When we read fiction, how much do we see of an author’s life situation, personality, emotions, and neuroses? Her or his happiness or unhappiness?
In a way, all fiction is somewhat autobiographical, because the content is emerging from and filtered through the author’s brain. Even “neutral” facts can be given a spin that’s individual to each writer. Yet it’s interesting how much or how little a particular literary work reflects its author’s psyche.
Case in point: Edgar Allan Poe was often depressed, haunted, frustrated, and broke — with much of his brilliantly disturbing work reflecting that state of mind. Similar situation for another accomplished horror writer: the Poe-admiring H.P. Lovecraft.
But we’re not just talking about masters of the macabre. The fact that Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath had bouts of depression is apparent in their writing, whether directly or indirectly. For instance, there’s something of Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway‘s suicidal Septimus Smith character.
Also, the melancholy of loner protagonist Lucy Snowe in the melancholy Villette novel is clearly a reflection of Charlotte Bronte’s devastation at having lost her siblings Emily and Anne.
Then of course there’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky — whose near-execution, imprisonment, health issues, and money problems profoundly influenced his darkly transcendent writing.
And Erich Maria Remarque’s traumatic World War I experiences, departure from Germany after the Nazis publicly burned his anti-war novels, and devastating knowledge that the Third Reich beheaded his youngest sister Elfriede (partly to punish Erich) all had a major impact on his riveting, heartbreaking novels.
Having a mentally husband may have been one of the factors indirectly contributing to the downbeat nature of some of Edith Wharton’s great novels.
L.M. Montgomery also had a mentally ill husband — and sued her publisher AND became somewhat tired of writing the many Anne of Green Gables sequels her adoring readers wanted. Yet while Montgomery included harsh realities in her novels, many of the chapters were quite sunny. Obviously, countless authors write at least somewhat about how they (and their readers) would like life to be — putting wish fulfillment in the pages they produce.
Another example of that would be Jane Austen, whose life wasn’t as cheery as that of the couples experiencing happy endings in her novels. Yet Austen was of course not totally sentimental in her books; some of her characters never became content, and she often depicted sadness, death, hypocrisy, materialism, and other negative things.
Then there are authors who seem happy — with some of those writers creating upbeat work and others going darker. An example of the latter would be Stephen King, who’s rich and famous and seemingly well-adjusted yet continues tapping inner demons to write his scary/spooky stuff. But, like almost everyone, King’s life has not been without difficulties — including early struggles to get published, being wrongly considered just a mass-market writer when he also has some literary chops, and getting badly hurt in 1999 when a vehicle hit him as he walked.
Charles Dickens’ adult life was also full of wealth and success, but the author never forgot the childhood trauma of having his father and other family members thrown into debtors’ prison. All of which could help explain the mix of hilarity and calamity in many of Dickens’ novels.
Finally, we can’t forget how the racism, sexism, and/or homophobia experienced by various authors sparked legitimate anger that often showed up overtly or covertly in their work. Think of novels by Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble, Marge Piercy, Rita Mae Brown, and many others.
Who are your favorite authors whose personalities, feelings, life situations, etc., match or don’t match their fictional works? What are some of those works?
Thanks to “Clairdelune” for inspiring the idea for this column!
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.