of the student body. Moo’s most salient target, however, is America’s pervasive culture of consumption, which changes all human desire into specialized market-niche appetites worthy of endless (and highly profitable) gratification. Higher education itself is shown to pander shamelessly to corporate sponsors and classroom “customers” alike. At the heart of Moo U. sits an eight-hundred-pound pig named Earl Butz, an eating machine that, like the mortals who have genetically programmed him, inexplicably yearns for an Edenic past he vaguely recalls but is powerless to recover.

Smiley’s marital history suggests that here, too, personal experience informs her literary investigations into the politics of love, friendship, and family. Her 1970 marriage to John Whiston, while she was still an undergraduate, ended in 1975. A second marriage, to editor William Silag, produced two daughters, Phoebe and Lucy, but in 1986 also ended in divorce. In 1987 Smiley married screenwriter Stephen Mark Mortensen; they had a son, Axel, and were divorced in 1997. She has credited motherhood with having dramatically realigned her literary priorities. Upon finding herself pregnant for the first time, Smiley the alienated modernist enamored of existential anomie abruptly became a more tolerant humanist intent on illuminating the hard-fought moments of grace that buffer the follies and griefs of daily existence. She subsequently set out to demonstrate that women can be procreative and creative at the same time, centuries of literary prejudice to the contrary. In the process she found her true subject: the intricate dance of need, love, retribution, and loss produced by the forever competing, occasionally reconciled, subjectivities jostling one another in every family.

She has proved especially adept at writing the maternal experience into literature, challenging both idealizations and caricatures by rendering the mother as an irreducibly complex subject rather than as the loved/loathed object of the disillusioned child-cum-writer. Accordingly, Smiley’s fiction boasts a wide array of women with varying aptitudes for the role. Barn Blind’s Kate Karlson demonstrates how a strong parental personality can become the central force holding other family members in her orbit even as she inflicts deep wounds with her unflinching expectations, unyielding standards, and unquestioning exploitation. Only a year later, At Paradise Gate demystified the Catheresque earth mother in the person of Anna Robinson, whose grandmotherly demeanor masks deep ambivalences about the choices she has made at considerable cost to her own sense of self. In The Age of Grief and Ordinary Love, two superbly crafted novellas–a form whose economy Smiley regards as fostering a “more meditative” result than the novel–she creates female characters whose seeming domestic idylls (the former as a professional partner as well as wife to her dentist husband, the latter as a traditional housewife in the midst of a hive of young children) are ripped asunder by their respective adulteries.

Smiley does not, however, follow the predictable course in having the career woman heedlessly follow through on her desires; rather, the painful dismantling of the idealized familial myth falls to her homemaker counterpart. Throughout her work, Smiley portrays the female psychological imperative coming to terms with the woman’s procreative energies: while one woman cold-bloodedly pursues a likely male simply to ensure her biological destiny as childbearer (“Jeffrey, Believe Me” in The Age of Grief), for example, another (the narrator of A Thousand Acres) is denied fertility in a bitter symbolic evocation of the larger environmental contamination that figures prominently throughout Smiley’s fiction.

An avowed feminist, Smiley has nonetheless made clear her interest in mapping the emotional terrain of men as well as women, children as well as parents. An entire work might unfold from a single point of view, as in the novella Good Will, where she assumes the first-person voice of an aging Vietnam War veteran trapped by his own desperate effort to isolate his family from the corrupting influences of the broader culture. On the other hand, she might move the reader through a kaleidoscope of perspectives, as in Barn Blind, where each family member is accorded an independent point of view on the steadily unfolding tragedy of the Karlsons. In a more lighthearted vein, in Moo, even the hapless pig Earl Butz is accorded his own ruminations on his lot.

Smiley proves equally adept at handling disparate genres. Her skill as a writer of short fiction earned the collection The Age of Grief a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In Duplicate Keys she turned the conventions of the murder mystery to her own thematic ends. She violently destabilized the ordered world of the protagonist to prompt her to move beyond her illusions about life, love, and friendship. The sheer abundance of characters and plotlines in Moo, as well as the comic exuberance with which they are woven together, recalls nineteenth century masters of the genre such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, not to mention her own contemporary Tom Wolfe. Its playfulness seemed all the more pronounced in coming on the heels of Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel A Thousand Acres. In Horse Heaven, however, she returned to the Dickensian sprawl of characters and locales.

In A Thousand Acres, Smiley transplanted William Shakespeare’s King Lear into the Iowa countryside and reimagined it as a tragedy of primal violation and unrelenting vengeance at the very heart of the American nuclear family. Here she boldly enunciates the links between her feminism and environmentalism by tracing the institutional networks of power that render all nature, be it within the female body or abroad in the landscape, passively subject to the male will to dominate. Yet in the face of such hierarchies Smiley nonetheless insists that her women characters take themselves seriously as moral beings responsible for their own self-definition even as she elucidates the circumstances that foster their economic and emotional dependencies.

Jane Smiley has the rare distinction of being both a best-selling and critically acclaimed author. Her point of view is always fresh and her characters are fully realized and recognizable while also being surprising.

