Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Jane Graves Smiley was born in Los Angeles on September 26, 1949, during her father’s military tour of duty. Parents James La Verne Smiley and Frances Graves Nuelle soon returned to their Midwest origins, and although Jane did not grow up on a working farm, she claims deep “roots in rural country.” After a childhood spent in St. Louis, Missouri, she attended Vassar College and in 1971 received a B.A. in English following completion of her first novel, done as a senior thesis. Subsequently she earned a master of fine arts degree (1976) as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in medieval literature (1978), all from the University of Iowa. A Fulbright Fellowship to Iceland (1976-1977) enabled Smiley to transform her graduate study of Norse sagas into The Greenlanders (1988), an epic novel of fourteenth century Scandinavian pioneers. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) supported her writing in 1978 and 1987. From 1981 through 1996 she taught literature and creative writing at Iowa State University in Ames, with stints as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa in 1981 and 1987.
Having begun her publishing career in 1980 with Barn Blind, Smiley had seen two more novels to press (At Paradise Gate in 1981 and Duplicate Keys in 1984) by the time critical praise for her work intensified with the appearance of The Age of Grief (1987), a collection of short fiction nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was followed by an acclaimed pair of novellas published together as “Ordinary Love” and “Good Will” (1989). With the novel A Thousand Acres (1991), Smiley won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The commercial success of that work, along with the sale of film rights (for an...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Smiley’s fiction of the 1980’s and early 1990’s explored the destructive nature of human desire and dissected the emotional power concentrated within the family, where middle-class faith in the future often succumbs to the paralyzing grip of the past and the terrible grief often attendant upon love. Her later career has ranged more widely and employed more comedy than elegy to expose the competing values of American life—self-fulfillment, material success, personal usefulness, and love.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Born to James LaVerne Smiley and Frances Graves Nuelle on September 26, 1949, during her father’s military tour of duty in California, Jane Graves Smiley was transplanted at a young age to the Midwest and grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. The daughter of a writer-mother, she attended Vassar College and received her B.A. in English in 1971; in composing her first novel as her senior thesis, she discovered that “this was for me, this creation of worlds.” Smiley completed a master’s of fine arts at the University of Iowa in 1976, and received an M.A. (1975) and a Ph.D. (1978) in medieval literature from the same institution. Toward completion of that work, a Fulbright Fellowship in 1976-1977 allowed her to spend time in Iceland, where her study of Norse sagas laid the groundwork for her 1988 epic novel The Greenlanders.
In 1981 Smiley began teaching literature and creative writing as a member of the faculty of Iowa State University, where she became a full professor in 1989. In 1981 and 1987 she also served as visiting professor at the University of Iowa. Though awarded the title of distinguished professor in 1992, she left Iowa State in 1996 to become a full-time writer at a horse-breeding ranch she bought in Northern California with the substantial earnings provided her from the book sales of and film rights to A Thousand Acres.
Smiley has commented that a childhood shadowed by the existence of the atomic bomb and an adolescence marked by the invention of “the Pill” have given her two major subjects: “sex and apocalypse.” Her personal history indicates a familiarity with the challenges of family life. A first marriage to John Whiston in 1970, while she was still at Vassar, lasted until 1975. Her second marriage, to editor William Silag in 1978, produced daughters Phoebe and Lucy. A third marriage in 1987 to screenwriter Stephen Mark Mortensen led to the birth of son Axel James when Smiley was forty-three years old; the couple later divorced. Among her avocations Smiley lists cooking, swimming, playing piano, quilting, and raising horses on her California ranch.
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Although she writes extensively and convincingly about the American rural landscape and agricultural themes, Jane Graves Smiley grew up a city girl in St. Louis, Missouri, among gifted writers and storytellers. Her mother, Frances Nuelle (Graves) Smiley, held a newspaper job, and her father, James La Verne Smiley, was a West Point graduate and career military man. Smiley attributes much of her literary success to the fact that she grew up in a family that loved to tell its own history; listening to this history engendered in Smiley a lifelong fascination with character motives and plots.
Smiley attended Vassar College, from which she received her B.A. in 1971. The rest of her education was completed at the University of Iowa, including her M.F.A., her M.A., and her Ph.D. She began her working life humbly in a teddy-bear factory, but at Iowa State University she rapidly progressed from assistant professor in 1981 to distinguished professor in 1992.
Smiley retired from teaching in 1996 and settled in Northern California to pursue writing full time and to enjoy horseback riding. She has been married and divorced three times; she has two daughters (Phoebe Silag and Lucy Silag) and one son (Axel James Mortenson).
At six feet, two inches, Jane Smiley is affectionately known as the tallest woman in American fiction. Perhaps her height contributes to the fact that she is not easily intimidated. Rather, she is plainspoken and, by her own admission, sometimes “too hard to take.” Although she considered teaching at other colleges, her immense self-confidence and lack of conformity proved off-putting to prospective employers. At Iowa State, however, she enjoyed prodigious popularity among faculty and students alike. Students flocked to her creative-writing class, where she refrained from either criticism or praise, regarding each student’s work as a mode for educational analysis.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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...
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