Jane Smiley Essay - Smiley, Jane

Smiley, Jane


Jane Smiley 1949-

(Full name Jane Graves Smiley) American novelist, short story and novella writer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Smiley's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 53 and 76.

Smiley's fiction explores complex relationships among family members, friends, and lovers, while providing detailed character studies of her protagonists. Critics have commended Smiley's keen observations of daily routine and her use of sharp, revealing dialogue as effective tools that enable her to explicitly define her characters and their emotions. Her fiction also deals with larger, underlying themes such as loss and recovery.

Biographical Information

Smiley was born on September 26, 1949, in Los Angeles, California. She was raised by her mother, Frances, who was a journalist. Her parents divorced when she was one year old, after which she rarely saw her father, James, a soldier who suffered from mental illness after serving in World War II. Smiley has been married three times. Her first marriage occurred while she was very young and lasted only two years. Her second marriage produced two daughters but ended badly, prompting her to write the short fiction collection The Age of Grief (1987). The title novella examines the dissolution of a relationship and the grief that follows. Smiley is currently married to a scriptwriter, with whom she has a son. Smiley obtained her bachelor of arts degree from Vassar in 1971. She also received an M.A. in 1975, an M.F.A. in 1976, and a Ph.D. in 1978, all from the University of Iowa. She now teaches at Iowa State University. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics' Circle Award for A Thousand Acres (1991).

Major Works

In her first novels, Barn Blind (1980) and At Paradise Gate (1981), Smiley examined the powerful bonds that dominate the lives of two families. In Barn Blind, the Karlson children strive to match the unrealistic expectations of their demanding mother. At Paradise Gate centers on the tense relationships between the Robison daughters, who have gathered at the deathbed of their father as their mother prepares for her life alone. The Age of Grief is a collection of short fiction in which marriage and family emerge as central issues. The title novella examines a husband's self-doubt and his decision to avoid confrontation following the discovery of his wife's infidelity. In her historical novel The Greenlanders (1988), Smiley employed the intricacies of the medieval Nordic folktale to chronicle the spiritual and physical demise of Norse settlements in Greenland during the tenth century. Smiley conveyed her theme by gathering thoughts and experiences of different settlers and combining them into the unifying narrative voice of one Greenlander, Gunnar Asgeirsson. A Thousand Acres is Smiley's retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, set in the farmlands of Iowa. Lawrence Cook, who rules his family with an iron hand, has decided to divide the family farm among his three daughters. Ginny and Rose happily accept what they see as their rightful share, but Caroline, a Des Moines attorney, refuses and is cast out. Cook soon becomes mentally unstable, changes his mind, and sues Ginny and Rose, with Caroline eventually joining him. Smiley related the story from the perspective of Ginny, the Goneril figure, and included the added dimension of past sexual abuse to explain the daughters' attitudes toward their father. Moo (1995) is a satire of life at a typical Midwestern university during the 1989-90 academic year, which included such events as the fall of communism in Russia and the U.S. government's campaign of slashing funds for public education. The novel includes multiple characters and subplots pulled together through the main character, a pig named Earl Butz. The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998) tells the story of Lidie Harkness, a tomboy in Quincy, Illinois, who marries Thomas Newton, a Unitarian abolitionist on his way to the Kansas Territory in 1856. The novel focuses on the personal story of the Newtons' budding love as well as the political struggle of the era (the issue of slavery had polarized the Territory at the time). When Thomas is killed, Lidie's political and personal concerns coalesce as she seeks to help a fleeing slave and avenge her husband's murder.

Critical Reception

Critics often note the variety of settings in Smiley's work, which range from ancient Greenland to Iowa farmland to the Kansas Territory in the 1800s. However, despite her varied locales, Smiley's work is often labeled as “domestic fiction” because of its familial settings and its focus on relationships. Suzanne MacLachlan described Smiley's style, saying, “Smiley writes as if she were sitting at the kitchen table telling a story to a friend. Her style is simple, yet she never misses a detail.” Though her fiction may be concerned with the domestic aspects of life, many critics note a definite political agenda behind it. Certain reviewers have accused Smiley of using her characters as mere representations of her political ideals; Susan Dodd referred to this as Smiley's “unabashed weakness for a soapbox.” Other critics have seen more subtlety in her presentation of political conflicts. Heller McAlpin stated, “She is as adept at capturing the subtle nuances of relationships as she is at chronicling complex political activity.” Reviewers have also been vocal about Smiley's talents as a fine comic writer. Moo, in particular, was singled out for its wit and humor, although others criticized the novel for its multitude of characters that were never fully developed. Author and reviewer Joyce Carol Oates concluded, “The prevailing subject of Jane Smiley's more characteristic and more finely honed work has been the brave confrontation of loss. … This is [her] true theme, which has evoked her considerable gifts in the past and which will surely evoke them again.”

Principal Works

Barn Blind (novel) 1980

At Paradise Gate (novel) 1981

Duplicate Keys (novel) 1984

The Age of Grief (short stories) 1987

Catskill Crafts: Artisans of the Catskill Mountains (nonfiction) 1987

The Greenlanders (novel) 1988

Ordinary Love and Good Will (novellas) 1989

A Thousand Acres (novel) 1991

Moo (novel) 1995

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (novel) 1998

Horse Heaven (novel) 2000


Melissa Pressley (review date 7 September 1988)

SOURCE: “A Stark Saga of an Icy Island Settlement in the Dark Ages,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 80, No. 196, September 7, 1988, p. 18.

[In the following review, Pressley offers reserved praise for Smiley's The Greenlanders.]

Few would consider the island of Greenland, with its extensive ice cover, an ideal locale for colonization. Its climate is far from temperate; little of its land is arable. Yet in 985 Eric the Red, doubly outlawed for murder, led an expedition of Norsemen and their families to Greenland for just such a purpose. They built houses and farms, traded with Europe, erected a cathedral, and flourished; and then ceased to flourish.


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Jane S. Bakerman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Renovating the House of Fiction: Structural Diversity in Jane Smiley's Duplicate Keys,” in Midamerica, Vol. 15, 1988, pp. 111–20.

[In the following essay, Bakerman draws comparisons between Smiley's Duplicate Keys and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, including the tension between the characters’ Midwestern values and city life in the East.]

As every student of American literature knows, Nick Carraway went home again, abandoning the perplexities of life among the very rich and forswearing the confusion of life in and on the fringes of New York City. Furthermore, every student of American literature agrees, despite Thomas...

(The entire section is 3729 words.)

Suzanne MacLachlan (review date 30 October 1989)

SOURCE: “Kitchen-Table Tales of Desire and Will,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 81, No. 234, October 30, 1989, p. 13.

[In the following review, MacLachlan lauds Smiley's conversational style in the novellas of Ordinary Love and Good Will.]

Jane Smiley's two novellas, Ordinary Love and Good Will, are about loss and acceptance. Though the characters and settings seem, on the surface, vastly different, each story highlights the destructive nature of desire and will, specifically to control situations and people. In the end, Smiley's characters learn a potentially shattering lesson: that it is impossible to control another person's life and almost as...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 10 November 1991)

SOURCE: “Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 10, 1991, pp. 3, 13.

[In the following review, Eder complains that Smiley's A Thousand Acres, with its reversal of King Lear, does not work.]

A problem novel is a problem. If it is a detective story, say, or an exposure of conditions in the Chicago stockyards, we take it on its own single-minded level—solving the mystery or learning about the conditions. It needs to be lucidly and enthrallingly expounded; apart from that, we are simply grateful for whatever adornments of style or character may be thrown in.

When it is a full-fledged work of...

