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.

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