Sarah’s books have been reviewed by The New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Oprah Magazine, People, Columbia Journalism Review and many other publications. She is a frequent media commentator and has been a guest on PBS NewsHour, CNN, CNN International, Here and Now, On the Media, 1A, Katie Couric’s America Inside Out, Amanpour and Co., NPR’s Weekend Edition and many other national and international shows. A former writing professor, Sarah holds degrees in journalism and English from the University of Kansas, and a master of fine arts in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

The New Republic
Is Dolly Parton the Voice of America?

“On July 5, 1996, the world’s first cloned mammal was born in a lab at the University of Edinburgh. The lamb, carried to term by one ewe and carrying the cloned genetic code of another, represented an epoch-shifting scientific breakthrough. The scientists named her Dolly. She had been cloned using DNA harvested from a mammary cell, and, as the embryologist Sir Ian Wilmut put it when the news was announced, ‘we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s.’” Read more…

Is Dolly Parton the Voice of America?

Sarah Smarsh Celebrates Dolly Parton

“If there’s one thing that America can seem to agree on in these divided times, it’s that just about all of us love Dolly Parton. In her new book, She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, Sarah Smarsh looks at how Parton’s life and music have spoken to working-class women for decades.” Read more…

Sarah Smarsh Celebrates Dolly Parton

The Ringer
Dolly Parton Is Universally Beloved. But Did She Ever Need the Validation?

“You don’t have to look like this,” says Barbara Walters to Dolly Parton in 1977, having just asked Parton to stand up and vamp a bit to better show off, well, you know. Walters air-traces a cartoonish female figure with her hands and everything, like a horny teenage boy, and yet she sounds almost pained, phrasing her underlying question to the bubbly country superstar like a plea, like an intervention. “You’re very beautiful. You don’t have to wear the blonde wigs. You don’t have to wear the extreme clothes. Right?” Read more…

Our 65 Favorite Books of the Year

Don’t let Sarah Smarsh’s virtuosic storytelling distract you from her incisive social criticism: her 2018 memoir Heartland is—and here I struggle for superlatives—an eerily timely masterpiece (I swear I’m not trying to become jacket copy). In telling her own life story—along with the stories of the women around her—Smarsh builds toward a broader critique of America’s distorted ideas about class, rural life, education, and the politics and policies that create and sustain them. Read more…

Smoky Mountain Megaphone: Sarah Smarsh’s book She Come By It Natural explores the complexities of the Dolly Parton brand of feminism

In my family, country music was foremost a language among women,” writes Sarah Smarsh in She Come By It Natural, her new book on the lyrics and legacy of Dolly Parton. “The two women who raised me, my mom and grandma, cared a great deal about music that validated the stories of our lives.” That music included, at the top of the tape stack, Dolly’s. Read more…

New York Times
Dolly Parton and the Women Who Love Her

Dolly Parton’s no stranger to attention, and she’s been in the news a lot lately. She recently released a holiday special on Netflix. She has a new book out. She … [checks notes] … might have helped us move closer to the end of the coronavirus pandemic. Parton’s everywhere, and I don’t hear many people complaining about it. Read more…

Sarah Smarsh

Chicago Tribune
Column: Dolly Parton is the closest thing we have to a universally beloved icon. And that was before she helped fund Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Through wars and social movements and a wild ride of presidential administrations, Dolly Parton has remained one of the closest things we have to a universally beloved national figure. And that was before she helped fund a coronavirus vaccine. The Moderna vaccine, which the company said Monday appears to be 94.5% effective, was funded in part by $1 million that Parton pledged to Nashville’s Vanderbilt University in April. Read more…


Growing up, Sarah Smarsh was surrounded by the type of women Dolly Parton so often sings about: impoverished women in rural America who use both their smarts and sexuality to get by as best they can—often despite the men who would hold them back. Read more…

LA Times
Review: How Dolly Parton became an unsung icon of the feminist working class

Sarah Smarsh grew up in Kansas, and in her 2018 memoir, “Heartland,” she gave voice to the working-class and poor community in which she had come of age. It was a sharp rebuke to a cadre of journalists and pundits who had pushed a popular media narrative during the 2016 presidential election: that “working-class” voters had turned to Trump out of “economic anxiety.” The story soon resembled a perpetual motion machine as college-educated reporters undertook expeditions into heartland diners in search of those who fit the preconceived narrative — a practice that continues to this day. Read more…