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Rupert Christiansen (review date 10 October 1992)

SOURCE: “Speaking Less than She Knowest,” in Spectator, Vol. 269, October 10, 1992, p. 38.

[In the following review, Christiansen asserts that Smiley's “A Thousand Acres has a moral weight, a technical accomplishment and a sheer eloquence that demands some special recognition.”]

Jane Smiley's latest novel has just been honoured with two of America's most prestigious literary prizes, and for once you feel the pundits may have got it right: A Thousand Acres has a moral weight, a technical accomplishment and a sheer eloquence that demands some special recognition. It is not comfortable to read. There are no modernist tricks, no quick gratifications....

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Jane S. Bakerman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “‘The Gleaming Obsidian Shard’: Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres,” in Midamerica, Vol. 19, 1992, pp. 127–37.

[In the following essay, Bakerman discusses Smiley's vision of life in A Thousand Acres.]

The dustjacket of Jane Smiley's fine new novel, A Thousand Acres, features a beautiful Amish quilt done in red, tan, and black horizontal stripes, its main decoration the neat, disciplined patterns stitched into the plain fabrics.1 A color publicity still depicts Smiley standing before a vivid, multi-hued Iowa quilt of intricate design and construction.2 This quilt's exploitation of depth and its strong vertical and...

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Margaret Forster (review date 30 April 1994)

SOURCE: “Truly Interesting Horses,” in Spectator, Vol. 272, April 30, 1994, p. 39.

[In the following review, Forster lauds Smiley's Barn Blind.]

Marvellous, isn't it, how an author's first novel can suddenly be worth the risk of publishing when their sixth has hit every kind of jackpot? I bet Jane Smiley's Barn Blind was offered to UK publishers when it appeared in her own country. I bet it got turned down as ‘too American,’ that handy euphemism used both sides of the Atlantic to save a publisher from any real critical opinion and always meaning simply they don't like it. But once A Thousand Acres was such a success, hey presto, Barn Blind...

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Margaret Rozga (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Sisters in a Quest—Sister Carrie and A Thousand Acres: The Search for Identity in Gendered Territory,” in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. 22, 1994, pp. 18–29.

[In the following essay, Rozga compares and contrasts Smiley's A Thousand Acres and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.]

Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres each have as their main character a woman in search of a place for herself. Aside from this basic quest motif, however, what is most apparent are the differences: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, a turn of the century work, is narrated by a third-person voice whose...

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Tim Keppel (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Goneril's Version: A Thousand Acres and King Lear,” in South Dakota Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1995, pp. 105–17.

[In the following essay, Keppel traces the reasons why Smiley chooses to tell A Thousand Acres from the perspective of Ginny (the Goneril character).]

Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Thousand Acres is both a brilliant retelling of King Lear and a powerful work on its own terms. Like Shakespeare, who drew on well-established sources for his plot, Smiley adopts the basic storyline and gives it new life. The place is a farm in Iowa. The year is 1979: land foreclosures, the oil crisis, a general...

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Merle Rubin (review date 4 April 1995)

SOURCE: “A Lively Satire of Derring-Do at Moo U.,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 87, No. 89, April 4, 1995, p. 14.

[In the following review, Rubin praises Smiley's ambition in presenting a multitude of characters and subplots in Moo, but complains that she fails to fully develop them.]

There's a lot to like about Jane Smiley's latest novel, Moo, starting with a good-natured, clean-living hog named Earl Butz. Earl is the subject of a secret university experiment designed to discover just how large a hog might grow if allowed to keep on eating whatever it wants without paying the usual price of being turned into pork chops before its time.


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Claire Messud (review date 19 May 1995)

SOURCE: “Pigging Out with the Professors,” in Guardian, May 19, 1995, p. 7.

[In the following review, Messud lauds the variety and wit of Smiley's Moo.]

In spite of its absurdities, or perhaps because of them, ours is an age which accords the greatest literary respect to the most sober stories. With rare exceptions—Confessions of Zeno and A House for Mr Biswas come to mind—this century's most acclaimed fiction does not occasion much laughter.

