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Judging by its Cover, Part 1


On October 26, 1936, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter to American writer and host of an influential Parisian literary salon, Natalie Barney. In it he admitted with discernible embarrassment that his most recent author at Faber & Faber, Djuna Barnes—whose Ladies Almanack (1928) was about Barney’s salon and featured her as the character Dame Evangeline Musset—did not approve of the design for the first edition of Nightwood. “I must explain,” he writes, “that we didn’t find out until after publication that Miss Barnes particularly dislikes the colour purple.” Not only had Faber & Faber produced the volume in a rich-toned purple cloth, but, Eliot continued, “There are also one or two howlers by way of misprints to which she has called our attention.”[1]

In 1947, Alvin Lustig would design the cover of the New Directions edition of Nightwood that has become iconic in modernist circles—and it, too, is famously purple. Whatever one’s feelings about the hue—or, for that matter, Lustig’s fantastic design—one can’t help but feel for Barnes. Anyone who has published or is planning to publish a book knows that it’s difficult if not impossible to avoid feeling at least some measure of investment in what the book looks like.

The mandate to not “judge a book by its cover” feels true insofar as one hopes that the content of one’s book, be it fictional or nonfictional, is of high enough quality to render moot the physical appearance of its vehicle of delivery. To be sure, for some scholarly authors, a certain design asceticism or pointed indifference to matters of style in one’s book cover might indicate the seriousness—and the emphatic non-literariness—of the work, even if the simple or minimalist book cover may also reflect certain practical limits: the difficulty of securing permissions to reproduce beautiful images (especially with overprinted text—hence the prevalence, in scholarly book cover design, of beautiful images cordoned off by their frames and flanked by the text of the work’s title and author) or the under-resourcing of design and production labor at university and other presses.

Yet most of us—those of us who work in book-driven humanistic disciplines, such as literary studies, film and media studies, and art history—tend to be quite attached to the designs and images that will represent our work. We hope for some correlation between the visual impact of the cover and the substance of the scholarship. This is what’s heart-breaking about Eliot’s comment concerning the typographical errors inside Barnes’s book: the idea that Barnes might have drawn some correspondence, in those vulnerable first weeks of the book’s publication, between the imperfect inside of her precious new novel and the blasted purple cover that she apparently abhorred. 

Indeed, however idiosyncratic Barnes’s hatred for Nightwood’s first cover might be—however much it comes down to personal taste and distaste in the realm of color—it also compacts Barnes’s complicated feelings about her work and her relation to it. The book cover represents not only the work but also the author who made the work. The correspondence we seek in our covers is between the outsides and insides of the book and it is also between the book and ourselves.

For this two-part special series for Visualities, we invited ten of our favorite authors working in and around modernist studies to share brief reflections on the covers of their recent or forthcoming books. Each of the covers we feature are, in our view, visually compelling; they are also dynamic in their meanings, augmenting and distilling the arguments of the scholarship they adorn. Though we don’t disdain one or another color (neither of us has a grudge against purple!), our aesthetic preferences shape our selection of these covers, each of which incorporate an arresting image—a fact which also reflects our belief in the conceptual and affective power of specific visual objects and the importance of attending to them closely, evident across the essays published on the Visualities forum.

We said that the covers adorn the scholarly work, for there is an affinity between clothing and book covers that recalls the affinity between clothing and modernist poetry for Sophie Oliver and Sarah Parker in their recent piece for Visualities. Like the outfits we wear, our book covers serve as expressions of personality and identity—of the work and of us—for various publics. Pardis has written elsewhere of the “loose garments of argument,” but Anneka Lenssen’s evocative remarks about the cover as covering, in her meditation on the cover of her book Beautiful Agitation, made us think of our book covers as thick, tightly secured coats, protective layers we wrap carefully around our work before we send it out into the wilds of the world—to some uncertain fate, to readers known and unknown. If the cover is a covering, what is it covering up? What is it covering for?

The book cover performs compensatory work—again, for the work and us. The covers bear a preponderance of objects that thematize absence. A dazzling, red-beaded dress appears on the cover of Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism without a mannequin (let alone a human form); a group of mannequin’s heads, too, have lost their bodies on the cover of Rochelle Rives’s forthcoming The New Physiognomy; and an empty astronaut’s suit floats on a clothing rack like “last season’s couture,” as Jed Esty writes, on the cover of The Future of Decline. Hiding the work it simultaneously publicizes, the book cover is also a kind of dress without a body—to the extent that it circulates separately from the book itself, its downloadable token and talisman on Google image search and on press websites. Yet, as with Barnes’s adverse reaction to the first edition of Nightwood, these objects playing at bodies or witnessing their disappearance seem to us suggestive of a certain anxiety about the contents of the books. The bodiless dress or astronaut’s suit frames the book’s pages as a site of emptiness, as if the writing itself is, to borrow Cheng’s terms, the “unwanted excess” of the beautiful cover.