BibliographyBernays, Anne. “Toward More Perfect Unions.” Review of The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley. The New York Times Book Review (September 6, 1987): 12. Bernays praises Smiley’s powerful use of short-fictional forms to examine the contours of troubled personal relationships. Most of the commentary is devoted to the “splendid” title novella, which offers “a poignant and rich meditation on the nature of love and change.”Carden, Mary Paniccia. “Remembering/Engendering the Heartland: Sexed Language, Embodied Space, and America’s Foundational Fictions in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 18, no. 2 (1997): 181-202. An examination of how Smiley challenges agrarian ideologies that serve to silence women.Carlson, Ron. “King Lear in Zebulon County.” Review of A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. The New York Times Book Review (November 3, 1991): 12. Carlson examines the ways in which Smiley adopts the terrain of King Lear to explore contemporary family dynamics in rural Iowa. He praises the novel’s skill in conveying the interplay of factors–nature, business, community–that shape the farmer’s life. He also cites the powerful impact of telling the tale through the eyes of the eldest daughter of the tyrant-father at the center of the tale.Farrell, Susan Elizabeth. Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2001. A good, close look at Smiley’s award-winning novel. It addresses such subjects as father and daughter relationships, King Lear as a legendary character, and rural families and farm life in the work. Includes bibliographical references.Humphreys, Josephine. “Perfect Family Self-Destructs.” Review of “Ordinary Love” and “Good Will,” by Jane Smiley. The New York Times Book Review (November 5, 1989): 1, 45. Calling the novella a fictional form “most closely resembling a troubled dream,” Humphreys discusses Smiley’s artistry in “Ordinary Love” and “Good Will” and praises her provocative investigations into the role of power, imagination, and desire in family life. The first piece in the collection explores the consequences of desire, while the second involves “imagination as an act of power,” the two together elaborating “the myth of the family, told by two principals: an Eve and an Adam,” both of whom achieve a “realized ignorance” as “one ancient form of wisdom.”Kakutani, Michiko. Review of The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley. The New York Times, August 26, 1987, p. C21. This strong review examines each of the pieces in the collection and pays particular attention to the novella The Age of Grief, wherein Smiley proves her “talent for delineating the subtle ebb and flow of familial emotions” and her attunement for the multiple levels on which everyday communication operates in such close quarters–so much so that “we are left with a sense of having participated in her characters’ lives.”Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “News from the Norse.” Review of The Greenlanders, by Jane Smiley. The New Republic 198 (May 16, 1988): 36-39. Cites Smiley’s ability to bring to life the experience of a culture remote both in time and worldview. Noting Smiley’s debt to the Old Norse sagas on which the novel is based, Klinkenborg notes the complex narrative structuring of the text, its skillful narrative voice, and its powerful fusion of grim story line and philosophical “grace” in the midst of inevitable disaster.Leavitt, David. “Of Harm’s Way and Farm Ways.” Mother Jones 14 (December, 1989): 44-45. Leavitt praises the probing power of “Ordinary Love” and “Good Will,” calling Smiley “one of our wisest writers” for her insight into the tragic center of her characters’ most admirable dreams. He also cites her knowledgeable evocation of the real-world activities that fill their lives and her sensitivity to the physical landscape through which they move.Leslie, Marina. “Incest, Incorporation, and King Lear in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.” College English 60, no. 1 (January, 1998): 31-50. Scholarly comparison of King Lear and A Thousand Acres, with an emphasis on Shakespearean criticism that recognizes incest themes in King Lear.Nakadate, Neil. “Jane Smiley.” In American Novelists Since World War II, Sixth Series, edited by James H. Giles and Wanda R. Giles. Vol. 227 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. A good general overview of Smiley’s career and writing.Nakadate, Neil. Understanding Jane Smiley. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. A volume in the series Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Takes a close look at most of Smiley’s titles through The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Includes a bibliography and an index.Olson, Catherine Cowen. “You Are What You Eat: Food and Power in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.” Midwest Quarterly 40, no. 1 (1998): 21-33. Shows how food reflects Ginny’s rebellion or submission under patriarchal rule in A Thousand Acres.Sheldon, Barbara H. Daughters and Fathers in Feminist Novels. New York: P. Lang, 1997. Examines A Thousand Acres and novels by Gail Godwin, Mary Gordon, and other feminist writers.Smiley, Jane. “The Adventures of Jane Smiley.” Interview by Katie Bacon. Atlantic Unbound (May 28, 1998). In this interview about the influences shaping The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, Smiley discusses her controversial 1996 Harper’s essay comparing Twain’s Huckleberry Finn unfavorably to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, her interest in the unresolved question of race in American life, her belief that all of her writing is on some level historical fiction, and her continually evolving perspective on the family drama as literary subject.Smiley, Jane. “Cheltenham Festival: Talking About a Revolution: Feminism, Horses, Sex, and Slavery–Jane Smiley’s Novels Are a Potent Mixture of All of Them.” Interview by James Urquhart. The Independent, October 16, 1998. Even though it is plagued with factual errors, this 1998 interview with Smiley provides illuminating commentary on the ways feminism informs her perspective on family as a “political system,” “what it means to be a daughter,” and her anti-romantic sensibility.Smiley, Jane. “A Conversation with Jane Smiley.” Interview by Lewis Burke Frumkes. The Writer 112 (May, 1999): 20-22. Smiley discusses her work, her favorite contemporary writers, and her own writing habits.Smiley, Jane. Interview by Marcelle Thiebaux. Publishers Weekly 233 (April 1, 1988): 65-66. Notes that in all her books, Smiley focuses on the theme of family life. Smiley discusses the research that goes into her writing.
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