Beyond Vassar

Jane Smiley's Golden Century

By Nina Shengold

A lot can happen in a hundred years. Just ask Jane Smiley ’71. The Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist has just completed a century-spanning trilogy that follows the tangled fortunes of an Iowa farm family and its bicoastal diaspora over five generations. From Walter and Rosanna Langdon greeting their firstborn on New Year’s Day, 1920, to descendants abetting Wall Street scams and flirting with eco-terrorism, it’s a complex literary tapestry. In fact, the New Yorker called the second novel in the trilogy “a king-size American quilt.” Each chapter of the three novels—Some Luck, Early Warning, and the just-released Golden Age—covers a single year, starting just after World War I and arching into the not-so-distant future.

A master prose stylist, Smiley is known for such ambitious, hefty epics as A Thousand Acres, Horse Heaven, The Greenlanders, and The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. But spending three books and 1,200 pages with the Langdon family has created a special intimacy with her characters. As the decades roll by, the events of their lives unfold both on the home front—births, deaths, triumphs, failures—and on the world stage. It’s an immersive reading experience, moving inexorably from history to recent headlines to speculation about where we as a culture might be in a scant few years.

“I hope people will read it years from now and say, ‘Oh my God, she was so wrong,’” Smiley says. But “lots of things I feared when I was writing other books came to pass, so this time I’m erring on the side of hoping I’m wrong.”

In the trilogy, “I was interested in writing about the past, present, and future as an investigation of cause and effect. The future doesn’t have to happen the way a writer predicts it will, but there’s a system of logic that points in a certain direction. In modern America, it leads directly to climate change, corporate control of government, petroleum companies dictating how energy’s being used,” Smiley notes. “I wanted to follow the darker side, while still allowing for hope in people like [Langdon great-grandchild] Felicity, active and enlightened and young. It’s up to her and her generation to handle what’s been given to them.”

Smiley attended Vassar from 1967 to 1971, turbulent years that appear midway through Early Warning. Her freshman year was Vassar’s last as an all-women’s college. The first male transfers arrived during her sophomore year—“just a handful, 70 or so”—and by the time she graduated, the college had gone fully coed.

She remembers her Vassar years fondly. “I loved living in Josselyn, the view out the front of the building. I loved walking around the campus,” she says. “I’d gone to a private school in St. Louis where I got a good education but was not one of the popular girls; I basically sat in a corner. At Vassar, I met a whole new set of people. It was very freeing.”

Smiley remembers waiting on a sign-up line with classmates whose surnames started with “S.” “The girl behind me had the most beautiful golden hair. It looked gold-plated,” she recalls. They never crossed paths on campus, but after Smiley graduated, she spotted a photo of that girl—Meryl Streep ’71—in the New York Times.

An English major, Smiley worked for the Miscellany News as a reporter and later as managing editor. She vividly remembers pulling an all-nighter to lay out a special 12-page edition covering the 1969 takeover of Main Building by black students (Claudia Lynn Thomas ’71 wrote about this occupation in her memoir God Spare Life). After the Kent State killings, Smiley also worked on a mimeographed “strike paper” during a campus-wide protest. At the time, she wanted to move to Boston to live with her Yale-student boyfriend but couldn’t imagine how she’d commute. A classmate suggested that if she got married, her parents would give her a car. “So I called him up and proposed,” Smiley says. “He thought about it overnight, then said ‘Let’s do it.’” Smiley then called her mother (“who was enraged because of the strike”) to break the news of her engagement. “Dead silence. Then she said, ‘You’re going to need a car.’”

The young marrieds did move in together, but not in Boston. They rented a sprawling property on the Esopus Creek in Saugerties, which cemented Smiley’s love of the Hudson Valley. Though they later moved to Iowa City, where Smiley studied and taught for 24 years, they bought a summer house in Fleischmanns, NY. Smiley joined a quilting group with local elders, inspiring her book Catskill Crafts. She recalls “long, long walks up dirt roads, old graveyards, farms, pastures, beautiful sunsets. We had a Toyota Tercel, and we used it as an SUV, going up the weirdest little roads. If there was a turn off the main road, we took it.”

They sold the house after the marriage broke up. Smiley has married four times, and dedicated Some Luck to her three exes and current husband, all of whom lent expertise to the trilogy. (In Golden Age, she also thanks “the members of the U.S. Congress for being so easy to satirize.”)

She and husband Jack Canning now live with a small herd of horses and dogs in the hills above Carmel, California. (“It used to be a cowboy town, now it’s a wine town,” she quips.) She answers a question about the current drought with a wry, drawn-out, “Yessssss.” Of the many deaths that occur in the trilogy, the saddest may be the Langdons’ family farm, which goes from fertile cropland worked by draft horses to a corporate holding with a mere two inches of chemically-depleted topsoil. But if the third book depicts a downward spiral, it also celebrates human resilience; the title Golden Age is both ironic and heartfelt. Here Claire Langdon, now in her seventies, remembers the farm of her youth: “What did I love? I think all the scents. Mama’s lilac trees, and the wild iris in the fields, and the rain on the breeze on a hot day. Apple and pear blossoms. The hay just cut. The mix of odors in the barn when the sunlight was shafting through the cracks in the boards, heating everything up.”

Such everyday pleasures—along with the people we love and the finely etched moments that make up our lives—offer a rich counternarrative to Smiley’s darker political musings. Each new generation rekindles hope, the author says. “Like my kids, or my husband’s kids. They don’t come into the bedroom tearing their hair out and saying, ‘Look what you did to us!’ I wanted to get both sides of that.”

Is it hard for the author to part with the Langdons? Smiley hesitates—just for a second. “It is and it isn’t. I’m very fond of these characters, but there are others waving at me from the horizon.”