Illustrating With Words Alone

Sam Sacks details the turn against illustrated stories and novels among early 20th century writers, including Henry James and Virginia Woolf, who were suspicious of what visuals did to the integrity of their art:

So writers somewhat defensively cleaved to this division: pictures were about superficial titillation; prose was about essences. And over time the opinion hardened that the old custom of accompanying illustration was a form of aesthetic corruption. There were many great twentieth-century exceptions, naturally—Reginald Marsh’s vivid sketches for Dos Passos’s “U.S.A.,” Noel Sickles’s splendid drawings for Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” in Life magazine (though not the published book), the entire magnificent run of the Limited Editions Club—but these usually had an air of nostalgia and collectibility about them.

Increasingly, drawn portraits of characters appeared only in the pulps. Literary fiction, even on its dust covers, turned to images of static objects or abstract symbols or, sometimes, of nothing at all. Such ideological stringency reached its apogee when J. D. Salinger designed the paperback edition of “The Catcher in the Rye,” eschewing the lively drawing of a carousel horse that had adorned the hardcover for the starkly imageless “maroon-colored edifice” (in his biographer’s words), which immediately became iconic among high-schoolers and serial killers alike.

Sacks’ conclusion? Writers who stick to this dichotomy are missing out, especially in the age of e-readers that “allow you to read text, look at pictures, and watch videos on the same device.”