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The power of the 'negative muse'

The mean streets of literary history have witnessed their share of blood feuds and brawls, but nothing quite like what happened this fall when an unknown slip of a girl knocked a famous muse off her pedestal and laid claim to being the true inspiration for what many consider our Great American Novel. It has always been assumed that F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, was the real-life model for golden girl Daisy Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby." But now it appears that Fitzgerald based his image of Daisy on 16-year-old Ginevra Smith, a young Chicago debutante whom Fitzgerald met while an undergraduate at Princeton.

Ginevra's letters to Fitzgerald, which were recently made available to scholars, read as little more than the juvenile scribblings of a young girl. But their author, we are told, was Fitzgerald's first and most influential muse. Like Daisy, Ginevra Smith was beautiful, wealthy, and, most important, forever out of the reach of sweaty young strivers like Fitzgerald and his fictional alter ego, Gatsby.

After her two-year flirtation with Fitzgerald ended, Ginevra married one of her own moneyed kind. But she remained the inspiration for a series of thoughtless, golden-haired flappers who appear in Fitzgerald's books.

Well, what does it matter anyway? After all, it's the work of art, not the all-too-human model, that lives on in the minds of readers. And yet, we remain intrigued. In her provocative book, "The Lives of the Muses," Francine Prose suggests that the idea of the muse continues to be central to discussions of art because of the nagging desire of us mere mortals to understand "the mystery of inspiration, to determine who or what is the `moving cause' of art." Curiously, Prose's book is subtitled "Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired." Like those original nine goddesses who reigned over arts and science in Greek mythology, muses seem most often to be of the female persuasion. But what about females artists? To whom do our greatest women writers turn for inspiration?Generally speaking, Prose is right: Musedom is essentially women's work. Women writers have lacked the economic and cultural capital that would enable them to attract men and render them into passive objects of the female gaze. In the rare instances where women writers have turned men into muses, the transformation has been accomplished without male consent. Take, for example, Charlotte Bronte's unrequited yearning for the married Monsieur Constantin Heger, her tutor in Belgium. He became the model for Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre" and for Paul Emmanuel in her greatest novel, "Villette." Emily Dickinson's passion for her unidentified "Master," to whom she addressed some of her most fevered poems, is the subject of endless gossipy speculation. And lesbian artists have had their own refreshing take on the artist-muse relationship. The most famous example is provided by Gertrude Stein, who audaciously appropriated the voice of her muse and lifelong companion when she wrote "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas."

But to go back to the straight and narrow, there is a crucial male figure who repeatedly turns up in the life stories of important female writers like Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, and others. This creature is what might be termed a "negative muse." He generates the art of the literary women he knows by trying to obstruct it. He does his best to stomp on their ambitions and thus stimulates their rebellious imaginations. He's what the mystical poet William Blake called a "Nobodaddy" -- a squasher of creativity and joy. But many female artists knew this negative muse of theirs as just plain, old "Daddy."

You do not do, you do not do Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo. Daddy, I have had to kill you . . .So begins Sylvia Plath's famous curse poem to her own father, Otto. (Images of a domineering husband also appear in the poem, but let's leave Ted Hughes in peace and take the poem's title at its word.)

For many female artists like Plath, the negative muse of the father is a figure to knock down, trample on, kill -- at least imaginatively -- in order to make art possible. These fathers were often loving to their daughters -- as daughters -- but downright nasty when it came to seeing their daughters as writers. For example, Virginia Woolf's father, the eminent Victorian biographer Leslie Stephen, alternately nurtured her and derided her intellectual and artistic longings.

"I dreamt last night that I was showing father the manuscript of my novel; and he snorted and dropped it on to a table, and I was very melancholy, and read it this morning, and thought it bad," wrote Woolf in a despairing letter about her first novel, "The Voyage Out."

Charlotte Bronte's eccentric papa, the Rev. Patrick Bronte, liked to preach to his trio of scribbling daughters about the dangers of neglecting their duties and surrendering to the siren call of the imagination. Writing to her mentor, the poet Robert Southey, in 1837 a young Charlotte declared: "Following my father's advice . . . I have endeavoured not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman out to fulfil, but to feel deeply interested in them. I don't always succeed, for sometimes when I'm teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing . . ." Fortunately for posterity, Charlotte, along with Anne and Emily, eventually rose up against the reverend and shook off the shackles of ladyhood.

Emily Dickinson's father made his lifelong views on lady authors clear in an essay he wrote as a student at Yale. In response to the suggestion that men and women might have equal mental powers, Edward huffs that when women neglect their duties for their minds, they become "pedantic and masculine" and "intolerably loquacious and unyieldingly obstinate."

Some Dickinson scholars read her famous poem "I'm Nobody, Who Are You," as a sly response to Edward's fusty views on women's proper place and also as a slap at his public career as a lawyer and politician:

"I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you -- Nobody -- Too? . . .

How dreary -- to be -- Somebody!

How public -- like a Frog --

To tell one's name -- the livelong June--

To an admiring Bog!

Unlike the postmortem catfight between Fitzgerald's muses, Zelda and Ginevra, there aren't likely to be any jostlings for preeminence among this crowd of literary fathers. As negative muses to great art, they were -- unlike the unattainable Ginevra -- figures all too much in the faces of their visionary daughters.

Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the book critic for the National Public Radio program "Fresh Air."

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