New Yorker
The United States of Dolly Parton

A voice for working-class women and an icon for all kinds of women, Parton has maintained her star power throughout life phases and political cycles. Read more…

The Bello Collective
100 Outstanding Podcasts

The Homecomers, “Mental and Spiritual Well-Being in Agricultural Spaces” / It’s one of the only things that is absolutely necessary to keep us alive, but the food system is literally killing the people who are the backbone of it all. Read more…

Dolly Parton’s America Examines the Woman Behind the Icon

Among the many moments that stand out is the question of whether Dolly is a feminist. The podcast makes its stance clear. “She was like the O.G. third-wave feminist,” says author Sarah Smarsh, who explains that during a time when many women with Parton’s business ambitions were being encouraged to downplay their “femininity,” she was putting hers on full display instead. Read more…

America Are We Ready?

With just under a year until Americans elect their next president, let’s discuss what’s working and what’s broken; what’s threatened and what’s missing in American democracy? America Are We Ready? A November Democracy Big Think. A three-hour call-in special hosted by Brian Lehrer. Read more…

How ‘Heartland’ author Sarah Smarsh became a hero in rural America

It has been a year since the publication of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” (Scribner) by Sarah Smarsh, a Kansas native who detailed a childhood spent in poverty as the daughter of a teen mother. Smarsh eventually climbed out of that situation to become a journalist and college professor. The book made the New York Times bestseller list and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize. It has also made her a powerful spokesperson for Kansas, where she lives, and for rural America in general. Read more…

Author Sarah Smarsh

chicago tribune logo
Authors Rebecca Makkai, Sarah Smarsh accept 2019 Heartland Prizes

The Chicago Tribune awarded its 2019 Heartland Prize on Sunday to Chicago-area native Rebecca Makkai for her novel “The Great Believers” and Kansas journalist Sarah Smarsh for her book “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” The authors appeared at sold-out events presented in partnership with the Chicago Humanities Festival at Northwestern University’s Galvin Recital Hall, in Evanston. Read more…

Sarah Smarsh the winner of the Chicago Tribune’s 2019 Heartland Prize for Nonfiction (left) and Rebecca Makkai the winner of the Chicago Tribune’s 2019 Heartland Prize for Fiction. (Youngrae King/Chicago Tribune)

The Inconvenient Truth: Fixing Climate Requires Major Economic Change, Naomi Klein Says

Climate change denial is not driven by rogue scientists who disagree with their peers — author Naomi Klein says — but rather free-market capitalists who want to protect the economic status quo. Klein has an inconvenient truth for climate deniers who oppose the economic changes that scientists and activists say are necessary to reduce the risk of environmental catastrophe: A government takeover of business is necessary to combat climate change. Read more…

Democrats Should Look Beyond Rural Voter Stereotypes, Author Sarah Smarsh Says

Coasting along the rolling plains leading up to the Iowa caucus, Democratic candidates know they must answer to flyover state voters. However, not all candidates agree on an approach. Some White House hopefuls double-down on rural outreach by knocking on doors and stopping by the Iowa Steak Fry. Read more…

Reversing The ‘Brain Drain’ In Rural America

Rural America has never been only one place, one type of person or one type of job. And new data points to the growing complexity and diversity of those parts of the country. Author and podcast host Sarah Smarsh wrote in The New York Times recently about so-called “brain gain” instead of “brain drain.” Read more…

Sad Ass Songs

We begin with a simple question: How did the queen of the boob joke become a feminist icon? Helen Morales, author of “Pilgrimage to Dollywood,” gave us a stern directive – look at the lyrics! So we dive into Dolly’s discography, starting with the early period of what Dolly calls “sad ass songs” to find remarkably prescient words of female pain, slut-shaming, domestic violence, and women being locked away in asylums by cheating husbands. We explore how Dolly took the centuries-old tradition of the Appalachian “murder ballad”—an oral tradition of men singing songs about brutally killing women—and flipped the script, singing from the woman’s point of view. And as her career progresses, the songs expand beyond the pain to tell tales of leaving abuse behind. Read more…

In Letters to the World, a New Wave of Memoirs Draws on the Intimate

The memoir, as we know it, was born out of an act of petty larceny. Late one night in the fourth century, a teenager plucked pears off a neighbor’s tree. He didn’t especially want them; he tasted a few and tossed the rest to the hogs. He stole them for the sake of stealing them. “It was foul, and I loved it,” he later wrote. “I loved my own undoing.” Read more…

Reporting On The Real Rural America: How Much Are Rural Areas Depopulating?

Journalist Sarah Smarsh says “the trouble begins with language.” Here’s what she means.  “Elite pundits regularly misuse “working class” as shorthand for right-wing white guys wearing tool belts. My father, a white man and lifelong construction worker who labors alongside immigrants and people of color on job sites across the Midwest and South working for a Kansas-based general contractor owned by a woman, would never make such an error.” That’s from an opinion piece she wrote in The New York Times about the divide between urban and rural communities. Read more…

Should 2020 Democrats Appeal to Moderates or Progressives?

JULY 2019
As the Democratic candidates face off again for their second debate, some moderate Democrats have been calling for Democratic candidates to appeal to the center as a way to win the general election, and for outspoken progressive lawmakers to tone down their rhetoric. Should Democratic candidates try to appeal to moderates, and potential swing voters, or to their base? Read more…

Oprah Magazine
Heartland Author Sarah Smarsh Explains Why Kansas’s Blue Wave Isn’t Surprising

New York Times bestselling author Sarah Smarsh has emerged as a leading voice in the discussion of oft-misunderstood rural voters, particularly those from the Midwest. Her celebrated 2014 essay, “Poor Teeth,” details the realities of poverty and lack of affordable access to dental care in America. And her 2018 memoir, Heartland, is a lyrical chronicle of the struggles of Kansas’s working-class. In it, she probes “what it means to be a poor child in a rich country founded on the promise of equality.” Already, Smarsh’s book has been shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in nonfiction. Read more…

Heartland Author Sarah Smarsh Explains Why Kansas's Blue Wave Isn't Surprising

The Pitfall of Painting ‘Trump Country’ with a Broad Brush

JULY 2018
It’s been almost two years since the election when the media’s fixation on the “white working class” began. But what are we still getting wrong about this group of people? In an op-ed for The New York Times, Sarah Smarsh argues that the portrayal of working white Americans behooves narratives around white supremacy and fails to see pockets of diversity and resistance. Read more…

The Self-Made Billionaire is a Myth

JULY 2018
In the past few months Twitter has been abuzz with debates over what does and doesn’t constitute being “self-made.” Can you really call Jeff Bezos “self-made” when his parents gave him $300,000 to start Amazon? And how could Kylie Jenner, who grew up on a reality-TV show, in a wealthy family, possibly be considered self-made just because she thought it might be cool to have a line of lip-plumping glosses? Her sister claims that she and her siblings are all “self-made,” in fact, because they’ve never depended on their parents financially. It’s hard to believe that baby Kim was paying for her own diapers, but I digress. Read more…

The great remove: How journalism got so out of touch with the people it covers

JUNE 2018
To become a journalist, Rajaa Elidrissi knew she would need a strategy. Growing up in a low-income household in Elmhurst, Queens, she started collecting clips at age 13. “I went to a high school that was not a high-ranking high school, and I was pretty aware that it was really hard to get into a good college,” she explains. After graduating in 2016 with an anthropology degree from Wesleyan University, she knew she needed to be practical—she couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship; she had to start working—and looked for where the jobs were. That year, the jobs were in video. Currently a producer for CNBC, Elidrissi is on a secure track, for now at least. But if the industry should pivot away from video any time soon, she’s ready. “I see a lot of jobs for social media editors,” she says, so she’s started studying content analytics tools. She knows she has to stay smart and keep moving if she wants to continue as a journalist. Read more…

“Out of Many, One.” But Do We Have One American Identity?

MAY 2018
American identity is shifting: from what we look like, to where we worship, to who we love. And so it’s not surprising that for many Americans, those changes create a sense of anxiety. Some feel they are being left behind by a country they thought they knew. Others are excited to chart a new course, to take part in that dream that so many Americans aspire to. Read more…

Can ‘Localism’ Restore Sanity to U.S. Politics?

