Illusions of Magic

The Illustrated Novel by J.B. Rivard


A Brief Look at the Illustrated Novel

J.B. Rivard


ILLUSIONS OF MAGIC is a historical novel. But it is also an illustrated novel, making it uncommon and less familiar. Yet we should be surprised to find an edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, without illustrations.

In 1995, Robert Hirst (General Editor, Mark Twain Project), discussed how Twain regarded the upcoming publication of his book, Roughing It: “…Twain expected his book to be extensively illustrated, and throughout its composition and production he rarely missed an opportunity to remind his publisher, Elisha Bliss, of the importance he attached to the illustrations.” On another occasion, according to Hirst, Twain wrote Bliss, “Now I want it illustrated lavishly.” And Bliss saw that it was—the volume appeared with hundreds of illustrations by True W. Williams, Edward F. Mullen, and Roswell Morse Shurtleff.

However, the number of illustrated novels in publication—for adult readers—steadily declined from the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1930s. A few appeared in the ‘30s and ‘40s, capped perhaps by the 1944 edition of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi with illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton. And Life magazine, no stranger to illustrated text, published, in 1952, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea with drawings by Noel Sickles, an illustrated novel that later appeared as well as a book.

Apparently, the scarcity of the illustrated novel in recent decades can be traced to the rise in the popularity of the motion picture. Sam Sacks describes the thinking of the time this way in his 2012 article in The New Yorker: “If prose was going to lean on the crutch of pictures, however charming, it was going to quickly find itself surpassed by far more dazzling mediums of visual entertainment.” Of course this dire prediction was not realized; the blizzard of movies produced since the invention of ‘talkies’ hasn’t deterred the production of books significantly. And it might even be argued that the avalanche of books published over the last century has accelerated the production of movies.

As Sacks later on says, in wry understatement, “…film and literature have now managed to coexist for over a century without destroying each other, [so] it may be time to reexamine some of these fears.”

Some maintain that mere fashion is behind the decline of the illustrated novel. Kamilla Elliot, in her book Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (Cambridge University Press, 2003), argues against this as a cause for their scarcity: “…the proliferation of illustration everywhere else throughout the twentieth century into the twenty-first…renders such an argument dubious.”

Still, publishers and writers remain defensive, perhaps fearing that the literalness—the graphic frankness—of illustrations competes too strongly with the written words. This fear seems unfounded; one need only examine the 1940 edition of The Grapes of Wrath issued by the Limited Edition Club—a text noted for Steinbeck’s descriptive excellence—to appreciate how its illustrations, lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton, enlarge and enhance our comprehension of the Joad family saga. Rather than competing with literary expression, well-conceived artwork alongside texts often complements authors’ written effects. In addition, illustration, as the historical evidence demonstrates, makes many novels more attractive and inviting to an audience well versed in visual images.

Sam Sacks ends his recent analysis with a challenging conclusion: “…the interplay between art and text is rich with possibilities that few fiction writers have even begun to explore.”