Barn Blind, 1980
At Paradise Gate, 1981
Duplicate Keys, 1984
The Greenlanders, 1988
A Thousand Acres, 1991
The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, 1998
Horse Heaven, 2000
Good Faith, 2003
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.
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.