So it is a cause for celebration that Jane Smiley has turned her talents to comedy. Smiley is, incontestably, a serious writer. From her first novel, Barn Blind, she has beautifully...

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Michael Carlson (review date 27 May 1995)

SOURCE: “Very Flat, Iowa,” in Spectator, Vol. 274, May 27, 1995, p. 44.

[In the following review, Carlson presents an unfavorable assessment of Smiley's Moo.]

The hermetically sealed world of the university campus is a disproportionately rich source for novelists. The darker side of academe's supposedly rarefied atmosphere has lent itself to works that range from Barth's Giles Goat Boy to Porterhouse Blue.

Unfortunately, in Moo, Jane Smiley is more blunt than Sharpe. She avoids milking this rich source for anything more than a genteel smile and an obvious point. One senses that Smiley, who teaches at Iowa State University,...

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Laurie Taylor (review date 9 June 1995)

SOURCE: “Pork-Barrel Politics,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 8, No. 356, June 9, 1995, p. 37.

[In the following review, Taylor lauds Smiley's use of humor in her presentation of university life in Moo.]

We can't see Jane Smiley's hands in the photograph of her on the back flap of Moo this very funny successor to her Pulitzer prize-winning tragedy A Thousand Acres, but it's difficult to imagine that they're doing anything other than pulling strings. Even as she introduces the lengthy list of characters who inhabit the sprawling Midwestern agricultural college called Moo University, we can sense the twitches of personality, the tugs of ideology,...

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Emily Toth (review date Winter 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Moo, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1996, p. 49.

[In the following review, Toth offers reserved praise for Smiley's Moo.]

Jane Smiley's ninth book [Moo] revels in wickedly satirical jabs at academia, specially as practiced at agricultural universities in the Midwest (Smiley teaches at Iowa State). We meet an earth-motherish language professor who is having a warmly secret affair with the pale provost—whose secretary, a closeted lesbian, pulls everyone's strings and especially likes slyly shifting money from the athletic budget to the library (I cheered).

Meanwhile, the provost's twin brother, a nasty...

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Mary Paniccia Carden (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Remembering/Engendering the Heartland: Sexed Language, Embodied Space, and America's Foundational Fictions in Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres,” in Frontiers, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1997, pp. 181–202.

[In the following essay, Carden asserts that Smiley's A Thousand Acres exposes a cultural amnesia created by agrarian life in America that tends to forget and silence the stories of women.]

Benedict Anderson defines the modern nation as an “imagined community” that should be distinguished “not by [its] falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which [it is] imagined.”1 He suggests that we remember national history by forgetting, that...

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Ron Charles (review date 26 March 1998)

SOURCE: “Challenging Mark Twain's Tales of Simpler Times,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 90, No. 83, March 26, 1998, p. B1.

[In the following review, Charles provides a favorable assessment of Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.]

Ernest Hemingway once said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” and since then a river of ink has flowed to justify that monumental claim.

Two years ago, Jane Smiley went against this current of praise and took the nation's school teachers to task for excusing what she considers Twain's moral passivity in response to...

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Heller McAlpin (review date 5 April 1998)

SOURCE: “Up from Slavery,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 5, 1998, p. 4.

[In the following review, McAlpin lauds Smiley for how she deals with both personal relationships and complex political ideas in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.]

Why the current fascination among novelists with the years bracketing the Civil War? Could it be fallout from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary? The allure of a powerful moral issue set against the backdrop of compelling drama? Last year brought us Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a prizewinning epic about a wounded Confederate soldier's trek home to his beloved, and this year we have Russell...

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James A. Schiff (essay date Summer 1998)

SOURCE: “Contemporary Retellings: A Thousand Acres as the Latest Lear,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 39, No. 4, Summer, 1998, pp. 367–81.

