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Jane Smiley is an acclaimed novelist and short-fiction writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres (1991), her reworking of William Shakespeare’s play King Lear (c. 1603). Smiley writes about the complex, often secret, emotional dynamics that underlie ordinary human relationships. At the heart of Smiley’s fiction is her belief that there are answers—sometimes bitter, even traumatic—to the questions that afflict human beings.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Turbulent Family, Political Times
Smiley was born on September 26, 1949, in Los Angeles. By the time Smiley was four years old, her parents had divorced, and Smiley moved with her mother to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1960, Smiley’s mother remarried, to a man who had two children of his own. Throughout her youth, Smiley lived in close contact with a large extended family, a fact that influenced the many fictional families she placed at the center of her novels and short stories.
Smiley came of age during the 1960s, one of the most turbulent periods in American history. America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was met with growing opposition throughout the United States. The result was a deep divide between war supporters and the antiwar movement. Yet, this was also a time of incredible social progress. The civil rights movement made significant achievements over the course of the decade, and feminism and the environmental movements also came to the fore. Against this backdrop, Smiley graduated from high school and enrolled in Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York. During the summer of 1970, Smiley lived with John B. Whiston in a commune in New Haven, Connecticut. In September of that year, the two were married.
Shortly after they were married, Smiley and Whiston moved to Iowa City, Iowa. Smiley worked in a factory while Whiston pursued graduate work in history. In 1972, she was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Iowa. She was interested in writing as well as studying literature, and she participated in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1974 even as she continued to work on her master’s degree. In 1975, she and Whiston divorced. With the aid of a Fulbright-Hays grant, Smiley spent the academic year of 1976-1977 in Iceland, researching Icelandic sagas for her doctoral dissertation. During this same year she also received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 1978, Smiley completed her PhD and began her second marriage, to editor William Silag. 1982, Smiley took a position with Iowa State University, where she taught courses on literature and creative writing until 1997.
Professional Success, Personal Difficulties
Shortly after she completed her PhD, Smiley began publishing short fiction in various journals and finished two novels, Barn Blind (1980) and At Paradise Gate (1981). The latter won the Friends of American Writers Prize that year. Barn Blind chronicles the life of Kate Karlson, a domineering mother of four teenage children. In At Paradise Gate, the impending death of Ike Robinson provides an opportunity for his wife and her three daughters to revisit the family’s shared regrets, sorrows, and personal victories. In these first novels, Smiley began the exploration of family dynamics that she continued to refine throughout much of her work. Smiley’s skill as a short-story writer also became evident during this time, and in 1982, she was awarded an O. Henry Award for ”The Pleasure of Her Company,” originally published in Mademoiselle (1981).
In the summer of 1984, Smiley traveled to England, Denmark, and Greenland, and began work on the novel The Greenlanders (1988). The following year, her status as a preeminent author of short fiction was solidified when her story ”Lily” (1984) shared first prize in the O. Henry Awards. With ”Lily,” which was originally published in The Atlantic and later collected in The Age of (Grief (1987), Smiley introduces a character whose obsession with order prevents her from comprehending the complexities of intimacy. Lily underestimates the diverse, often contradictory, impulses underlying motivation and desire. In ”Lily,” Smiley reflects on how important it is to recognize the truth ofthe heart’s complexity, a theme that is present in many of her works.
Smiley’s personal life also shared some of the relationship tensions she wrote about in her novels and fiction. In 1986, she and Silag were divorced, and she married screenwriter Stephen Mortensen the following year. During that same year she published The Age of Grief, which received a Book Critics Circle Award nomination. The title novella, composed during her breakup with Silag, provides an intimate portrait of marriage, parenthood, and the emotional trauma of infidelity. The Age of Griefalso includes the story ”Long Distance,” which became Smiley’s third story to win an O. Henry Award for short fiction. In 1988, she published the novel The Greenlanders and a volume comprising her two novellas, Ordinary Love & Good Will. In 1990, Smiley published The Life of the Body: A Story, a limited-edition volume. After being reprinted in Antaeus, the story won Smiley her fourth O. Henry Award in 1996. ”The Life of the Body” is often recognized as Smiley’s most poignant short story. It also speaks to the complexities of intimacy, the secrets that bind families together, and the mysterious potency of people’s inner lives, themes that feature heavily in her most widely recognized work, A Thousand Acres.
Creating a Modern Masterpiece from a Classic Play
In 1991, Smiley published A Thousand Acres, a feminist re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, which won her the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Heartland Award. A Thousand Acres tells the story of the Cooks, a Midwestern farming family devastated by both incest and the technological changes in American agriculture. When Ginny Cook, the eldest daughter, remembers the sexual abuse she suffered at her father’s hands, she begins to question the familial and communal foundations of her reality. The novel earned Smiley critical acclaim, vastly expanded her readership, and was adapted in a feature film of the same title in 1997.
