Early-1900s pitching great Christy Mathewson.
What do Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Hitler, Houdini, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, King Louis XIII and Queen Anne, Christy Mathewson, Franklin Roosevelt, Stalin, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington have in common?
They are among the many real-life famous people who’ve had cameos — or more substantial supporting roles — in novels starring fictional characters.
It’s fun to see actual notables pop up in historical fiction, and sometimes in fiction that’s not that historical. We’re curious to see how the authors will portray them, and we hopefully get a sense of what those VIPs were like as living, breathing people rather than cardboard-cutout personages. Often, they’re depicted with various quirks and flaws that help make them feel at least somewhat three-dimensional.
Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both of which I read recently, are brimming with World War II-era officials. Of them, President Franklin Roosevelt gets the most page time because fictional U.S. Navy man Victor “Pug” Henry periodically serves under him as a roving military/diplomatic assistant. But we’re also in the room with a fair number of other leaders such as Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin — the last of whom pops up as well in Kate Quinn’s WWII-era novel The Huntress.
Much of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna is set just before WWII — in 1930s Mexico — and features extended appearances by three famous people encountered by made-up protagonist Harrison Shepherd. They are artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Russian-revolutionary-in-exile Leon Trotsky (who was murdered in 1940 on orders from the aforementioned Stalin).
Set earlier in the 20th century, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime is well-known for mixing fictional characters with actual notables such as Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington.
Also set mostly in NYC around that time is E.R. Greenberg’s The Celebrant — about fictional immigrant Jackie Kapp and his friendship with real-life Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants.
Continuing my reverse chronology, another baseball-themed book — Darryl Brock’s time-travel novel If I Never Get Back — has its fictional 20th-century-born main character Sam Fowler meet Mark Twain in 1869 and conduct a secret mission for the iconic author. In Brock’s Two in the Field sequel, Fowler meets General Custer, who is portrayed as negatively as he deserves.
A far-better general, George Washington, turns up in the part of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series set in the American colonies during the 1770s. Fictional protagonist Jamie Fraser briefly serves as an officer under Washington during the war with Great Britain.
Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, which unfolds in the 1600s, includes real-life personages such as King Louis XIII and Queen Anne.
Getting back to the 20th century, an interesting cameo occurs in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden when we briefly meet…John Steinbeck, as a boy.
Any real-life “notables in novels” you’d like to mention?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about an upcoming local Board of Education election and more — is here.