[In the following essay, Schiff discusses Smiley's rewriting of King Lear in A Thousand Acres.]

In this century, and particularly since Joyce's Ulysses, numerous novels and poems have attempted to retell earlier stories, myths, and fairy tales. Between 1920 and 1980, writers such as Yeats, Lawrence, Faulkner, Mann, Hermann Hesse, Max Frisch, Anthony Burgess, John Barth, Bernard Malamud, Jean Rhys, John Gardner, Donald Barthelme, Anne Sexton, John Updike, and Angela Carter have...

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Dale M. Bauer (review date July 1998)

SOURCE: “Territorial Imperatives,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 15, Nos. 10–11, July, 1998, p. 28.

[In the following review, Bauer praises Smiley's presentation of political commitment in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.]

Jane Smiley's newest novel [The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton] plays continually with the conventions of nineteenth-century fiction and history: sentimental passages, picaresque plots, direct addresses to the reader. Her heroine's adventures could even be said to start by revising Jane Eyre's confession, “Reader, I married him” as “Reader, I buried him.” Lidie's story begins with her...

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Joyce Carol Oates (review date 25 September 1998)

SOURCE: “Sold South,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 25, 1998, p. 22.

[Oates is the author of several novels, including Man Crazy. In the following review, she asserts that while there are some well-written individual scenes in Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, the novel does not work as a whole.]

What's in a title? There is a certain gravity signalled by such ponderous nineteenth-century titles as War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, The Red and the Black. The discreet alliterations of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, still more Peregrine Pickle, suggest gravity lightened...

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Catherine Cowen Olson (essay date Autumn 1998)

SOURCE: “You Are What You Eat: Food and Power in Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1, Autumn, 1998, pp. 21–33.

[In the following essay, Olson studies the relationship between food and power in Smiley's A Thousand Acres.]

I'm the angriest person in the restaurant; I'm the only angry person in the restaurant.” So laments Jane Smiley in her 1993 article, “Reflections on a Lettuce Wedge.” In this self-described “diatribe” against the dullness of midwestern cooking, Smiley complains that she is fed up with eating at restaurants where “the salad” is a wedge of … iceberg lettuce floating in bright orange...

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Katie Grant (review date 24 October 1998)

SOURCE: “Fact or Fiction,” in Spectator, Vol. 281, October 24, 1998, p. 49.

[In the following review, Grant praises Smiley's creation of the character of Lidie Newton in The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, but complains that the historical details get in the way of the story.]

Comparisons, I know, are odious. However, when a book never quite comes into its own, comparisons will, despite the best intentions, keep surfacing. According to the publisher's blurb, Lidie Newton, the heroine of Jane Smiley's latest book, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is on a par with Huck Finn or Isabel Archer in the roll of Great...

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Barbara Mathieson (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Polluted Quarry: Nature and Body in A Thousand Acres,” in Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women's Re-Visions in Literature and Performance, edited by Marianne Novy, St. Martin's Press, 1999, pp. 127–44.

[In the following essay, Mathieson discusses how Smiley presents nature and man's relationship to it in A Thousand Acres.]

The recognition of nature's shaping influence on human identity is a fundamental recognition, one that is shared by many non-Western cultures. Severing or denying human dependency on our relationship with nature is necessary only to the construction of the master identity, which lies at the center...

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Further Reading


Allen, Brooke. “On Campus among the Sacred Cows.” Wall Street Journal 225, No. 61 (29 March 1995): A10.

Points out several faults in Smiley's Moo and asserts that the novel “is at best a pleasant read.”

Bernays, Anne. “Toward More Perfect Unions.” New York Times Book Review 92 (6 September 1987): 12.

Lauds the novella and stories in Smiley's The Age of Grief.

Dodd, Susan. “The Sorrows of Bleeding Kansas.” Washington Post Book World 28, No. 15 (12 April 1998): 5.

Dodd asserts that Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of...

(The entire section is 501 words.)