What Does the Cover Say? (Part 2)

Last post, I wrote briefly about three of the covers from Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967). Today, I want to continue the discussion by looking at the 1994 Vintage Books edition and two 1991 covers from French translations. Examined in relation to the covers discussed in the previous post, these images provide readers with three more introductions to OLAD before they even sit down and begin to read the novel. As mentioned in the previous post, a good exercise for students would be to have them comment on what they think the text will be about based on the cover and possibly the back matter (a subject that I am not touching on in these posts). Once they finish the text and talk about with classmates, the teacher, and/or others, students could search for different covers of the same book, and based on their readings, explore how these various covers may affect a reader’s initial perceptions of the text before he/she even begins. Essentially, this is what I am doing with these past two posts.

The 1994 cover for OLAD differs from the previous ones because rather than focusing on the “taboo” relationship between Marcus and Louise as the 1969 cover does or on the oppression and subjugation as Gaydos’s 1971 cover does. Instead, the images that make up the 1994 cover highlight the rural, pastoral setting of the novel and play upon the stereotype of black women as seducing men with their sexual appetite. (Gaines speaks about some of this in his speeches about OLAD from the late 1960s. That, however, is another discussion.) The pastoral imagery comes through with the image of the house, road, and sign at that encompasses the top of the cover. This image can be seen in relation the the novel because it contains visual representations of the setting, even though the picture is from Georgia. (It is an FSA/OWI image. I have written about these images before.) The top image does not become problematic, mainly because it is devoid of anything that could be construed with stereotypical overtones. However, the image of the black woman leaning seductively on the porch that appears in the bottom left presents an initial perception that readers may carry over to Pauline when they read the novel. Rather than believing that Bonbon took Pauline whenever and wherever he wanted to, readers may refer back to this image and maintain a belief that Pauline asked for Bonbon’s treatment because she seduced him. For me, this, like the 1969 cover, plays on stereotypical beliefs that he novel tries to push back against since it could be argued that Gaines, through OLAD, seeks to show that love is important, even though the “rules” of the period when the novel takes place condoned or prohibited interracial relationships.

While the 1994 cover from America partly plays on stereotypical imagery, the two 1991 covers from Liana Levi in France leave me scratching my head. I have not read the translations, but I would assume that they do not deviate in drastic measures from the English editors. However, both covers make me question what the imagery that appears on each cover is supposed to convey to a reader. The image above shows a black man, either Marcus or Jim Kelley. I presume it is Marcus, at least in my interpretation. If the above man is Marcus, the fact that he is wearing work cloths, lying down on what appears to be a raft or a pier, and smiling goes against all of the ways that Gaines presents Marcus in the text. Marcus refuses to wear work clothes, instead wearing good clothes that he would don when he goes out. He does work; however, he does not enjoy it. He does not smile either. If anything, his demeanor is resistant to the situation (as it should be), and he does everything he can to escape it or enact revenge on those who put him there. Now, seeing this image, I would think that the novel is possibly something joyful about workers, but that sentiment is far from the reality.

Perhaps the most interesting cover is the image above. While the other covers actually represent some aspect of the novel, albeit incorrectly at times, this one does not appear to have anything to do with the narrative. Instead, it shows Martin Johnson Heade‘s L’approche de l’orage (The Approaching Storm, 1859), a painting that shows a semi-idyllic  image of a man, whose ethnicity is indeterminable, with a dog sitting on a log as they watch a sailboat glide across the lake in front of them as a storm approaches. The idea of an imminent storm does fit well with OLAD, but the displacement of the landscape to something that does not represent the landscape in the novel becomes problematic. Even though Heade, an American, painted marshes, the image above does not reflect what would be the Louisiana landscape in the late 1940s. Even though the landscape is problematic, the more prominent problem comes from the fact that this image, like the one of the man smiling on the previous cover, creates a somewhat bucolic feeling of a pastoral novel that leads to rejuvenation for the characters. This, of course, is far from the themes for OLAD.

Again, this is not an exhaustive discussion of a topic that could be done with any number of texts; however, it is presented here to provide you with a way to think about the effects that a book’s cover may have on us as readers if we are unfamiliar with an author or a text. Likewise, this is an exercise that students can perform in the classroom to help them better understand the texts and to help them think about the ways that the projection of these texts, at least in regards to visual images, affects them as readers and consumers. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.


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