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“Facing the Fact: Word and Image in Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Worlds Alongside’”

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 43, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 288-328 | 10.1353/jnt.2013.0017

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In 1939, the small format picture magazine Coronet featured two photo-textual experiments. These were arranged as a “portfolio of photographs” supported by a poetic prose “narrative” by Muriel Rukeyser. They were published in the September and October issues, and were titled, respectively, “Adventures of Children” and “Worlds Alongside.” The photo-narratives were experimental not least in the fact that they did not adhere to established contemporary formulae regarding the presentation of word-image pairings in magazine reports, such as those featured in Life or Time since the height of the Great Depression, as well as those featured previously in the more arts-orientated Coronet. Hailed by the editors of Coronet as “infinitely superior to the usual picture-gallery treatment” of photographs and descriptive captions in the publication (120), Rukeyser’s photo-narratives nevertheless puzzled several readers, offended some, and remain an intriguing and, I argue, vital part of her oeuvre. For the purposes of this essay, which will attempt to unravel the complexity of Rukeyser’s use of word and image, tracing the aesthetic, ideological, and poetic implications of her photo-narrative work, I will dedicate my analysis to the second of the pieces, “Worlds Alongside.” Although both photo-narratives utilize the format of the picture magazine to explore dual aspects of modern life—the separate yet parallel social spheres of wealth and poverty, of civilized sophistication and primitive simplicity, for example—“Worlds Alongside,” as its title would indicate, provides a richer text through which to interrogate these themes, as well as Rukeyser’s management of them.

Sixteen pages in length, the photo-narratives each contain six image pairings, in which two photographs are arranged to face each other on the verso and recto of the double-page spread: one combination of four images, organized in double pairings on the same format, and two single images, one beginning and one ending the photo-narrative, the text of which runs beneath each photograph in neat, centered font. The theme of duality in “Worlds Alongside,” then, begins in its formal presentation. “Worlds living now!” opens the narrative (Figure 1), an exclamatory sentence that seems at odds with the silent tranquility of the image of verdant landscape above it.

The prosperous fecundity of this portion of American existence2 is highlighted by Rukeyser’s choice of descriptors—“rich” and “fertility” (83)—which further enhance the effect of the image directly overleaf: a larger documentary photograph by Dorothea Lange of dustbowl desolation, in which the twin rudimentary and disused post-boxes indicate that this part of “the same country’s” (84) landscape cannot sustain life of any kind (Figure 2).

The ornate city “tower” (85) to the right of the dustbowl image, doubled through the windowpane of the tower in which the photographer obviously stands, serves to cement the established theme of duality and difference visible in the “same” world. Exploiting what Edwin Rosskam in the same year had termed the “new unit” of communication, “the double-paged spread in which word and image complemented each other” (7), Rukeyser stages encounters between representative images of ostensibly social, cultural, or ethnic opposites. The potential for communication between these worlds resides in the ocular dialectic that Rukeyser highlights as symptomatic of the Depression era’s dependency on visuality: a self-other relation bound up in the introspection and objectification generated by the documentary gaze.

For example, appearing two thirds of the way through “Worlds Alongside,” Figure 3 demonstrates the layers of meaning constructed in Rukeyser’s use of image, text, and format; more precisely, Depression-era documentary photographs (Farm Security Administration [FSA] images by Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein respectively), a textual narrative

Click for larger view
Figure 1. 

“Worlds Alongside,” Coronet Oct. 1939, page 83, FSA photograph, photographer unknown. Reprinted courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Click for larger view
Figure 2. 

“Worlds Alongside,” Coronet Oct. 1939, pages 84–85. FSA photograph by Dorothea Lange (left) reprinted courtesy of the Library of Congress.

that both reflects and complicates the images to which it responds, and the double-page configuration that contrives the words and images to face each other.

As I will explore later in this essay, Rukeyser is both participating in and challenging...

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