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Smiley, Jane

SMILEY, Jane

Nationality: American. Born: Los Angeles, 26 September 1949. Education: Vassar College, B.A. in English 1971; University of Iowa, M.A. 1975, M.F.A. 1976, Ph.D. 1978. Family: Married 1) John Whiston, 1970 (divorced 1975); 2) William Silag, 1978 (divorced), two daughters; 3) Stephen Mark Mortensen, 1987. Career: Assistant professor, 1981-84, associate professor, 1984-89, professor, 1989-90, distinguished Professor, 1992-96, Iowa State University. Visiting assistant professor, University of Iowa, 1981, 1987. Awards: Ful-bright grant, 1976-77; Pushcart prize, 1977, for "Jeffrey, Believe Me"; NEA grant, 1978, 1987; O. Henry award, 1982, for "The Pleasure of Her Company," 1985, for "Lily," and 1988; Friends of American Writers prize, 1981; Pulitzer prize, 1992, and National Book Critics Circle award, 1992, both for A Thousand Acres; Midland Author's award, 1992; Heartland prize, 1992. Address: Department of English, Iowa State University, 201 Ross, Ames, Iowa 50011-1401, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Barn Blind. New York, Harper and Row, 1980; London, Flamingo, 1994.

At Paradise Gate. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Duplicate Keys. New York, Knopf, and London, Cape 1984.

Greenlanders. New York, Knopf, and London, Collins, 1988.

A Thousand Acres. New York, Knopf, and London, Flamingo, 1991.

Moo. New York, Knopf, and London, Flamingo, 1995.

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. New York, Knopf, 1998.

Horse Heaven. New York, Knopf, 2000.

Short Stories

The Age of Grief. New York, Knopf, 1987; London, Collins, 1988.

Ordinary Love and Good Will (novellas) . New York, Knopf, 1989; London, Collins, 1990.

The Life of the Body, with linoleum cuts by Susan Nees. Minneapolis, Minnisota, Coffee House Press, 1990.

Other

Catskill Crafts: Artisans of the Catskill Mountains. New York, Crown, 1988.

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Critical Studies:

Understanding Jane Smiley by Neil Nakadate, [Columbia], University of South Carolina Press, 1999; The Broom Closet: Secret Meanings of Domesticity in Postfeminist Novels by Louise Erdrich, Mary Gordon, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Jane Smiley, and Amy Tan by Jeannette Batz Cooperman, New York, Peter Lang, 1999.

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Jane Smiley's congenial turf is the dailiness of daily life, as its domestic rhythms play themselves out in a variety of settings and circumstances. She writes, in short, about familiesa subject that once occupied literature's very center but now seems ignored. That Smiley came to wide critical attention with A Thousand Acres, a novel that won her both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Circle Critics Award, is true enough, but it is even truer that earlier collections (The Age of Grief and Ordinary Love & Good Will ) amply demonstrated that she could write beautifully about family members.

As a tale of a tyrannical father who resolves to divide his thousand-acre Iowa farm among his three daughters, only to slip into madness, curse his offspring, and venture out alone into a fearsome storm, Smiley's novel is filled with correlations to King Lear not only in terms of allusion and plot but also in its inevitable arc toward tragedy. Generally speaking, reviewer-critics praised Smiley's large ambitions and infectious style, but some worried that the novel's schema was a bit too schematic. However, there are at least as many reasons to think of Dreiser's Sister Carrie or Arthur Miller's The Death of a Salesman as one turns the pages of Smiley's altogether engrossing novel.

Moreover, King Lear represents only a fraction of Smiley's concerns; others include farming as it has evolved into big business, dysfunctional families, and even dashes of feminist theory. Perhaps Smiley tried to pack too many disparate concerns between the covers of a single novel (a criticism that might also be made of Moo, her effort to squeeze a large land-grant university under the novelist's microscope), but it is clear that A Thousand Acres is a brava performance in ways that Barn Blind, At Paradise Gate, or even The Greenlanders are not. For in A Thousand Acres, the slow gathering of quotidian detail means to tackle large, existential questions: Not only what it means to be a true daughter but also, as Ron Carlson points out, "what is the price to be paid for trying one's whole life to please a proud father who slenderly knows himselfwho coveted his land the way he loved his daughters, not wisely but too well?"

By contrast, Moo asks what kind of institution is the American university in the 1990s, and it sets about making its estimates by focusing not so much on individual characters (several administrators, a handful of colorful professors, and a slice of students) within an academic setting as on the setting itself. "What is a university?" one of her characters asks, and the answer seems hazy at best. Indeed, the novel's main character is not a human being at all but rather a pig named Earl Butz. Like most of those feeding from the university's deep trough, Smiley's pig lives only to eat and then to eat some more. He is, in short, the deep secret hidden in the bowels of Moo University. As Provost Harstad puts it:

Over the years everyone around the university had given free reign to his or her desires, and the institution had, with a fine, trembling responsiveness, answered, "Why not?" It had become, more than anything, a vast network of interlocking wishes.

No doubt there will be those who resist Smiley's portrait of the university as hog heaven ("Unfair! Unfair!" I can hear them muttering), just as there must have been those Iowa farmers who did not see their lives on the land accurately reflected in A Thousand Acres. But a novelist has other allegiances, and Smiley's commitment to the dictums of art has produced reams of extraordinary prose already and promises even more in the future.

Sanford Pinsker

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