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The Adventures of Jane Smiley
In her latest novel, Jane Smiley lights out for the territories in search of slavery and the American anti-romance

May 28, 1998

smileybk picture In a controversial Harper's essay titled "Say It Ain't So, Huck" (January 1996), Jane Smiley argued, in part, that "to invest The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with 'greatness' is to underwrite a very simplistic and evasive theory of what racism is." With the recent release of Smiley's latest novel, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, it now seems clear that when Smiley wrote that article she was working through her own ideas of how one should treat race in fiction. A picaresque novel set in "Bloody Kansas" in the 1850s, when the territory was torn by violence over whether it should be admitted to the Union as a free state, Lidie Newton follows the escapades of its tomboy narrator as she experiences the extremes of opinion -- and the moral grey areas -- surrounding slavery.
Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

Speaking of Race (May 1998)
Patricia Williams, the author of Seeing a Color-Blind Future, suggests that when it comes to the trauma of racism Americans have not yet learned how to speak.

In the Very Middle of Things (April 1998)
In his new book, Calamities of Exile, Lawrence Weschler's explorations lead him to some very strange -- and familiar -- places.

The Next Left (April 1998)
Richard Rorty, the eminent philosopher and author of Achieving Our Country, argues that the American Left, if it is to recapture its relevance, must take pride in its past.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Lidie Newton is more than Smiley's response to Huck Finn. News of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 led Smiley to focus her book on the slavery debate in Kansas Territory -- another time and place in American history where violence and ideology came together. Furthermore, Lidie Newton is the last installment of Smiley's decade-long project to write each one of the four major narrative forms: epic (The Greenlanders, 1988); tragedy (the Pulitzer-Prize winning A Thousand Acres, 1991, a retelling of King Lear on an Iowa farm); comedy (Moo, 1995, an academic satire); and now (unconventional) romance. Though Smiley's novels vary widely in style and subject, they share a great attention to detail -- whether describing the most up-to-date farming methods in Iowa in the 1970s, or revealing through gradual layerings of dialogue how a character's view of slavery evolves.

The author of ten books of fiction, and of many nonfiction essays for U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, and other publications, Smiley taught for fifteen years at Iowa State University, leaving in 1996 to live and write full-time in northern California. A passionate horseback rider, her next book will be set in the sometimes-seedy world of horse racing. Smiley spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

What draws you to concentrate on such disparate subjects and styles? Is there anything that you feel connects your work?

Yes. It's like that giant fungus in Michigan -- there's a lot more connecting it underground than on the surface. My concerns have kind of remained the same over the years. I'm interested in how people relate to the groups that they're in (whether those groups are families or communities), in how power is negotiated among people, in character idiosyncrasies, and in the relationship of power to love. I'm always interested in the concerns of the natural world -- in capitalism and how it fails, mostly, but also in how it sometimes succeeds. I'm always interested in broader historical forces. Most of my books are in some sense historical novels, because they all draw on an analysis of what happened at a particular historical moment.

I tend to get into things, kind of obsessed with them. I've stuck with my interests in my children, in my writing, and in horses, but other than that I get involved in new things, and I want to write about them. I'm more of an outward-looking writer than an inward-looking writer, and I'm drawn to lots of different kinds of subjects.

In a review of Cloudsplitter, a new novel by Russell Banks about the abolitionist John Brown, James M. McPherson confesses "annoyance at the numerous minor historical errors" that could have been fixed without affecting the plot. What is the responsibility of a novelist writing historical fiction? How important is it to get the background details right?

"It was true as they said that I was useless, that I had perversely cultivated uselessness over the years and had reached, as I then thought, a pitch of uselessness that was truly rare, or even unique, among the women of Quincy, Illinois. "
--Jane Smiley, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Read an excerpt.

