Jane Hamilton Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jane Hamilton was born in Oak Park, Illinois, the hometown of Ernest Hemingway, whom she thought of as an “icky man” who was dead wrong when he called the suburb “a place of narrow minds and wide lawns.” Hamilton found Oak Park both liberal and livable. She grew up in a family that opposed the Vietnam War and loved the arts and literature. She became familiar with Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo through her father’s recitations. As a youngster, she studied ballet, listened to the music of Peter Tchaikovsky, and read avidly. She read not so much to find out “how people fell in love . . . but how . . . they came together.” She was searching for instructions for life. In later years she became more enamored of the craft, of the “strong or lyrical or surprising sentence.” It was natural for her to become a writer. Her grandmother contributed to a feminist newspaper and produced several unpublished novel manuscripts. Her mother, Ruth Hulbert Hamilton, composed a poem for her titled “A Song for a Fifth Child” that was published in Ladies’ Home Journal, it became a popular nursery rhyme for handstitched samplers.

Hamilton graduated with a B.A. in English from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1979, equipped, as she noted, “to be a waitress or wait until further notice.” Failing to gain acceptance in any of the graduate programs to which she applied, she headed for New York with the promise of a job in the Children’s Division at Dell Publishing. Because she needed money for setting up her envisioned life as a struggling artist in the Village, she stopped off to help a friend with the apple harvest at a farm in Rochester, Wisconsin. Her plan was to stay for a week, but the week turned into two and eventually led to her life as a farmer, wife, mother, and writer in this relatively isolated community in the southeastern part of the state. Her love of the land was equaled only by her love for her friend’s cousin, Robert Willard, part owner of the orchard. From the moment she saw him, she recognized in him a close resemblance to the hero of the novel she was reading, the beautiful Welsh boy in Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939), and the prospect of a full-time writing career in a big-city environment lost its attraction. She later observed that she would not have fared well in that setting, as the pressures of day-to-day living would have been distracting. She found peaceful farm life perfectly suited to her writing style. She said, “I love the orchard because it [makes me] a part of a natural rhythm that most of us don’t have any more.” She said that she could write anywhere, provided that she was afforded quiet.

As a newcomer in this small, close-knit community, she felt like an “anthropologist in a foreign country.” Her urban sensibilities made her somewhat suspect, certainly an outsider, and she did not gain true acceptance until starting a family and becoming president of the public library board. She worked the farm in the harvest season and wrote during the slower winter months in her upstairs office overlooking gentle hills, fruit trees, and grazing sheep. With the birth of her first child, she cut back on farming, helping her husband only in emergencies, though often overseeing their barn sales of lamb, wool, cider, apples, and pears and sometimes selling apples at the farmers’ market in Madison. She continued to write, autobiographical short stories at first, though always working around her children’s schedules and finally recognizing the novel as her métier.


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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jane Hamilton was born in 1957 in Oak Park, Illinois, the birthplace also of novelist Carol Shields. Hamilton’s father was an engineer and her mother was a theater critic. The fifth and last child in a rambunctious brood, Hamilton was the quiet and introspective daughter who, from an early age, preferred the written word over the spoken. Hamilton’s mother and grandmother were writers, too, so writing seemed to be her heritage. She once observed that she thought it only natural that she would grow up to become a writer.

In 1979, Hamilton earned her B.A. in English at Carleton College in Minnesota and then headed east to New York, where she had secured a position in the children’s fiction division of a publishing house. En route to New York she took a detour. A brief stop at an apple orchard in Wisconsin that belonged to a friend’s family became a permanent relocation. Hamilton never made it to New York nor did she regret her lost career in publishing. Instead, she became an apple farmer, laboring in the orchards spring through fall and wintering indoors, where she nurtured her writing skills. She applied for but was denied enrollment in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Undeterred, she continued to submit her short stories for consideration in several publications, but she received rejections. Seeking more formal training in her craft, she spent time at Ragdale in Illinois, a retreat for writers and artists.

In 1982, Hamilton married Robert Willard, one of the owners of the orchard. In 1983, Harper’s accepted and published two of her short stories, including “Aunt Marji’s Happy Ending,” launching Hamilton’s career as a writer. The couple had a son, Ben, in 1984, the year Hamilton completed the rough draft of what would become The Book of Ruth, a novel about the struggles of a poor rural girl whose life rushes toward catastrophe when she marries an emotionally unstable man. The novel was picked up by Ticknor and Fields in 1987, the same year daughter Hannah was born. Published in 1988, the novel received critical and public favor. The next decade proved to be a successful one for Hamilton; she published more novels, and they, too, were embraced by readers and critics.