Jane Smiley Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 adaptation of the same title released in 1997) enabled Smiley to leave Iowa State in 1996 and...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.