Dr. Joseph R. Millichap, professor emeritus of English at Western Kentucky University, celebrates and interprets the complementary artistic expressions of photography and literature in the South in his latest book, The Language of Vision: Photography and Southern Literature in the 1930s and After.
Millichap, a former head of WKU’s Department of English who retired from full-time teaching in 2004, now lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He has taught and published widely in American and southern literature, art, and culture as the author of eight books and more than 100 articles and essays concerning those areas, especially about Robert Penn Warren’s life and work.
While writing his earlier book, Robert Penn Warren after Audubon: The Work of Aging and the Quest for Transcendence in His Later Poetry, Millichap noticed that the poet’s intertextual use of photos as keys to memory in a review of his life. “Although I began with Warren’s later poems, they led me back to his early fiction from the 1930s, work that I soon discovered was influenced by Depression-era photographs in general and in particular by the most representative and influential American photographer of that decade and long after, Walker Evans,” he explained in the preface to his new book.
Millichap also asserted that “Reconsidering Warren from this new perspective provided by photography suggested different critical approaches, which in turn pointed me toward other southern writers who had diverse connections with that burgeoning visual art form of the photograph during the Depression years and later decades.”
Southern imagery and text affect one another, Millichap continued, as intertextual languages and influential visions. Focusing on the 1930s, and including significant works both before and after this pivotal decade, Millichap uncovers fascinating convergences between mediums, particularly in the interplay of documentary realism and subjective modernism.
“Although I was familiar with Evans and his images, careful consideration of his work convinced me that his graphic art evolved from his literary interests,” Millichap said. “In turn, his artistic vision influenced many American writers during the Depression and after.”
His study reads southern literature through the prism of photography, offering an innovative formulation of the dialectic art forms.
Millichap’s subjects range from William Faulkner’s fiction, perhaps the best representation of literary and graphic tensions of the period, and the work of other major figures like Warren and Eudora Welty to specific texts, including James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In fleshing out historical and cultural backgrounds as well as critical and theoretical contexts, Millichap shows how these texts echo and inform the visual medium to reveal personal insights and cultural meanings.
“All of these writers have connections to photography in their lives and works, and some of these relations also have elicited critical and scholarly attention,” Millichap said. They redefine literary and graphic tensions through the late 20th century; Welty’s narratives and photographs reinterpret gender, race and class; and Ellison’s analysis of race in segregated America draws from black photography.
“Many aspects of these diverse visions were extended well past the Depression years and on through the latter half of the twentieth century,” Millichap said.
He finally traces these themes and visions in Natasha Trethewey’s contemporary poetry and prose, revealing how the resonances of these artistic and historical developments extend into the new century. “In the rapidly growing and changing South, more recent artists in photography and in literature continue to evolve under the lengthening shadow of the earlier artistic generations grounded in the 1930s,” Millichap concluded.
For more about the book, visit http://lsupress.org/books/detail/language-of-vision/.