What Does the Cover Say?

One topic that has always interested me is the visual representations of literary works. Visual artists from Gustave Dore and E.W. Kemble illustrated everything from Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320) to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900). Thinking about these visual representations along with the text provides an interesting conversation, not just regarding how the images and texts interact but how the images construct, within the reader, an expectation and either reinforces or alters the reader’s perceptions of the text. Unlike illustration, which appear in conjunction with the text at various points in a book, the cover images (pictures or illustrations) are, at times, the reader’s first introduction to a text. Thinking about this, I want to look at different covers of Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (OLAD, 1967) and how they create certain expectations for the reader from the very beginning.

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The first edition cover of OLAD does not contain any image that represents what the novel is about. Instead, the colors and text that appear provide certain feelings: love, passion, and the pastoral. These connections become apparent after one reads the novel, but before the reader cracks open the book, the feelings get invoked through the colors. The prominent color, that borders the text, is green, representing the land and the setting of Marshall Plantation. The pink that provides he background where the text appears can be viewed as love and passion. “[O]f love and” shows up, with no outline, in white, and these words are juxtaposed with “dust,” which is gray with a hard black outline. Through this layout, the themes of OLAD come into focus; however, those connections do not become apparent till one has finished the novel. In this way, the cover works retrospectively, not providing any pretext or context for a reader who comes to the book for the first time. However, other covers do engage the reader from the outset, creating a specific image within the reader’s mind that possibly skews or enhances his or her reading of the text.   

img_0666In 1969, Bantam Books issued a paperback edition of OLAD, and that cover provides the reader with an unmistakable image before the book even opens. When I see this cover, I think about other novels from the same period with similar covers, ones that play on sterotypical images for publicity and the ultimate bottom line. For a good discussion of this, at least in regards to Holloway House and the ways that publishers marketed certain books during the late 1960s and the 1970s, look at Justin Gifford’s Pimping Fictions (2013). The 1969 cover shows Louise seductively eyeing the reader with her blonde hair in pigtails and wearing a strapless dress. Over her right shoulder, Marcus stares through the cover expressionless, wearing a white shirt. Through this positioning, and facial expressions, the reader gets the impression that the novel will be about the possible defilement of white woman by a black man. While it could be argued that Marcus’s initial interactions with Louise contain hints of rage, I would posit that Louise and Marcus ultimately fall in love. What is missing from this cover, however, is the juxtaposition of Louise and Marcus’s relationship with Pauline and Bonbon’s. As well, it eliminates the theme of Marcus being bonded out of jail and the continual effects of slavery through the plantation and prison systems. Rather than getting these themes here, the reader gets the stereotypical narrative of a black man seducing or raping a white southern woman. In this way, the cover reinforces prevalent images while the novel actually works, through its narrative, to deconstruct those representations of race, class, and gender.

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The 1979 edition from W.W. Norton & Company contains an illustration from Tim Gaydos on the cover. Unlike the Bantam edition, Gaydos’s cover focuses on the relationship between Marcus and the Cajun overseer Bonbon along wth the repressive plantation system and the system of bonding African American men out of prison for labor. I have written about this image on this blog before thinking about the role of horses in Gaines’s text . Rather than centering on the interracial dynamics in the novel, Gaydos’s image reflects the power dynamics that play out between Marcus, Bonbon, and the white power structure that keeps him in a state of submission. Typical of Gaydos’s covers, the characters do not have any facial features, rather they appear as silhouettes, creating a sort of connection between the reader and the individuals represented on the cover. For the OLAD image, Marcus can be seen in the bottom left of the image, bent over, picking crops from the ground. Above him, on the right hand side, Bonbon sits on his horse, peering at the crouched figure of Marcus. Seeing this image when picking up the book for the first time, a reader would construct different expectations in regards to the narrative when compared with the Bantam cover. The interracial and sexual themes would still come through, but the foregrounding of the oppressive system of boding men out of jail to work on plantations would take on a heightened focus.

In the next post, I will talk about three more covers for OLAD, a current edition and two French covers. This is not, as usual, everything that could be said. What are your thoughts? How would you bring topics like this into your classroom when presenting texts to students? Let me know in the comments below.

Constructing the “Past”

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At the end of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Quentin and Shreve construct, without knowing the “true” events, the burning of the Sutpen house. Describing “the driver and the deputy” pulling Miss Colfield out of the inflamed house, the narrator states, “he (Quentin) could see her, them; he had not been there, but he could see her” (376). The construction of that scene conflates what the two students think they know and what may have actually happened. Faulkner’s novel, along with his other works, do the same thing, confronting the past in the present and how that past gets remembered and retold. Similar scenes appear in works by authors responding to Faulkner as well, such as Jules Reynard’s discussion with Miss Jane about what happened between Tee Bob and Mary Agnes in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and the multiple points of view from different characters in William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer (1962) that try to make sense of Tucker Caliban’s actions.

Today, though, I want to focus on that line from Absalom, Absalom!, a line that reverberates, in more ways than one, in Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying (1993). Grant Wiggins begins the novel by stating, “I was not there, yet I was there” (3). Referring to Jefferson’s trial, Grant informs us that even though he was not physically present, he still knows what occurred in that courtroom because of what he heard from others but also from his own lived experience in a system that seeks to keep individuals like him and Jefferson in subjugation. He follows up this initial statement by claiming, “No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be. Still I was there. I was there as much as anyone else was there” (3). His (non)presence does not change the fact that Grant understands the sentence that Jefferson received because it could’ve just as easily been himself in that courtroom for something else.

While this similarity between Faulkner’s and Gaines’s texts does not seem too significant, merely one author’s call-back to another, it exists on a stylistic level that needs to be examined as well. If we think about A Lesson before Dying as a whole, Grant is telling us, as readers, the past as he knows it and wants it conveyed. He is, in essence, reconstructing the events from Jefferson’s trial to his execution in the same way that Nick Carraway constructs his relationship with Jay Gatsby. Similarly, Grant’s reconstruction needs to be seen in relation to Quentin and Shreve’s attempts to construct the past as they see it. Thought about in this way, Gaines is challenging Faulkner’s formulation of the past, here and in other novels, by providingI would say, a direct commentary on how we construct the past.

Gaines does this in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, as he has said, by creating a response to Faulkner’s Dilsey.  He does this, some, in Of Love and Dust (1967), by exploring interracial romances. He does this in A Lesson before Dying, albeit less overtly. Gaines creates a novel told in retrospect, one that constructs a history while also telling a history. Grant, like most first person narrators, is not completely reliable because he has his own agenda and motives, but his retelling of the events, unlike say Sheriff Guidry or even Quentin Compson, provides a missing voice that Faulkner skirts around at some points. Unlike Quentin and Shreve who paste together the events of the past from their dorm room in Cambridge, MA, away from the time and space where there occurred, Grant resells the narrative of his own involvement in the events that he describes.

Ultimately, what differentiates Grant from Quentin and Shreve, apart from the fact that Grant went through the experiences, is  that Grant, even though he was not with Jefferson, knows what happened because he has seen it happen countless times before. The past examples of his peers and others provide him with the knowledge to construct the courtroom and the machinations that seek to keep Jefferson in a state of debasement. Removed from that space, Quentin and Shreve, like Jules Reynard, can only “speculate” on what happened, struggling with one’s knowledge of the South (Quentin) to formulate the past and to understand it.

I am, seriously, still thinking about this in relation to not only the novels discussed here but to other works by Gaines and Faulkner. These thoughts are extremely preliminary. What are your thoughts on this matter? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Land in Ernest J. Gaines’s “A Gathering of Old Men”

Last post, I wrote about the appearance of the pronoun “they” in Ernest J. Gaines’s “The Sky is Gray.” In that story, “they” appears as a reference to ownership and power in the community that seeks to keep James and Octavia is subjugation so the invisible white landowners can maintain their position at the top of the social ladder. As James looks out of the window of the bus, he sees a pool-doo on the water and claims that “they” have it there. Here, the pronoun becomes one of ownership, causing the water, where fish and fowl provide sustenance, to become a space with an owner who restricts access to it. Think about Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” here and the swimming hole.

542953This type of ownership of not just workable land but of bodies of water becomes more pronounced in Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Here, the river, which once provided a space for everyone to fish and get food from becomes restricted because wealthy whites buy the land along the river, thus causing access to the water to become limited. The river becomes a contested site, much like the land. At two points in the novel, people reference the river and the reduction of their access to it.

Near the beginning of the novel, Chimley talks about how he could fish the whole river; however, now that whites have expanded their reach, only a small spot remains where him and Mat can fish along the banks. He tells us, “We got just one little spot now. Ain’t like it used to be when you had the whole river to fish on. The white people, they done bought up the river now, and you got nowhere to go but that one little spot” (27). Unlike James’s description in “The Sky is Gray,” “they” has a direct antecedent to “the white people.” Chimley laments the loss of space along the river, and when him and Mat hear about what is about to transpire at Marshall Plantation, they decide to finally confront not just the loss the land but also the physical and psychological injustices they endured at the hands of a system that sought to maintain power by any means necessary.

Later, as everyone is gathered at Mathu’s house, Corrine speaks up and comments on the river. She tells Sheriff Mapes and those congregated there, “That river. . . Where the people went all these years. Where they fished, where they washed they clothes, where they was baptized. St Charles River. Done gives us food, done cleaned us clothes, done cleaned us soul. St. Charles River–no more, though. No more. They took it. Can’t go there no more” (107). Like Chimley, Corrine laments the loss of the river, and while we get a clear antecedent for Chimley’s “they,” Corrine’s final “they” does not have a clear relation to anything in her brief comments. Like James, the “they” becomes the invisible, overarching power of the system.

In response to Corrine, Mapes turns the tables some and lets her know that he is in the same situation as her, Chimley, and Mat. He tells them, “I can’t do what I used to do on that river myself” and fish and hunt (107). He even goes so far as to highlight that Fix, who the people gathered at Mathu’s want to confront, suffers from the unidentifiable “they.” Rather than blaming Fix for the lack of access to the river, someone else deserves the blame. Mapes states, “You blaming Fix for that, too? Then you blaming the wrong person. He’s as much victim as you are. That’s why he’s back on that bayou now, because they took that river from him, too” (108). Mapes’s observations fall flat, though, because as Beulah responds that Fix lived on the river and did his fair share of the dirty work. However, as we learn later, the “they” hired Fix and his crew out to perform their dirty work.

Through the river, Mapes links the black and Cajun communities together through the fact that both have suffered at the hands of the “they.” Gil comes to the same conclusion when confronts Candy after coming home from LSU. Standing in front of the representative “they,” Gil tells her, “You never did like Beau. . . You never liked any of us. Looking at us as if we’re a breed below you. But we’re not, Candy. We’re all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. You’re folks had a break, mine didn’t, that’s all” (122). While Gil does not explicitly link his struggles with those of the men and women gathered at Mathu’s house, he calls out the “they” that seeks to maintain control by pitting blacks and Cajuns against one another while keeping their own hands relatively clean.

When thinking about these topics, I continually go back to the “idle white rich” in Catherine Carmier that ride their speedboats along the river while the Creoles, blacks, and Cajuns struggle to exist. This is not all that could be said on this topic, but I hope it provides a start that can be expanded. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.