Ten Famed Literary Figures Based on Real-Life People- page 2 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
(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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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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