Ten Famed Literary Figures Based on Real-Life People | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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(Jacqueline Moen)

Ten Famed Literary Figures Based on Real-Life People

Who were the sources for characters such as Robinson Crusoe or Dorian Gray?

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Writers are often told to write what they know, so it should come as no surprise that many of the most famous characters in literary history are based on real people. Whether drawing inspiration from their spouses, friends and family, or finally, after decades worth of work, inserting themselves into the text, authors pull nearly every word and sentence from some element of reality, and most often, that element is people. Many characters, like Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (based on real-life beatnik Neal Cassady), come to mind as obvious, but this list is for the real-life literary characters that do not get recognized enough, and who deserve as much credit as their fictional counterparts.

1. Prospero (The Tempest, 1611)/William Shakespeare

Considered Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest is the artist’s farewell to the theater. Prospero is the island’s great magician, and with his powers he controls the tortoise-like character of Caliban and the sprite, spry Ariel. Prospero’s magic is in his books, and he decides when the Tempest should arrive, and who should come along with it. Sounds an awful lot like a playwright, doesn’t it? Prospero writes the script and wonders, like Shakespeare understandably would, what the future will be without him and his power. With frequent allusions to “the Globe” (the world, but also the name of Shakespeare’s theater), it is difficult to miss Prospero’s likeness to his great creator. Shakespeare critic and scholar Stephen Greenblatt says that the play brings up all of the “issues that haunted Shakespeare’s imagination throughout his career.” By writing himself into his final play, Shakespeare reminded the world of his own immortality as a public literary figure.

2. Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719)/Alexander Selkirk

The real Robinson Crusoe, whose memoir Daniel Defoe adapted for his own novel, was the original “bad seed” of the modern nuclear family. After his brother forced him to drink seawater, Selkirk started a fight, and was summoned by the Kirk Session in Scotland to explain himself. Fearing he would not be granted clemency, Selkirk ran away to the sea and fought against the Spanish as a privateer. A brilliant navigator, Selkirk was eventually made sailing master. The captain of his ship, however, was a tyrant, and after many close calls with the Spanish, Selkirk feared that the ship would sink and decided to call it quits, demanding to be dropped off at the nearest piece of land. Unfortunately for Selkirk (but fortunately for Defoe), the nearest piece of land was the desert island 400 miles off the coast of Chile called Más a Tierra, and now referred to as Robinson Crusoe Island. After four years and four months with nothing but a musket, a Bible, a few articles of clothing and some tobacco, Selkirk was rescued. It turns out he was right to have fled his troubled ship; it sunk shortly after he abandoned it, with only one survivor. Selkirk made a fortune privateering before eventually returning home to England, dressed in silk and lace, but he could never get used to land and yearned for the open sea. He published a memoir of his adventures, but died on a privateering mission before he could read Defoe’s adaption of his little-noticed book.

3. Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)/ John Gray

A member of Oscar Wilde’s lively literary circle, John Gray was a lovely, boyish poet who could pass for a 15-year-old at age 25. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde describes the youth as a “young Adonis,” and judging by a black-and-white photo of John Gray, we can only suggest that he was not far off. Wilde met Gray in London at the home of a fellow artist, and, for a while was one of the author's many romantic affairs. The similarities between Gray the character and Gray the poet were striking. Like Dorian, John Gray found himself easily corrupted by the city and the title character’s first name came from an ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians, who were famous for perpetuating love among men.  After the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray people began to call John Gray Dorian, which made him so uncomfortable that he went so far as to sue a London publication for libel for making the association. The fate of this real-life hero was more dramatic than Wilde could have ever written: John Gray moved to Rome and studied for the priesthood.

4. Antonia (My Ántonia, 1918)/ Annie Sadilek Pavelka

“Every story I have ever written,” said Willa Cather “… has been the recollection of some childhood experience, of something that touched me as a youngster.” My Ántonia, Cather's bildungsroman masterpiece, embodies that sentiment, detailing a young boy’s relationship with Bohemian immigrant Antonia Shimerdas and her acclimation to life on the western plains of the United States. Like her narrator in My Ántonia, Jim Burden, Willa Cather was born in Virginia. Then, like Jim Burden, at age 9 she moved with her family to the untamed plains of Red Cloud, Nebraska. In Red Cloud, Cather became friends with Annie Pavelka, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants recently transplanted there. Many years after leaving, Cather returned to Red Cloud and renewed her friendship with Annie in 1916. She published My Ántonia just two years later. Of her childhood acquaintance, Cather said, “One of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains.”

