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  • Ex LibrisFrom Books to Art
  • Kristine Somerville

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Thomas Allen, clockwise from top left: Spring, 2004; Sugar, 2009; Maneater, 2006; Outbreak, 2009

[End Page 65]


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Brian Dettmer, Charlotte Life or Theater?, 2013, hardcover book, acrylic varnish, image courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York

In the summer of 1924, while completing The Great Gatsby on the French Riviera, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that [book] jacket you’re saving for me.” Fitzgerald went on to tell him that he had already “written it” into his novel. Perkins dashed off a mollifying reply: “There isn’t the slightest risk of giving it to anyone in the world but you.” The dust-jacket art featured Spanish painter Francis Cugat’s iconic image of a woman’s [End Page 66] face with cherry lips and kohl-rimmed eyes set against a deep-blue night sky.


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Brian Dettmer, Four Fabulous Faces, 2015, hardcover books, acrylic varnish, image courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York

Some critics believe that Cugat’s dust-jacket art inspired Fitzgerald’s depiction of the billboard of Dr. Eckleburg’s bespectacled eyes peering over the valley of ashes, while others argue that Cugat’s reading of an early draft of Gatsby served as a source of inspiration for the flapper-like visage that looms over an amusement park aglow with warm yellow light. Whether accidental or intended, the collaboration yielded one of the most prominent literary symbols in American literature—an ominous figure keeping vigil over the folly of humanity.

Cugat’s haunting artwork, which fetched him a hundred-dollar fee, has become the most valuable dust jacket on any modern American novel. A first printing with the cover in mint condition sold in 2009 for $180,000. More importantly, Gatsby’s illustrious book cover provides an [End Page 67] example of the magic that happens when art and literature are perfectly united.


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Brian Dettmer, Knowledge in Depth, 2013, hardcover books, acrylic varnish, image courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York

There are plenty of unforgettable book covers that employ images inextricably linked to the novels—Salinger’s stylized carousel horse, Plath’s ill-omened black rose, and Woolf’s diffuse lighthouse—making it difficult to imagine a time before their existence in publishing.

The early nineteenth century was the golden era of book bindings. Buyers purchased unbound pages of a text and then selected an ornate binding of their choice. Additional outer coverings consisted of either brown paper wrapping meant to be discarded or paper boxes constructed of pasteboard kept on the book for protection. Eventually publishers began to print text on the coverings to identify the content. This typically took the form of pasting printed paper sheets onto the front and back paste-boards. The notion was to keep the books clean and unadorned until the owners chose to remove the outer coverings and display the elaborately crafted bindings on their library shelves. [End Page 68]


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Brian Dettmer, You Know What You Should Do, 2015, hardcover books, acrylic varnish, image courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York

By the 1870s, dust jackets meant to stay on books were in use, though they typically repeated the front cloth cover’s minimal text—title and author. The back of the book might feature a brief summary of the book’s content or a few promotional blurbs. Cover pictures were reserved for specialty gift books and children’s stories.

Early in the twentieth century, as the golden age of bookbinding ended, book coverings became more decorative and informative, while bindings were unadorned and a single color. As the book trade before World War I became increasingly competitive, American and British publishers learned that a fetching cover design hinting at the content inside helped sell the book. They also used book synopses and author biographies to target...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 65-80
Launched on MUSE
2017-12-27
Open Access
No
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