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Jane Hamilton attracted critical attention after her work The Book of Ruth (1988) was awarded the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel. Her reputation as a significant contemporary novelist grew considerably when two of her books, The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World (1994) were selected by the Oprah Book Club, extending her readership to include mainstream audiences.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Chicago
A member of the ”baby boomer” generation, Jane Hamilton was born on July 15, 1957, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She was the youngest of five children born to Allen and Ruth (Hubert) Hamilton, and she displayed an early interest in reading and writing. Her artistic efforts were encouraged by several women in her family, including her mother, who worked as a theater critic for the Chicago Daily News and published a poem ”A Song for a Fifth Child” in the Ladies Home Journal, and her grandmother, who was a former journalist. A lifelong resident of the Midwest, Hamilton typically chooses small towns in states like Illinois and Wisconsin for the settings of her novels.
The Publishing Field and the Apple Orchard
Hamilton majored in English at Carleton College in Northfeld, Minnesota, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1979. While in school, Hamilton displayed promise as a young writer, earning the Class of 1885 Prose Award in both 1977 and 1979. Despite her success as an undergraduate, she was refused admission from graduate programs in creative writing. In the face of this disappointment, Hamilton decided to move to New York to work as an editor with a publishing company. However, she aborted her plan after visiting a friend at an apple orchard in Rochester, Wisconsin, which was owned by the friend’s cousin, Robert Willard. In 1982 Hamilton married Willard and began a new life in Wisconsin.
Farm Life in Wisconsin
As an up-and-coming fiction writer, Hamilton found that farm life suited her and helped cultivate her confidence. As quoted by scholar Marcia Noe in the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Hamilton speaks to the advantages of her new environment: ”It was good to be in a place that was off the beaten path in terms of writing. I was not as self-conscious as I would have been had I lived in New York.” Shortly after her arrival in Wisconsin, her first short story, ”My Own Earth” (1983), was published in Harper’s magazine. By the end of that year the magazine had published a second story, ”Aunt Marji’s Happy Ending,” which was later included in The Best American Short Stories, 1984.
Success as a Novelist
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hamilton split her time between her family—she gave birth to two children, a son and a daughter—and her fiction writing. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, was an immediate success and was later awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award, the 1989 Banta Award, and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award. These accolades helped her secure a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993 for a second novel, A Map of the World. Both books were chosen by the American television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey for her book club, which began in 1997. After their selection, both novels gained an international readership and became best sellers. A Map of the World was adapted for film and released in 1999.
Hamilton has published more novels since A Map of the World: A Short History of a Prince: A Novel (1998), Disobedience (2000), and When Madeline Was Young (2006). Hamilton continues to live and write from her orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin.
Works in Literary Context
Hamilton’s novels focus on themes including suffering, redemption, and resilience within American families living in the Midwestern United States. Her work is influenced by the books she read as a teenager, including Jane Eyre (1847), by Charlotte Bronte; The Diary of a Young Girl (1947), by Anne Frank; and the works of Herman Hesse and J. D. Salinger. She has listed Lorrie Moore, Carol Shields, Kevin Canty, Carol Anshaw, and Michael Cunningham among the authors she has read and admired as an adult.
Suffering, Redemption, and Resilience
Hamilton’s novels are typically set in the rural or suburban areas of the American Midwest, in oppressive social environments that close in on their protagonists, threatening their spirits. Within this setting, Hamilton insightfully explores the interplay of family members caught in dysfunctional and tragic situations that require resilience and strength of character. The internal lives of her characters is a central focus of Hamilton’s fiction, with her protagonists sharing their introspection and psychological insights through first-person narration.
Works in Critical Context
While all of her novels have received considerable praise for their psychological realism and thematic content, a number of reviewers have criticized Hamilton for constructing plots that are too melodramatic, like television soap operas. In particular, some have argued that the plot of A Map of the World is predictable and uninteresting. By contrast, Hamilton supporters often point to her characterization and sensitive portrayal of life in the American Midwest. Most agree that Hamilton’s work is marked by a distinctive authorial voice, precise language, and nuanced characterizations. In particular, she is known for her treatment of the experiences of women, although she has also been commended for the believable male point of view she constructs in The Short History of a Prince and Disobedience.
A Map of the World
Writing for People, Joanna Kaufman acknowledges the emotional strength of Hamilton’s writing: ”Like a lot of books singled out for praise, A Map of the World can be described as a page turner. But in this case, the pages are turned with trembling hands.” Also speaking to the work’s ability to affect its readers, John Skow, writing for Time, labels the novel ”a mischievous and unsettling marital melodrama” and goes on to add that it ”would be soap opera if the author were not unusually good at transforming acute, intuitive perceptions into sentences.” Likewise, Viva Hardigg in U. S. News & World Report praises Hamilton’s craft: ”Hamilton’s special genius lies in blending the quotidian and the mythic. Ordinary details become luminous under her pen as she describes human pain with a rare, limpid force—unshackled by melodrama.” Publisher’s Weekly declared, ”Booksellers should send up three cheers of greeting for this haunting second novella.”
Critical studies of Hamilton’s work are currently limited to relatively short publications in academic periodicals and popular magazines. However, she is treated by the literary community as a serious contemporary author with a distinct voice and secure place in American letters.
- Greasley, Philip A. Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
- Brownrigg, S. “Disobedience by Jane Hamilton.” New York Times Book Review (November 19, 2000): 9.
- Bush, Trudy. Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World.” Christian Century 112 (May 24, 1995): 567.
- Hardigg, Viva. Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World.” U.S. News & World Report 116 (June 13,1994): 82.
- Kaufman, Joanne. Review of A Map of the World. People 41, May 30, 1994, p. 30.
- Review of A Map of the World. Publishers Weekly 241, April 4, 1994, p. 57.
- Skow, John. Review of A Map of the World. Time 143, June 27, 1994, p. 75.
- Jane Hamilton. Retrieved November 26,2008, from http:// www.randomhouse.com/features/janehamilton/ index.html.
- Hertzberg, Mark. ”First she threw one away—Jane Hamilton discarded a book before completing her latest novel.” Journal Times. Retrieved November 26, 2008, from http://www.journaltimes.com.
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