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Smiley, Jane

Published onOct 14, 2021
Smiley, Jane

(September 26, 1949 - )

Quick Facts

Smiley’s contribution to American fiction was established by the work she conceived at Iowa State and published between 1987 and 1998.


Jane Smiley was born in Los Angeles, grew up in suburban Saint Louis, Missouri, and earned MFA (1976) and PhD (1978) degrees at the University of Iowa (Iowa City). From 1981 to 1996 she served on the faculty of the English Department at Iowa State University, where she wrote fiction and taught courses from first-year writing and introductory literature to advanced literature and creative writing. She rose rapidly through the faculty ranks and was named a Distinguished Professor in 1993. At Iowa State Smiley emerged as an accomplished and widely read novelist and a trenchant and wide-ranging observer of American experience. Her intellectual curiosity and perceptive analysis of private lives, social institutions, and the web-like connections that impact and define human behavior were expressed in a range of characters, settings, and fictional genres—short stories, novellas of domestic life, and full-length epic, tragic, comic, and romantic narratives.

Smiley’s tenure in Ames was marked by a constantly widening recognition of her work, beginning with major reviews of her short fiction in The Age of Grief (1987) and her dark saga of a fourteenth-century Norse colony, The Greenlanders (1988). Both Iowa State and the State of Iowa began to take pride in having a home grown talent on the national literary stage, and it can be argued that the essence and range of Smiley’s contribution to American fiction were established by the work she conceived at Iowa State and published between 1987 and 1998. The Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres (1991) emerged from Smiley’s reading and teaching of King Lear and her thoughtful observation of Iowa’s landscape and ecology—and the tragic family story is set on a twentieth century Iowa farm. Moo (1995) is a comedic critique set on an Iowa State-like land-grant college campus, and its its rendering of the diversity, perplexities, and humor of an academic institution could not have been rendered by a Smiley who had not served on the Iowa State faculty for many years, including a term on the Faculty Senate. And though The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998) takes its protagonist to Missouri and Kansas, its mid-nineteenth century history was largely researched at Iowa State.

Alongside her fiction Smiley published several books of nonfiction on topics as various as thoroughbred horse racing, the development of the novel, and Icelandic literature and culture. A lifelong equestrian, Smiley also wrote “The Horses of Oak Valley Ranch” (2010-14), a series of young adult novels involving girls and their horses. Finally, her output includes scores of essays, articles, book prefaces, introductions, forewords, reviews, and cultural commentaries, covering topics from Shakespeare and Dickens to motherhood and marriage, politics and economics, social issues and popular culture. The Man Who Invented the Computer (2010) is her biography of John Vincent Atanasoff, the co-inventor, at Iowa State, of the electronic digital computer.

Smiley left her teaching position in Ames in 1996 to write full-time in California, but her experiences in the academy, her grounding in the Midwest, and her deep interest in the politics, economics, and agrarian culture of the State of Iowa remained points of reference throughout her career. Her California-written Last Hundred Years Trilogy (2014-15), the decade-by-decade story of an Iowa farm family across the twentieth century, marks an emphatic fictional return to inspirational roots and cultural foundations recognizable to any reader familiar with Iowa State and Smiley’s work.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, A Thousand Acres won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Smiley was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001 and recognized in 2006 with the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award. Her work has been translated into over a dozen languages, including Icelandic, Hebrew, and Korean.


  • Barn Blind. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

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

  • Duplicate Keys. New York: Knopf, 1984.

  • The Age of Grief. New York: Knopf, 1987.

  • The Greenlanders. New York: Knopf, 1988.

  • Ordinary Love and Good Will. New York: Knopf, 1989.

  • A Thousand Acres. Knopf, 1991.

  • Moo. Knopf, 1995.

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

  • Horse Heaven. New York: Knopf, 2000.

  • Good Faith. New York: Knopf, 2003.

  • Ten Days in the Hills. New York: Knopf, 2007.

  • Private Life. New York, Knopf, 2010.

  • Some Luck. New York, Knopf, 2014.

  • Early Warning. New York, Knopf, 2015.

  • Golden Age. New York, Knopf, 2015.

  • Perestroika in Paris, 2020

    Major Nonfiction

  • Catskill Crafts (1988)

  • Charles Dickens (2003)

  • A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (2004)

  • Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005)

  • The Man Who Invented the Computer (2010)

Selected Representative Essays

  • “Can Mothers Think?” The True Subject: Writers on Life and Craft, ed. Kurt Brown, 3–

  • 15. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1993.

  • “Say It Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain’s ‘Masterpiece,’” Harper’s 292 (Jan. 1996): 61–67.

  • “Shakespeare in Iceland.” Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women’sRe- Visions in Literature and Performance, ed. Marianne Novy, 159-79. New

  • York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

  • “Why Marriage?” Harper’s 300 (June 2000), 151-59.

Young Adult and Juvenile Fiction

  • The Georges and the Jewels (2009)

  • A Good Horse (2010)

  • True Blue (2011)

  • Pie in the Sky (2012)

  • Gee Whiz (2013)

  • Riding Lessons (2018)

  • Saddles and Secrets (2019)

  • Taking the Reins (2020)

Selected Sources

Conroy, Thom. “Jane Smiley.” American Short-Story Writers Since World War I: Third Series, ed. Patrick Meanor and Richard E. Lee, 272-78. Detroit: Gale, 2001.

Birnbaum, Robert. “Jane Smiley: Pulitzer Prize Winner, Author of Good Faith Talks with Robert Birnbaum.” Identity Theory, 18 June 2003


Nakadate, Neil. Understanding Jane Smiley, rev. ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

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