Short stories by Jane Smiley that have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly:

The Blinding Light of the Mind (December 1983)

Lily (July 1984)

Long Distance (January 1987)

smilepic picture
Jane Smiley

I think it's absolutely important -- and not just for the sake of getting them right. The background details of any situation tell you a lot about the nature of the situation. It seems to me that changing the details around is a symptom of not understanding the situation. So you need to honor the details absolutely, and keep investigating the particular details that seem anomalous or that you don't care for, or that don't fit into your conception, because that's a symptom that your conception is wrong. Now, I don't know if all the details in The Greenlanders and LidieNewton and A Thousand Acres are absolutely right, but I always made a serious attempt.

When I was writing The Greenlanders, for example, there wasn't a lot of information available about medieval Greenland. But there was some information from an archeologist whom I had known in an earlier phase of my life, who had since become a Greenland archeologist. He probably had the most voluminous knowledge of life in Greenland during medieval times. I spent a lot of time while writing The Greenlanders trying to extrapolate what was likely to have been true from what we knew about Greenland and also from more extensive details about earlier periods of Nordic history. So I ended up making up a lot of stuff, taking educated guesses. I then sent the manuscript back to the archeologist for him to read for plausibility and factual error, and he wrote back and said now he could understand what medieval Greenland had been like. If you work really hard to get your facts straight then you're much better off, because you understand the structure better. If you understand the structure then you can extrapolate with pretty fair accuracy.

For Lidie Newton there was plenty of source material, so I went about it the way you would go about any dissertation -- a mix of primary source material and interpretation, far-afield secondary-source material and analysis, and then I also drove around and looked at the landscape, looked at pictures.

Your critique of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn seems to suggest that literature should be more overtly, explicitly moral than it has been. Is that accurate?

My problem with Huckleberry Finn was an aesthetic one rather than a moral one. There is an aesthetic and structural flaw in the novel: its emotional content contradicts its structural content. The artistic dilemma for Twain was that he had Huck, who was developing an affection for Jim, heading on a raft down the Mississippi river, and when they got past Caro, Illinois, this became extraordinarily dangerous for Jim. Twain couldn't write outside of his own territory, so Huck and Jim couldn't head up the Ohio river, and yet he knew perfectly well that for them to head farther and farther south was a natural betrayal of Jim by Huck. Twain set that novel aside exactly at that point for three years -- and when he came back to the novel he shifted the focus away from Jim and Huck and onto the more comic characters, like the Duke and the Dauphin and Tom Sawyer.

When I saw that Twain had set aside the novel for three years, I, as a novelist, knew in my bones that he had done so because he knew he was in trouble. There's a time in writing a novel when you're going along great and you think, This is terrific, everything's fine. Then you reread it and you think, Oh boy, I don't know what I'm doing or where I'm going here. Then you have to set it aside, return to it later, and try something else.

In your article you expressed the wish that American literature had grown out of Uncle Tom's Cabin rather than Huck Finn. Were you surprised by the response you got?

When I said that I wished American literature had grown out of Uncle Tom's Cabin, not Huck Finn, I did not mean American literature as "literature." I meant American literature in its role as discourse on the American dilemma of slavery. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a book that discusses that dilemma frankly and openly. And if our tradition of discussing slavery had been frank and open rather than defensive and secretive, it's conceivable that we might have resolved the dilemma by now. People seem to remember my saying that Huck Finn is a lesser novel than Uncle Tom's Cabin, and that Uncle Tom's Cabin should be taken as the greatest American novel. I didn't say that. I just said that I didn't think Huck Finn was the greatest novel ever written and that Uncle Tom's Cabin was better than its reputation. That article was kind of a de gustibus non est disputandam article -- I like one book, I don't like the other, so what? But the fury the article aroused amazed me. You would not believe the hateful things people wrote to me in their letters to Harper's. Everything about me was impugned, from my novelistic talents to my sense of humor to my sense of taste to my sanity. One person suggested that maybe I was thinking in such wrongheaded ways because I was taking too many drugs for my broken leg. That kind of annoyed me. My right to prefer one book over the other was denied by a lot of readers. The only way that I can understand that is to understand Huck's freedom as a kind of icon of American boyhood -- one's right to live on the river and be unwashed and charming was being denied by some woman.

