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Dancing With Widow X
May 22, 2009 - 11:23pm


In my previous post I used a recalcitrant subject in an ethnography study, Widow X, as a symbol of all that waits to trip up researchers. Something there is that doesn’t love easy knowledge.

My novel has just been proofed for the final time and is on its way to the printer, who will spend extra time making sure your copy has exactly as many vowels as are needed and that it's trimmed to immeasurable tolerances for July 1. The book’s front cover, also just finished, might serve as an example of how one must dance with Widow X in order to get along.

My publisher generously included me in cover design, and we discussed several approaches. We really liked art from The Masses, a radical journal in print from 1911-1917 that used many fine artists, including several of those who became known as the Ashcan School (and writers such as John Dewey, Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, John Reed, and Sherwood Anderson).

Though we tried other things, we kept coming back to an image from the cover of the October 1916 issue. I know some will find it ugly or disturbing, but it fits the time period, aligns with the sympathies of characters, and has the colors of earth appropriate to miners. The man is gargantuan and somewhat brutal, though not unsympathetic, like one of my characters. The slash of paint across the face suggests obliteration—in the book by often-fatal labor, poverty, and dehumanization by capital and its machines. Also, someone in the book gets shot point-blank in the face. I think it’s quite beautiful.

The illustration is by Boardman Robinson (1876-1952), whose work I like a lot. I contacted Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries, whose online exhibit Images of American Radicalism: Cover Illustrations from The Masses, 1913-1917, popped up early in a Google search. The curator answered e-mails the same day and was tremendously helpful. I ordered the image from them as a high-resolution digital file.

But he wrote soon to say that when they pulled the original magazine (in order to re-shoot the cover), it had been defaced by an unknown library patron. He couldn’t say when it had happened, but in any case he regretted that I’d need to get the image from a different library. I started to do so. Then I had a hunch. I asked if what he had in his hand looked the same as the image online at their site. He said it did and seemed a little surprised.

I tracked down a copy of the magazine here in our rare book room, and the cover looked much different. (I have a snapshot but don’t have rights to show it to you.) In fact, none of us liked it at all without the thematic “defacement.” Others—Wikipedia and elsewhere—have made the same mistake and displayed the defaced cover as the original.

It looked for a minute like a setback. But as a corrupt preacher in my novel says, “We need men who can turn lemons thrown at them into a cool, sweet, smiling drink, men who can catch, seed, and juice them as fast as they’re pitched.”

It’s the only way to charm Widow X.


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