The cover, then, is a dress that doesn’t want for a body. No doubt this follows from the marketing imperatives of the form: how the book cover is designed to cover up the work’s limitations as it frames its claims and achievements as saleable products. The cover means to entice readers; to quote Cheng again, it is a thing “asking to be unwrapped.” But even in the certitude and beauty of the cover—which puts its best foot forward, dressing for the occasion—we often retain a sense of the limits of our projects. This is evident in the persistence of open-ended and unanswered questions across many of the pieces here. These questions often circle around the limits of visual knowledge: what images can’t show, can’t reveal; how even the images we hold so close as to feature them on our covers also withhold so much from us. Hence the question marks that proliferate when Pardis writes of Losing the Plot, when Miriam Thaggert writes of Riding Jane Crow, and when Katherine Groo writes of Incomplete: pieces that also point up the inaccessibility of the sight-knowledge of others. The leap from the reticence of the image to the mystery of other minds is palpable in these pieces; it suggests that the cover image throws into relief how our books only partially answer the questions they raise—or even that they multiply questions, triggering associations that we didn’t consciously recognize as dormant within the scholarship itself.

Unsurprisingly, given the gendered valences of absence and lack, this sense of the partiality and limits of our work is focalized in the first part of the series around female figures who are sites of both knowledge and inscrutability. From the unreadable thoughts, visions, and feelings of Marlene Dietrich and of the actress in Barbe Bleu to the anonymity of that same actress as well as of the woman known as “Girl on a Freight Car,” these are cover girls who tease us as to what is inside and who are selling something other than themselves.

The cover belongs to its cover girl: she is given pride of place. At the same time, though, the politics of selection in relation to images of people are quite vexed, perhaps especially when the person depicted carries effects of anonymity that can enable an instrumentalizing abstraction that is, in fact, not unlike the reification of the over-famous film star. Even as we (or our presses) jump through bureaucratic hoops to secure the rights to reproduce our cover images, there’s a sense in which what we are doing is commandeering the images, thieving them from their original contexts and resignifying them in line with our own purposes. We reimagine people’s poses and faces for our projects and we enlist those people as guides or teachers, making them hold interpretative keys to our own approaches and arguments. Many cuts make a cover, as Groo points out. The latent violence of decontextualization and recontextualization is given form in the pile of decapitated mannequins on the cover of Rives’s The New Physiognomy as well as in the running blood/paint on the cover of Kartik Nair’s forthcoming book, Seeing Things.

But Part 2 of the series demonstrates how that process of recontextualization so often shores up the signifying force of the cover image, no matter what our intentions may be, as so many images coming back from the dead. Indeed, several of the pieces think through how mismatching, if not outright contradiction, animate the work of their covers. Lenssen’s examination of Fateh al-Moudarres’s “mad covering,” for instance, draws out the over-compensatory nervousness of the very phenomenon of a cover, whereas Thaggert points up the (seeming) contradictions of the juxtaposition of Black women and the railroad. Daniel Morgan’s cover for The Lure of the Image conveys a moving body while the actual subject matter of his book is the moving camera, a discrepancy he finds suggestive of how subject matter isn’t always what drives decisions concerning cover art. Likewise, Esty senses a significant difference between the downward trajectory in space mapped by his cover image and the argument of book itself, which contests such sensational narratives of decline. Natalia Cecire expresses a similar ambivalence about how the image on the cover of her book Experimental plays to widespread expectations about what constitutes precision in the context of scientific experiments—and, by extension, fiction deemed experimental—while the book itself is interested in opposing that homology.

Our covers, like most images, lead and mislead, as Cecire says. And they are always the product of wider structural forces and the vicissitudes and inequities of work in and beyond the neoliberal academy. The practical and commercial considerations of making and marketing a book come into focus in the second installment of this series, which includes a postscript by the editor and scholar Rebecca Colesworthy. A cover design is decided by the rights holders who will or won’t play ball, along with the designers who bring their own labor and design-thinking to the project in line with the demands of markets. Yet the work of a cover is often more delicate, and more personal, than it is strategic. A cover image is selected in many cases because it makes us feel or see things “viscerally,” as Nair puts it, and because it “works” on a personal level, as Morgan says. The cover image is thus a sedimented expression of the difficult, protracted, and communal labor of writing and producing any book. Morgan’s cover is only the most explicit example of this, emerging directly out of his collaborative work with students and other academics. But it is also implicit in the labor of editors, designers, printers, and many other workers that is necessary for our books to find their form.