I always thought that Twain would have been more sympathetic to my analysis of Huck Finn than the people who attacked me on his behalf. He knew the novel was flawed -- and he, too, waged his own campaigns against books that he thought were overrated.

Is Lidie Newton a response to Huck Finn, and an explication of your Harper's essay?

That essay has come up with regard to my book, and the fact that it has come up has shown me something about Lidie: Twain is her dad and Harriet Beecher Stowe is her mom. Lidie is an attempt to address a very strongly bifurcated nineteenth-century way of looking at things. In that century, men and women lived very much apart. They each had their own spaces, and they were only permitted to be together in public spaces in a very ritualized way. This was true both theoretically and practically. This bifurcation expresses itself also in people's sense of nineteenth-century literature: there were the boys, like Melville, Twain, and Hawthorne, who were writing a certain type of literary thing, and then there were the girls, popular novelists, who were writing a certain kind of non-literary thing. Hawthorne, especially, expressed resentment of the "scribbling women."

Lidie was also an attempt to reconcile a more personal divide. My grandmother's family were very strong abolitionists, and previous generations of my grandfather's family lived in Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri, and owned slaves. In my generation the men in the family tend to be very conservative and the women tend to be very liberal. So for me to write about these issues, set the book in Missouri, and have Lidie engage with both abolitionists and slaveholders was kind of a reconciliation in my own mind between the two halves of my background. When Lidie goes into Missouri and meets Papa and Helen Day [slaveowners who save her when she's sick], she sees that there's both a human side and a point of view about slavery other than her own. She may not accept it, but she recognizes that it exists. And then when she talks with Lorna, the slave woman owned by the Days whom she tries to bring to freedom, she realizes that this is a question with three sides not two. There's the question of what we, the abolitionists, want to do with them, the question of what we, the southerners, want to do with them, and then there's the question of what we, black people, want to do. And that last question is the one that trumps all questions. Lidie can't understand that theoretically without essentially walking through each question.

I was raised by my grandmother, whose attitude toward slavery was one of astonishment, of How could this possibly have ever happened? What an egregious, stupid thing to have happened. And I suppose that her attitude has kind of infected mine.

Yet you do show how it could have happened in Lidie, by having her sink into the luxury of Day's End Plantation.

That's an interesting thing that I learned from Catherine Beecher, whose "Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home" I quote at the beginning of every chapter. Domestic life in the nineteenth century was a nightmare for women. You had to produce your own working class -- children out of your own body. So you were pregnant most of the time, which always meant the threat of death. You had to be extremely healthy, extremely well-organized, and pretty well-off in order to have a happy or even survivable domestic life. For someone coming from Lidie's background, the little bit of leisure that slaves afforded was a temptation. From our point of view we can look back on that pretty sympathetically. Who would want to live like the average woman in the nineteenth century? Not me. Americans found another way to solve the labor problem: technology. But that really didn't take hold until after the Civil War, so the lives that most women lived are unimaginable to us.

In your Harper's essay you wrote that with the "secretive voice of Huck Finn ... racism fell out of the public world and into the private one." To what extent is Lidie Newton an effort to bring racism back into the realm of public discourse?

There are tons of works right now that qualify as white meditations upon slavery. I've wondered why, at this point, we need any of that. Mine didn't begin as a meditation on slavery; it began as a meditation on violence. But because I picked a certain place and time it had to contain a meditation on slavery. Anytime -- and this is straight out of Toni Morrison's lectures at Harvard in 1990 -- anytime an American ponders his whiteness, he has to necessarily ponder blackness also. To avoid or to think that you don't have to do that is an evasion of your responsibility as a white person. So I think one thing that's happened is that certain writers of my generation, having pondered civil rights, Vietnam, nuclear war, ecological disaster, and all other kinds of ideological questions, now have come around to pondering slavery again, in an effort maybe to understand it, to resolve it, to let it go. The thing that we learned about pondering these big issues is that we could understand them, and once we understood them we could address them in certain practical ways. The dilemma of black-white relations in America is the most intransigent question of American history. It's a question that we have had to come back to over and over again. In the past generation our black writers, thinkers, and theorists have taken the lead in dictating the terms of the discussion, and I think one of the things that is happening now is that white writers of my generation have decided, under those terms, to take up the discussion again. Those essays by Toni Morrison were really central to my thinking about racism, so she's a big influence on Lidie.

