Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788
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 establish a horse farm in Northern California, where she breeds and trains Thoroughbreds—a change in venue she subsequently mined as subject matter for two horse-centered texts, the novel Horse Heaven (2000) and the memoir A Year at the Races (2004).
Smiley has suggested that the dominant themes of her early work—“sex and apocalypse”—derived from a childhood shadowed by the atomic bomb and an adolescence informed by “the Pill.” Her strong feminist convictions have fed a belief that, because “the personal is political. . . [e]ach household is a manifestation of a political, economic and cultural system” that becomes one’s subtext in every fiction about family life. Accordingly, her own adult family history regularly feeds her published nonfictional ruminations on American cultural change. A first marriage, in 1970 to John Whiston, ended in 1975. Her second marriage, to William Silag, lasted from 1978 to 1986 and produced daughters Phoebe and Lucy. During a third marriage, to Stephen Mark Mortensen from 1987 to 1997, son A. J. was born.
Yet Smiley resists the diagnosis of cultural crisis often accompanying laments about the “breakdown of the traditional family.” Rather, as she explains in “Why Marriage,” consciously choosing to resist the lure of another marriage and “forswear fidelity [to a new lover] is to open yourself up to other ideas, other thoughts, about what love is, what desire is, what happiness is, and what commitment is.” Such willingness to learn “by experience how to express love” and its attendant emotions—“Compassion, tenderness, patience, responsibility, kindness, and honesty”—actually sustains rather than subverts the quest for meaningful webs of human connection, whatever labels one gives them.
Clearly, Smiley regards her experiences as woman, lover, and mother as important influences on her literary imagination. Having begun her career as a “devoted modernist” infatuated with the nihilistic vision of early twentieth century literature, she found herself losing that alienated edge during her first pregnancy and took as a personal mission the challenge of answering the skeptics’ question, “Can mothers think and write?” Smiley proudly joins other contemporary women writers who have documented the recesses of female subjectivity—including the paradoxes of sexual desire and maternity.
In the 1990’s, her convictions about the social responsibility of the writer took on new urgency in the aftermath of the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing, where ideologically driven violence horrifically underscored escalating societal schisms and inequities. Taking her lead from “The great writers: Dickens, George Eliot, [Virginia] Woolf, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Homer, not a single one [of whom] failed to engage,” Smiley flatly asserts that “Every novel I write is political. . . . Your political views and your moral views connect you in a responsible way to other people, to society.” This attitude explains the sharpening of her critique of capitalism in Moo (1995) and Good Faith (2003) as the driving compulsion of American institutions at the cost of the great good of the common people and the health both of individuals and of the physical world in which they are rooted.