Ten Famed Literary Figures Based on Real-Life People | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Current Issue
July / August 2014  magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

(Jacqueline Moen)

Ten Famed Literary Figures Based on Real-Life People

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

smithsonian.com

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

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus