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 recover.
Smiley’s marital history suggests that here, too, personal experience...
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