5. Molly Bloom (Ulysses, 1922)/Nora Barnacle

When asked if she was, in fact, the inspiration for the character of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s first wife, answered simply, “No. She was much fatter.” Joyce eyed the tall brunette in the street one afternoon, and set all of Ulysses to take place on the same date as his first date with Nora. Molly Bloom is a sensual, unfaithful woman in the novel, a part that Nora pretended to play more than she actually carried out. She and Joyce wrote intensely longing letters to one another when they were apart, and often she mentioned the attractions of various other men, though she never indulged in them. Joyce stuck to Barnacle, writing one of his most memorable characters after her, although his father warned him that the opposite would happen, given his daughter-in-law’s extraordinary name.

6. Emily Grierson (A Rose for Emily, 1930)/ Maud Faulkner

Although “Miss Maud” Faulkner did not dress and primp the corpse of her deceased betrothed from day to day, it is quite clear that William Faulkner’s mother did share much common ground with Miss Emily, the protagonist of the author’s eerie A Rose for Emily. The story is based on a young girl who, in Faulkner’s words, “just wanted to be loved and to love and to have a husband and a family.” Besides these aspirations, however, Miss Emily took after Miss Maud in an even more compelling way: As an artist. Emily’s living room displays a crayon portrait of her father, just as Maud’s home displayed original portraits of family members, both living and deceased. Miss Maud fancied herself a realist, and Miss Emily could be called that (preserving a dead body does seem like a facet of realism, after all). In New Albany, Mississippi, William Faulkner’s birthplace, Miss Maud was considered standoffish and guarded by the neighbors, just as Emily is spoken of by the close-knit, gossip-ridden fictional town of Jefferson.

7. Willie Stark (All the King's Men, 1946)/ Huey P. Long

Huey P. Long, Louisiana governor and senator, famously declared after the gunshot that fatally wounded him, “Lord don’t let me die. I have too much left to do.” Whether he meant shaking Ramos gin fizzes or securing the future for the everyman, Robert Penn Warren was impressed. The author based his masterpiece on Long, also known as “The Kingfish.” Willie Stark may now be one of the most famous characters in American literary history, but his many eccentricities will never outshine the legacy of his real-life counterpart. Long could not live without that favorite cocktail and, taxpayers be damned, he flew the top bartender from the New Orleans Hotel Roosevelt wherever he went so that he would have the drink on hand at any moment. Willie Stark may be a bit less formal, but the sentiment is the same: Political corruption and unnecessary government spending are fine as long as you’re a man of the people.


8 & 9. Dill Harris (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960/ Truman Capote and Idabel Tompkins (Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1948)/ Harper Lee

"I’m Charles Baker Harris. I can read. I can read anything you’ve got.” Dill Harris’s introduction in To Kill a Mockingbird is true to the character of his real-life inspiration, Truman Capote, who taught himself to read when he was just 5 years old. Capote, who lived next door to Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, and was her best childhood friend, first put Lee into two of his own novels before becoming the inspiration for Dill Harris, Scout’s precocious, wise-beyond-his-years best friend and neighbor. Capote’s most notable Lee stand-in was Idabel Tompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms. We can only guess that Lee the tomboy lived up to her Idabel’s crackling dialogue: “Son,” she said, and spit between her fingers, “what you’ve got in your britches is no news to me, and no concern of mine: Hell, I’ve fooled around with nobody but boys since first grade. I never think like I’m a girl; you’ve got to remember that, or we can’t never be friends.”

 10. Gary Lambert (The Corrections, 2001)/Bob Franzen

Before Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published, the author called his brother, Bob, to give him fair warning: “You might hate the book,” he said. “You might hate me.” Bob Franzen, with the unconditional love of any good big brother, responded, “Hating you is not an option.” Any writer with good sense would have been wise to warn him; Gary Lambert, whose character is based on Jonathan Franzen’s brother, is the only character in the book who never seems to learn anything. He is money-crazed and insensitive, with all the arrogance of the oldest family member and little of that position’s requisite compassion.

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