APRIL 2018
I live in one of those old towns that was not built for cars. Its Main Street is narrow, hedged in with historic stone houses and walls. As commuter traffic has intensified over the past several years, it’s become increasingly dangerous to walk along Main Street. The mayor of my tiny Virginia town has worked incessantly to fix this, by fostering walkability and traffic-calming measures since he ran for town council in the 1990s. I’m determined to help him: I want to walk with my daughter to the playground or the farmer’s market without fearing for her safety. Read more…

A Year in Reading: Sarah Smarsh

Inauguration Day was, in the eyes of most people I know, a horrifying day. The poison of hate had taken control of our political system, and it touched us whether we voted for it or not. Thus, the year that followed was for many—even those who sprang into civic action on the right side of history—lived in a state of foul bitterness. In precise tandem with that political trauma, I happened to receive a shock to my physical system. Hours after the inauguration ceremony, which I had refused watch, I was in an emergency room with a rare, painful infection that progressed far enough to initiate liver failure. I fully recovered from that weeks-long illness, but it set the tone for the resistance I would undertake for the rest of the year. My scary hospitalization was a reminder, for me, that living to fight—to write—another day is reason to not just resist but to be glad. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2017: Local Reporting

While the spotlight falls on sexual-misconduct allegations in the nation’s centers of power — Washington, New York, Hollywood — reporters across the country localized the revolutionary #MeToo moment on their own turf, including often overlooked and unglamorous places like my home state of Kansas. When I opened my morning newspaper to this lengthy feature on alleged sexual misconduct at the Kansas State Capitol, I was struck by the tenacity of the reporting in a digital-media era rife with emotional, partisan opinion pieces. Kansas City Star reporters Hunter Woodall, Kelsey Ryan, and Bryan Lowry spared neither side of the aisle as they hounded male legislators and gave voice to women who were previously silenced. Read more…

#MeToo in Middle America

The latest sexual harassment revelations have been called a “sea change”. But a sea change for whom? As reporters investigate America’s upper echelons, journalist Sarah Smarsh argues we’re not talking enough about those who are most vulnerable to sexual harassment: the working poor. The abuse of female Marines, fast food and domestic workers, and women without a safety net is well-documented but garners less attention. Brooke talks with Smarsh about how the #metoo movement is manifesting in her native Kansas and how local journalists are investigating sexual misconduct in their backyard. Read more…

Sarah Smarsh: Reporting on Rural America and Class

APRIL 2017
“I’m a fifth-generation Kansas farm girl, and some of my family was in Wichita working on factory assembly lines, so I am a native of the so-called white working class…I made my way into this realm of discourse and the professional class, where I have always been aware of myself as a sort of economic ‘other’…Classism can be invisible to the economically privileged in a way that is not unlike how racism can be invisible to a white person, in a country that is whiteness and wealth privileged.” Read more…

After The Election

After a surprising and emotional election night, how are Kansas Citians feeling today? A look at how the election results fit into their personal stories. Read more…

The Truth About Trump Supporters

In explaining the success of Donald Trump, the media tend to point the finger at the supposedly disgruntled, uneducated, and nationalistic white working class. However, recent polls and analyses show that Trump supporters are more affluent and educated than the coverage would suggest. And the white working class is nowhere near as monolithic as it’s made out to be. Brooke talks to Sarah Smarsh, reporter and author of the upcoming book In the Red, about her work and her upbringing in rural Kansas — and how they both inform her view that Trump’s popularity has been too conveniently pinned on the white working class, which is far more complex and politically diverse than the media would make it seem. Read more…

American Wreckage

Thomas Paine, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Hobbes all agreed: A house divided against itself cannot stand. In this election season, the massive fault lines of gender, race, and class—snaking deep underneath the foundation of American democracy—have been revealed for all to see. In many ways, Campaign 2016 has been one long series of seismic quakes, laying wreckage to any semblance of a shared national identity. And the Big One, Trump has teased/threatened, is possibly still to come — a contested election that spills out into the streets. Read more…

Poor Teeth, Teaching The Art Of Listening, & Art Before Breakfast

While the U.S. leads the world in dental innovation, many Americans are unable to afford basic dental care, and as a result, suffer from health and psychological consequences. On today’s show: the high price of poor teeth. Then, stretching your artistic muscles has been shown to reduce stress and increase positive thinking, but for many people, being more creative sounds like an arduous task. We’ll talk to an artist who makes a bold case for dropping the excuses, and picking up the sketchpad. Read more…

‘Poor Teeth’ Writer Sarah Smarsh on Class and Journalism

Class is really at the heart of your work. How has your perspective been shaped by your own experiences? I’m native to the working class, which over the course of my Reagan-era childhood became the working poor. I’m from a long line of farmers, carpenters, factory and restaurant workers, and I’m the first person from my family to go to college—the first among the ones who raised me to finish high school, actually. So I have a built-in awareness of unchecked privilege or unasked questions and unheard voices, as relates to the economy, in any piece of writing. Read more…