Like the infrastructures of film labor revealed through the materiality of film for Nair, these covers also unveil the infrastructures of book labor—and how the meanings of our books are formed in and through their encounters with others. Eventually, and most importantly, this includes their encounters with the readers who take up the invitation to open them.


Anneka Lenssen

Abstract book cover
Fig. 1. Cover, Anneka Lenssen, Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020). Shows detail from Fateh al-Moudarres, untitled, 1966, pigment on wallpaper, 40 x 50 cm.

In 1947 the Egyptian artist and writer Ramsis Younan (1913–1966) wrote the short essay “Variations on the Verb to Cover” for a Cairo-based surrealist journal. An embrace of madness as a condition of social unanswerability, the essay leads a reader through a dismal human history of attempts to produce coverings as defense against the void. It includes not only clothing, private property, and policed “double-walled shelters” propped up by states, nations, and empires, but also elaborate systems of insurance that extend “coverage” to financial gambles. As a communist involved in anti-colonial organizing, Younan makes the link between such defensive imaginations of being covered by someone and social exploitation, whether expressed in gender difference—a woman is covered by a man—or sublimated into religion, as in the tyrant who is ostensibly covered by God.[2]

When I received the invitation to write about the image on the cover of my book, I thought immediately of Younan’s essay on “covering” as a problem. Gracing the front of Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria is a painting by artist Fateh al-Moudarres (1922–1999) that takes as its subject a similar dynamic of excessive covering. A certain quality of excessiveness may be diagnosed in the painting’s construction. A committedly informal painter, al-Moudarres here applies more oil pigment and found detritus to a scavenged piece of wallpaper than the surface can bear. Covering and uncovering an image of personified constellations—a floating woman and beast—by means of incisions, scrapes, and patched-in layers, al-Moudarres leaves its surface vulnerable to chipping. Equally, and this is the reading al-Moudarres sought from audiences, a pathological quality of excess can be identified in his repeated attempts to produce effigies.

As with Younan in Egypt, al-Moudarres found in surrealist texts an appealing if ultimately incomplete model for undermining modern reverence for human will. Growing up in Aleppo during a period of zealous colonial archaeological activity, al-Moudarres often credited the record of barbarism found in the purported Cradle of Civilization with bringing him to consciousness. As idols, monuments, altars, and epic poems extolling sacrifice were recovered from Syrian ground, they seemed to reveal a world history of dangerously deluded attempts to “cover” for the void of existence by means of social systems of ritualized dispossession.

Part of my art-historical argument in Beautiful Agitation involves chronicling modernist understandings of the picture plane that differ from clichéd notions of flatness and self-referentiality. Neither Younan nor al-Moudarres took a flat, frameable surface to be a given property of images. They saw a horizon of crossings between invisible depths of being and visible flashes of appearance. Al-Moudarres went so far as to use contaminated materials to capture his hallucinations, thereby ensuring their collapse over time. For this reason, I find it especially fitting to place a reproduction of al-Moudarres’s 1966 painting on the paper cover of the book. It puts the image into yet another position of futile covering—that is, a flimsy promise of consistency, of a book made complete through introduction, conclusion, and orderly internal sequences. But, because the artist knew to refuse such promises, the painting also stages an appeal to a world beyond prophylactic coverings meant to neaten identities and fix our lives in place. It points to the possibility of escape via the madness of a universe of impermanent images.


Anne Anlin Cheng

Cover feature ornate red garment
Fig. 2. Cover, Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). Features Valentino evening dress, “Shanghai” collection, 2013. Red and black silk and synthetic netting with appliqué of red silk chiffon embroidered with red seed beads.

A winsome decapitation


                nothing away

from the orthopedic integrity

of such extravagant singularity.  

This dress does not need a woman.

This dress has no room for the human.

This bodice is already filled

                 with the breaths

                           of a vast and celebrated


There's no quick way to it

but by its long proposition,

                         an intention always

             asking to be unwrapped,

too pretty to be used,

too pretty not to be abused.

(Did you ever get the idea


                in a room full of beautiful things

                                                meant to enhance you

           that you were

                                 the unwanted excess?)

In lieu of heart or flesh,

            we have the worries of silk and chiffon

                     and threads and netting;

we have the tight gathering

                   of Abrus precatorius,

toxic to human ingestion.

                                  These rosary peas

                 congregate, pulse, swarm,

make a pretty substitution. 