In A Thousand Acres the story is told from one of the daughters' points of view, and the King Lear character is much less sympathetic than as drawn by Shakespeare, which in a way makes his downfall less tragic. Why did you choose to shift the balance in this way?

In King Lear there's a little scene where Goneril and Regan are talking about the number of knights that Lear should be allowed to have around the castle. They sound like women that I know. They're talking about a serious problem of disorder in the household. They say to one another, Why does he need a hundred? Why does he need fifty? Why does he need one? We could take care of all his needs. When I was in graduate school this exchange was interpreted as the cruelest kind of insensitivity and selfishness on their part, but I read it as a perfectly valid concern. These knights are rioting, they're ripping up the castle, and what the interpretations I saw of that said to me was that feminine and domestic concerns were to be given absolutely no honor compared to patriarchal concerns. Feminine concerns are always considered, or have for many generations been considered, to be everything from boring to stupid. So that was what started me wondering, What's going on with these women? Are they really evil, wicked vipers or are they just women whom the play is casting as evil, wicked vipers? It's really clear that the women are very angry about something. If you go back to the first scene -- and this is not from me, it's something I realized when I saw Ran, Kurosawa's movie of King Lear -- who they are is who Lear has made them. He likes to pretend that they are astoundingly evil, and that that comes from some kind of bestial and feminist source in them that has nothing to do with him. But as the oldest son in Ran said, "Father, who we are, you made us." So that was kind of how I got going on that.

So the incest in A Thousand Acres could have happened in King Lear?

Sure. There are interesting little threads of interpretation of King Lear, especially from the folklore critics who were out and about in the 1970s. They said that the folklorists categorized all the fairy tales into groups. And they stuck the early King Lear stories into an incest group. For me the undercurrent is that Lear doesn't seem to know what love is or what boundaries are, and he's very narcissistic from beginning to end. I'm not saying that Shakespeare ever thought of Lear as an incest perpetrator. I am saying that some people think there's a kind of coded reference to incest in this group of folkloric stories, and that therefore you could plausibly attribute the older sisters' deep, deep anger to abuse that they had undergone.

My new interpretation of King Lear is slightly different. It's oriented toward a more philosophical problem. When Lear comes on in the first act he defines love as an exchange, a quid pro quo. And he can never break out of that definition, no matter what happens to him. And that's why there can only be a tragic outcome. Even at the very end he never defines love as what he could give to Cordelia. He only defines it as what she could give to him that he's now lost. So his definition of love creates what you might call a commodified emotional universe that can only end in death and tragedy, because there's no way for anything else to get in there. It's a closed system. You could say that the characters of King Lear are dying for a miracle to happen, but they're blind to the possibility.

What was it like for you to see A Thousand Acres turned into a movie?

It was fun. A Thousand Acres was my production of King Lear. The movie was their production of King Lear. I didn't feel implicated, nor did I feel cheated -- I didn't feel anything, basically. It reminded me that I'm glad to be a novelist, that I would never be a moviemaker. But I thought that they made a real effort to do a good job, and I honored that effort.

You have recently resigned from your teaching position and now live full time in California. Do you expect this change to affect your writing?

No, my writing just goes on. It wasn't affected by children, it wasn't affected by marriage, it wasn't affected by teaching, it wasn't affected by quitting teaching. It's never been affected by anything.

You published some short stories in The Atlantic in the 1980s. Are you still writing short fiction?

No, I'm just writing novels. That's not a conscious decision. Maybe it just shows I've become a megalomaniac. I love writing novels. It's totally relaxing for me.

Read an excerpt from the first chapter of The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.

Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Smiley photograph © Robert Blakeman.