115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

When Text Illustrates Image and Image Contradicts Text: Visual Discourse in 1930s American Women's Literary Autobiography

Windy C. Petrie, Azusa Pacific University

Most of the women writers who published autobiography during the 1930s did so reluctantly, due to market demand and the growing culture of celebrity. While many authors used the same pictures over and over as publicity shots, the photos which 1930s autobiographers chose to include in their texts are surprising. This paper examines the visual techniques with which these writers crafted their autobiographical images.


The 1930s saw an exponential rise in the publication of autobiographies. Most of the women writers who published their life-stories during that decade did so reluctantly, writing to market demand. Confronting this marketplace, female literary autobiographers expressed significant anxiety during the composition and publication process. Part of this angst stemmed from the growing culture of celebrity in the 20th-century, one in which photography had increasingly become a medium of publicity.  While many authors used the same pictures or poses over and over as publicity shots, the photos which 1930s autobiographers chose to include in their texts are more unpredictable. This paper examines the literary autobiographies of women writers of the 1930s to discuss the visual techniques which these writers used to control their autobiographical images—primarily deflection and disassociation.

The frontispiece to Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), with Alice coming through a lighted doorway and Gertrude hidden in a dark corner, is famous, but is generally only discussed in isolation. However, read alongside Edith Wharton’s A Backward Glance (1933), and Carolyn Wells’ The Rest of My Life (1938), it forms part of a larger trend in visual strategies of self-representation in women’s autobiography. Wells, a popular mystery and comedy writer, worried that life-writing “pander[ed] to a small and petty curiosity.” These women composed their autobiographies under duress from publishers, and all deflect the reader’s attention away from themselves through their choice of visuals. Wharton has far more photos of other authors and the homes she re-designed than of herself. Wells includes only one generic photo of herself in the book, but many playful visuals from others. The images in the autobiographies deflect the reader’s “petty curiosity” through their choice of illustration.

Other autobiographers of the decade use written text to disassociate themselves from the visual story their book’s illustrations tell, or vice versa. Middle-brow writer Mary Roberts Rinehart inserts commentary beneath the publicity shots to disassociate herself from the lavish celebrity image the public associated with her in her 1931 autobiography. Beneath a glamorous photo of herself, she remarks “Mostly I found myself doing publicity,” commenting on the false narrative that publicity photos create. Novelist Gertrude Atherton, whose “sex-appeal” was part of her outspoken persona, choose a surprisingly classic, conservative frontispiece for her autobiography Adventures of a Novelist (1931): a spare, pen and ink sketch which cuts off below her chin. But middlebrow Jewish-American writer Edna Ferber’s choice of frontispiece is the most surprising: known for her restrained, journalistic, approach to prose, she chose a photograph of herself as a child, dancing on stage in an elaborate gown and bonnet--an unexpected choice for an autobiography that opens with a quotation from the book of Exodus and ends with a defiant challenge to Adolf Hitler.

This group of 1930s autobiographers combined text and images to deflect, undercut, or disassociate from one another, revealing their anxieties about misinterpretation, the tensions between their professional and celebrity personas, and their growing mastery of visual discourse.

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