This slender, deadly climber

     top-stitches itself,

            sealing over breaches,

                    tendrils verging

                                    on language

                   —the old gibberish kind—--   

could be a flower field,

could be a hieroglyphic

                waiting to be decoded.

Meanwhile, silence roars

on the other side.

Meanwhile, the dream

works itself into a machine,

a ghost within the ghost.

She owns


not even herself.

I put a name

where the head would be.


Pardis Dabashi

Cover with black and white image of woman's face
Fig. 3. Cover, Pardis Dabashi, Losing the Plot: Film and Feeling in the Modern Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2023).

At this point in the film, there’s no reason for her to look up except to catch the light. Marlene is at her most beautiful, surrounded by feathers and fingers, her cigarette’s sagging ash about to fall—but doesn’t, since Josef von Sternberg would never allow such a show of clumsiness. A 1932 film still from Shanghai Express, still stunning after all these years. The photo is of her needing a moment of stillness, slinking into the train car hallway to gather herself for a minute, taking a pause from all the confusion, with no sound to accompany (or disturb) her but the soft rattle of steel wheels on the railroad tracks.

What was she thinking? (Actually, I am moved to ask, “what is she thinking?” Roland Barthes was wrong; photographs are, at least this one is, now.) Nothing, for all we know. She gives such good face while ceding nothing. When her son is taken away in Blonde Venus (1932), we get the shriek of a train whistle rather than the grain of her crying throat; in The Blue Angel (1930) we get moany songs of bawdy mischief instead of admissions of betrayal or shame; in this image, too, the light from above—the butterfly lighting—sheds light without shedding light. Is that what a cover image does, what it should do? Is it tacky for a cover to tell you what’s going on in the book? One supposes. A gesture is fine; an explanation is uncouth, darling, too much. Marlene was anything but tacky or too much. She was—as I bite my knuckles—a tease.

Regardless, the temptation to guess remains: what’s going on in there? Or maybe the more apt line of questioning is, what were you looking at? What did you see? No, this is it: What did you see in what you saw? I’ll give you a hint, a teaser: that’s one of the questions my book asks. What did modernist authors see, what did they feel, when they went to the movies? Not the avant-garde movies, but the melodramas, romance dramas, war dramas, etc., that told such juicy stories, the kind of drama that Marlene, the good—the superb—modernist that she was (that I claim she was) is trying to get away from here in this photograph, smoking her cigarette in the spotlight. How, then, did those stories—those plots, that drama—make its way back into the novels those modernists were writing? My book asks this knowing full well that it can’t quite answer it but trying to answer it still. Von Sternberg, that brilliant bastard, probably knew that when Dietrich turns her head and eyes up like this, it looks like she’s gazing up at a screen just as much as out of the watery depths toward the lighted surface. (The top of the water in the opening skinny-dipping scene of Blonde Venus shimmers and glints like a screen, Dietrich’s swimming body looking like it’s half on one side of the watery film, half on the other.)

It’s so very hard to know what others are thinking at the movies, and isn’t it horrible when someone asks you too soon, as early as when the credits start rolling? What did you think?, they ask, with the emphasis on the final word. Leave me alone, I always want to say. I haven’t decided yet. But still we want to know, don’t we. And so we ask; this book asks; I ask, knowing I might be wrong and asking and trying to answer, still. All different ways of trying to understand what’s going on in there, behind that face.


Miriam Thaggert

Cover with black and white image of woman standing on a train car
Fig. 4. Cover, Miriam Thaggert, Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad (Urbana: University of Illinois, Press, 2022). Features “Girl on a Freight Car,” by Dr. Theodore Kornweibel, Jr. Papers, MS 706, California State Railroad Museum Library and Archives, Sacramento, CA.

I remember the first time I saw “Girl on a Freight Car.” I immediately renamed her “cover girl.” She appeared in a box among a group of disparate photographs and postcards showing train cars, wrecks, or railroad passengers, among letters and other ephemera at the California State Railroad Museum. She startled me because she was so unexpected: a striking mix of youthful confidence and sartorial assurance. Poised. Posed? Maybe, if she did not in fact have good car-hopping skill.

She incited several questions: Who was she? How old was she? Certain fashion choices lead me to believe she was a young person not quite in her teens: white (or light?) stockings like the kind my mom thought looked cute on me and my sister when we were younger; a belt that did not quite fit her waist; pale, Mary Jane shoes; a (hand-sewn?) gingham print dress, hemmed to just above her calves; and a lovely hat, made out of the same gingham print as the dress, and decorated with a threaded ribbon and a flower-like adornment on the right side.

