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.
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).
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.
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.”