The Great American Book Cover

In 1925, the world was introduced to a young graphic artist who, up until that time, had remained somewhat obscure. Initially primarily a portrait painter, Francis Cugat was discovered in Chicago by conductor Cleofonte Camanini who connected the artist to numerous opera stars for whom he designed personalized posters.

From there, exactly how he came to the attention of publisher Maxwell Perkins isn’t really known, but in Cugat’s long career which eventually gravitated to film work, he designed only one book cover, and it is among the most recognizable in history.

In all its original glory.

Perkins asked him to sketch some ideas for a forthcoming novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tentatively titled Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires. Taking what little bit of information Perkins could give him about the incomplete book, Cugat came back with sketches that included bleak landscapes and various iterations of eyes in a wide expanse of sky.

The publisher then shared the sketches with Fitzgerald who apparently liked them a lot. In fact, after missing a deadline, the writer sent a letter to his publisher in which he wrote, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me, I’ve written it into the book.”

The 1925 book, which ended up with the title The Great Gatsby, though not initially very commercially successful, has become one of the most critically acclaimed works of the twentieth century and, some would say, is in the running for the label of the Great American Novel. You probably read it in high school. I did. And my son who is a junior just did.

I can honestly say I don’t remember the book particularly well, but I do recall the voice of my junior year English teacher, Mr. K., as he discussed the imagery of the enormous eyes peering, bespectacled, from a faded billboard advertising the practice of T. J. Eckleburg, keeping God-like watch over the unfolding tragedy of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, and mimicking the way Daisy’s disembodied face haunted the men who loved her.

I also remember that Mr. K.’s voice was particularly deep and soothing and that even though I adored his class, it was sometimes difficult to stay awake in that period, which immediately followed lunch. So, I have to assume that one of the reasons the imagery stuck with me as the rest of the novel and almost everything else I read that year faded in my memory like a long neglected and weathered billboard, is because of the eyes on the front cover. Not to judge the book by them or anything, but it turns out covers really do matter.

A future classic? Or at least a pretty book.

That’s why I am so excited to introduce to you the cover art for my newest book, coming out in just a couple of weeks. It wasn’t designed before the book was finished, but I think it does capture it really well and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

Fitzgerald must have felt much the same way. The final cover didn’t have universal appeal. Ernest Hemingway, for one, thought it was garish. The Great Gatsby has been published with a few different covers over the years, including one featuring Leonardo Dicaprio, but the original always seems to make a comeback, and it is certainly the most recognized.

Whether the cover of my newest novel will ever become an iconic image remains to be seen. It probably depends on whether the book, in years to come, will be studied in English classes and will be in contention for becoming the Great American Novel. I don’t know that my aspirations are quite that high. But it does, I think, have a pretty nice cover.

From Amish Ladies to Sexy Vampires: One Mustn’t Judge

In 1860 the world was introduced to George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss, the story of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. The book includes some complicated themes of frustrated love and the struggle for acceptance. And not to spoil the story for you a mere 158 years after its publication, but it also ends with tragic deaths. Or something like that. I don’t really know. I’ve never read it. But I’m sure it’s good because it has a bang-up cover.

eliot
Actually I kind of enjoyed Chapter 3. I may go ahead and read the rest.

The reason I mention it is because this Eliot book is the oldest solid reference I’ve been able to find, to the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In Chapter 3 (the only part of the book I have read, because you, dear reader, are worth the effort) young Maggie’s father defends the choice of reading material to which his daughter has been exposed. He explains that he picked up Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil because it had such a good binding. The man then goes on to lament, “But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.”

Versions of the expression pop up once in a while after that, and there’s probably a valid argument that the sentiment is quite a bit older. We pretty much all accept that it’s true, right? Of course the adage doesn’t always apply literally to books, but there’s little doubt that some great books are housed in awful covers and that some truly terrible books are also quite beautiful on the outside.

But as any author attempting to sell a book today can attest, we definitely judge books by their covers. In some ways that can be good. Often with only a glance we know roughly the genre to expect. It would be difficult to mix up the ubiquitous beautiful bonneted woman who invariably advertises a work of Amish fiction with the young seductress in black and red and plenty of gothic flare of a good (?) vampire love story.

Gentleman of Misfortune
A book that is obviously not a vampire romance. Don’t worry, there’s more information coming soon. For now, you can judge it by its cover.

The reading public has certain expectations. Like Mr. Tulliver, they are impressed by good bindings, and sometimes will pick up a book that turns out to be an imperfect fit. As an author facing the rapidly approaching publication date of my first historical novel, I find this to be a little intimidating. Fortunately I’ve been blessed to work with a brilliant artist, who designed a cover that completely thrills me. I hope you’ll like it, too. Or if you don’t care for it, I hope you’ll still give the book a chance, because it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.

Just 49 days until publication! (September 6th)