Whoever she was, someone cared for her. The slightly low angle at which the photograph was taken suggests some affection: she’s up, off the ground, respected, in a way. Whoever she was, she was a person “with people,” to paraphrase Toni Morrison.[3] Someone cared so much about her that they wanted her likeness taken, here, amid the dust and grime of a freight car, in her good clothes—her “Sunday clothes”—as evident even in a grainy black-and-white photograph.

“Girl on a Freight Car” visualizes the themes of Riding Jane Crow; and, like some of the queries in my book, some things remain unknown. Why is she so dressed up? Is that a smile? How did she keep her clothes clean while hanging off a car? And why a freight car?

So many open questions, so many contradictions merging together, eventually becoming as natural as any other pairing. What seems to have no reason to be joined, upon further reflection, seems as normal as the sun.

When I mention the book’s topic to others, the general response is surprise: Black women and the railroad? Then—on second thought . . . Yes. Yes, of course, why not . . . Black women and the railroad. An unexpected juxtaposition I hope my book has made more ordinary.


Katherine Groo

Two merged black and white images
Fig. 5. Cover, Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon, ed., Incomplete: The Feminist Possibilities of Unfinished Film (Oakland: University of California Press, 2023). Features frame enlargement of Barbe Bleu (Pathé Frères, France, 1907), Davide Turconi Collection, 18086.

The cover of Incomplete displays not one image, but two. A visual abundance. There is so much to see and compare here. The images could have been twins, their differences barely perceptible. But time, air, and water have remade the relationship between them.

These images are also signs of scarcity, fragile survivors of a nitrate film print, two frames cut (literally, with scissors) from the 1907 Pathé Frères adaptation of Barbe Bleue. A priest named Josef Joye did the collecting. Cinema historian Davide Turconi did the cutting (after Bluebeard did his own). Others—the scholars and archivists Paolo Cherchi Usai and Joshua Yumibe, among them—did the preserving. There are a total of 23,491 nitrate clippings in the collection now known as the Turconi Project. It is an archive of unfinished, incomplete films. An abundant record of loss.

But there is a woman just standing there. And the cover is really hers. She wears an ornate white dress (embroidery, jewels, a crown). Behind her a façade of palace walls and an empty chair. The woman’s arms reach out. Her hands are blurred, the gesture halted. She looks right at us, time travels to meet our gaze. The look, I think, is terror.

In the story of Bluebeard, a man murders six wives and hides them in his house. Sometimes, it’s seven. He warns his new wife against looking, searching, seeing. She eventually finds their bodies, cut apart, hanging in bags. Sometimes, it’s just their heads.

This woman, too, is cut apart. Her look, this fraction of a second in her life and performance, survives. Who was she? What did she see? Or feel? The actress is not named anywhere in the collection’s metadata or the Pathé archives. And yet, there she is, reminding us of things we cannot see—things forgotten, covered up, killed.

The two frames descend vertically, one after the other, on the cover. If we could project this sequence—the print no longer exists and it will never be projected—the woman would appear to us in the darkness of a film theater, materialized out of the gauzy stain that stretches across the first frame, reaching down to her in the second. But here, in the stillness of the cover and the film fragment, this celluloid ghost—a bit of nitrate and her white dress—threatens her. That look of terror maybe sees the future and all the material and historical disappearances to come.

Film perforations run along the left-hand side of the cover and let us know: this is a film. Or, this was a film. But we are missing the perforations on the right. The image—of course, of course—is incomplete. The bottom of the second frame also has been cut imprecisely (and cuts across the book’s subtitle). Along the spine, another fragment and typographical cut. Here, we find the missing portion of the first frame and the full width of the film stock. We can see the perforations on both sides and even a bit of the Pathé company stencil.

These cuts were made for the cover. They suggest something of the arbitrary shapes our film stocks and book pages take. Film and writing never fit together without cuts of a kind. They are imperfect, incommensurate things. Most of all, they remind us that these cuts go both ways in feminist film histories. They kill and commemorate, annihilate and preserve (a fraction of a second in the life of a woman we might never name). Incompletion is not the end of things. It is a way of knowing them.


[1] T. S. Eliot, letter to Natalie Barney (October 26, 1936), in Djuna Barnes Papers, Series 2, Box 4, Folder 60, Special Collections and University Archives, Hornbake Library, University of Maryland. Thanks to archivist Amber Kohl for her assistance in confirming the letter’s location.

[2] Ramses Younan, “Variations sur le verbe couvrir,” La Part du sable (July 1947). Reprinted in Ramsès Younan: La Part du Sable, ed. Sonia Younan (Paris: Zamân Books, 2021), 257–58.

[3] Pecola and her family, the Breedloves, “[d]on’t seem to have no people.” Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970; New York: Plume, 1993), 189.