A Busy Writing and Teaching Life
After the publication of A Thousand Acres, Smiley continued writing and teaching. In 1995, Smiley published her sixth novel, Moo, which received a Book Critics Circle Award nomination. The novel is a comedy set in a college located in a small Midwestern town that satirizes the petty politics of the university. Moo is undoubtedly influenced by Smiley’s own experience as a professor at the Iowa State University, where she taught until moving to California in 1997. In 1998, she published The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, a historical novel set in the mid-nineteenth century in America’s Midwest, a region divided by the issue of slavery. Smiley drew upon her many years of teaching and writing for her nonfiction exploration of the history and craft of the novel, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005). Her latest work, Ten Days in the Hills (2007), focuses on a group of ultra rich and powerful Hollywood friends and acquaintances who shut themselves off from the outside world at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.
Works in Literary Context
Although her novels and short stories belong to a number of different genres, Smiley’s work is firmly grounded in realism. The movement of literary realism began in nineteenth-century fiction and extended well into the twentieth century. Realism is concerned with dramatizing an authentic representation of contemporary, everyday life. Smiley is a notable American realist similar to Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom use the style to engage in subtle critiques of the social issues that influence their characters.
Because of Smiley’s emphasis on family life and her focus on exploring relationships, she can be regarded as a modern author of domestic fiction. Principally regarded as a nineteenth-century genre, domestic fiction (sometimes referred to as ”sentimental fiction”) is a category of novel that depicts family life and the relationships of a heroine. Smiley’s work is both influenced by domestic fiction and responding to it: she shares many of the concerns of traditional domestic fiction, but her works often depict home and family as a place of instability, rather than stability.
Many of Smiley’s later works are comic novels of social observation, including Moo, which satirizes the university system; Good Faith (2003), a comical examination of the financial boom of the mid-1980s; and Ten Days in the Hills, a biting Hollywood satire. While the chief concern of comic novels is to amuse their readers, Smiley joins many American authors—including Tom Wolfe, Carl Hiaasen, and John Kennedy Toole—in using the form to explore and critique social issues.
Works in Critical Context
Jane Smiley is widely acclaimed for her ability to craft novels and short fiction about the families and the complexities of family relationships. She is also notable for her ability to effectively use a wide range of settings in her fiction. Many critics have also commended the political aspects of her work, including what many perceive as her feminist point of view in A Thousand Acres. Most, however, agree with critic Suzanne MacLachlan, who concludes, ”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.”
A Thousand Acres
The Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres reworks Shakespeare’s King Lear as a subtle account of a Midwestern farm family’s disintegration. Critic Mary Paniccia Garden summarizes critical assessment of Smiley’s intent, writing that Smiley focuses ”on the cultural mechanisms that define and delimit a woman’s place as her father’s daughter.” Some critics felt that the novel was overly melodramatic, while others felt it was too transparently a feminist critique of male-dominated families. Yet, the vast majority of critics recognize the novel as a modern achievement. As Rupert Christiansen writes in a review for Spectator, ”A Thousand Acres has a moral weight, a technical accomplishment and a sheer eloquence that demands some special recognition.”
A historical novel set in fourteenth-century Greenland, The Greenlanders also focuses on family relations, tracing the effects of a curse on several generations of a single family. Critics applauded the manner in which Smiley conveyed the landscape and culture of Greenland, with critic Melissa Pressley concluding in her review for Christian Science Monitor, ”Smiley conveys the emotional starkness of the Greenlanders’ lives. Her voice is the voice of a people numbed by years of the monotony of survival, a people inured by hopelessness into tacit acceptance of the harshest of fates.” Critic Niel Nakadate also recognizes a crucial personal dimension to the work that is shared with many members of Smiley’s generation. He writes:
Smiley’s preoccupation with explaining Greenland’s collective, catastrophic death seems to have had a nagging analog in her personal life: an extraordinary preoccupation with fear—of accidents, of random violence, of nuclear annihilation—and therefore an almost overpowering sense of mortality.
- Nakadate, Neil. Understanding Jane Smiley. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
- Pearlman, Mickey. ”Jane Smiley.” Listen to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews with Women Who Write. New York: Norton, 1993.
- Bakerman, Jane S. ”’The Gleaming Obsidian Shard’: Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.” Midamerica XIX (1992): 127-137.
- Carden, Mary Paniccia. ”Remembering/Engendering the Heartland: Sexed Language, Embodied Space, and America’s Foundational Fictions in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.” Frontiers 18, no. 2 (1997): 181-201.
- Christiansen, Rupert. ”Speaking Less than She Knowest.” Spectator vol. 269 (October 10, 1992): 38.
- MacLachlan, Suzanne. ”Kitchen-Table Tales of Desire and Will.” Christian Science Monitor vol. 81, 234 (October 30, 1989): 13.
- Pressley, Melissa. ”A Stark Saga of an Icy Island Settlement in the Dark Ages. Christian Science Monitor vol. 80, 196 (September 7, 1988): 18.
- Keppel, Tim. ”Goneril’s Vision: A Thousand Acres and King Lear.” South Dakota Review vol. 33 (Summer 1995): 105-117.
- Schiff, James A. ”Contemporary Retellings: A Thousand Acres as the Latest Lear. Critique 39, no. 4 (Summer 1998): 367-381.
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