Kauffer’s dramatization of abstract typographical elements with layout and color for Perse’s Exile can also be seen in his most famous book cover, the 1949 design for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Kauffer’s jacket features a strikingly shadowed “U” and an elongated blue “L” in that design reminiscent of the emphasized “L” in the composition for Faulkner’s Light in August jacket in 1950. Besides covers for Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), Intruder in the Dust, Knight’s Gambit (1949), and Requiem for a Nun (1951), Kauffer designed covers for T. S. Eliot, one of Faulkner’s earliest and strongest literary influences, as he also did for Dashiell Hammett, Faulkner’s drinking buddy in New York, and Faulkner’s fellow Mississippians Richard Wright and Eudora Welty.6
Kauffer made a habit of reading the books whose covers or interior pages he illustrated, and his work on Poe’s and Faulkner’s covers was no different. Book covers were for Kauffer, in effect, “mini posters,” meant to grab a reader’s attention and sell the book but not to exist separately from the contents of the book (as was the case with so many sensational pulp covers during the paperback revolution). In 1937, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a one-man exhibition of Kauffer’s posters, Kauffer’s friend Aldous Huxley wrote a memorable foreword to its catalog: rather than depict commodities as symbols for sex or money, “The symbols with which he deals are not symbols of something else; they stand for the particular things which are at the moment under consideration.” Huxley astutely pinpoints Kauffer’s aesthetics here as a concern for material objects as objects of desire that in art, as in advertising, work the complex borders of reality and symbolism. For Huxley, Kauffer’s art sutures text and image to operate on viewers abstractly and subconsciously.7
But the scale of success and recognition that he had gained in England and Europe eluded him in his own country, deepening his sense of exile at home. Initially, new U.S. patrons alleviated his growing depression and disillusionment. Bennett Cerf, for instance, found work for Kauffer at Random House, and one of his earliest covers for the publishing house was a reissued edition of Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Considered advertising and thus a business matter rather than art proper, jacket art is typically anonymous, which is why the case of Sanctuary is so striking: it was dated and prominently signed by its artist in 1940. Active in not only the Omega Workshop of Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell but also the Hogarth Press of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Kauffer was accustomed to publishing and even fine art as labor for which artists should be compensated. He sought the sweet spot between aesthetics and commerce where exchanges in high and low culture could share aims in informing a mass public. In the New York advertising world, he lamented the way an emphasis on money and sex reduced the range and quality of design.8
Working for Bernard Waldman’s advertising agency from 1943 offered Kauffer the artistic and physical freedom to escape New York. Known as “Uncle Ted” by Waldman’s daughter—today’s Frost Medalist (2016) and American Academy of Arts and Letters member (2019), poet Grace Schulman—Kauffer was practically adopted by the Waldman family. Bernard Waldman joined him on some trips he made around the country for the American Airlines posters he would produce through 1953. His travels in Mexico and the Southwest reignited his prewar modernist sensibilities and postwar imagination for the possibilities of art drawn from Indigenous cultures and peoples, folk primitivism, and America’s varied and vast natural landscapes. Kauffer had an eye for the local and aimed to give it universal voice in an international idiom.9
The South in Harlem
When Carl Van Vechten took Kauffer on a tour of Harlem, Kauffer was thrilled by its jazz cabarets and Black nightlife as a visitor to New York and later as a resident. Kauffer relied on van Vechten as a patron and through him had access to major African American literature, art, and culture. While still at Nonesuch Press, Kauffer had illustrated the mostly Black characters in the slave ship mutiny of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno to much acclaim. His art illustrating Black characters became well known, part and parcel of an international vogue for Harlem and African art during the interwar high modernist period.10
Kauffer’s work for African American writers did not always meet with satisfaction on both sides. Letters exchanged between Langston Hughes and van Vechten show that Hughes was unhappy with Kauffer’s artwork for Shakespeare in Harlem (1942). Hughes wanted his Black characters to appear more modern, so he strongly objected to portrayals of Black hair as “nappy,” or natural. His disgruntlement is measured best by his anecdote to van Vechten that he took off Kauffer’s book jacket at poetry readings, disapproving of the cover’s gambling dice and a wishbone held by a brown hand. Despite Hughes’s desire for updated, positive representations of African Americans, the illustrations in Shakespeare in Harlem are innovative in technique: on the facing page to each of Hughes’s poems, striking white lines etched into rich black matte backgrounds limn Black portraits that stand for the poems’ lyric speakers and at other times offer abstract drawings of specific motifs, such as hands. The technique used in the artwork evokes experimental photograms, or “rayographs.” This technique is usually attributed to Man Ray, who shared a studio and darkroom with Kauffer in London in 1935 when Man Ray produced them. Later, Hughes praised Kauffer’s typography, cover, and illustrations for Shakespeare in Harlem even as he continued to question whether the wrong drawing had not occasionally been used for some poems.11
One such portrait and its poem illustrate the difference between Hughes’s and Kauffer’s artistic engagements with African American culture and contemporary politics. Hughes’s 1941 poem “Southern Mammy Sings” adopts blues rhythms and call-and-response oral traditions in its structure. Humor colors the colloquial wordplay in the opening stanza, in which proper names are given to characters to signal their social roles:
Miss Gardner’s in her garden.
Miss Yardman’s in her yard.
Miss Michaelmas is at de mass
And I am gettin’ tired!
I am gettin’ tired!
The nations they is fightin’
And the nations they done fit.
Sometimes I think that white folks
Ain’t worth a little bit.
Ain’t worth a little bit.
The continued use of dialect keeps the perspective grounded in the South. But by the second stanza, the gaze shifts to politics. It moves beyond the region, evoked by the title, and reinforced by dialect locking arms with place, to the world, where nations compete and wage war. The South’s racial politics are hereby repositioned in a global frame, where the fight for democracy and freedom against fascism and totalitarianism will soon involve America as thoroughly as it has already roiled Europe. The verb “fight” takes as its past tense the creative and comical “fit,” and in the following lines, more than one reader might smile at being tempted to say a more colorful rhyming expletive in lieu of “bit.” The speaker’s Black identity, hinted at in southern dialect, begins to emerge explicitly in the contrast and critique of “white folks.” The poem, in full below, finishes like this:
Last week they lynched a colored boy.
They hung him to a tree.
That colored boy ain’t said a thing
But we all should be free.
We all should be free.
Not meanin’ to be sassy
And not meanin’ to be smart—
But sometimes I think that white folks
Just ain’t got no heart.
Just ain’t got no heart.
The vital third stanza ups the ante in a blues key as the speaker doubles down on a political theme close to home: a “colored boy” has been lynched for speaking his mind about racial justice. The second and final stanzas frame this one, as the speaker talks back (gets “smart” and “sassy”) to the rationalized violence and morality of “white people” and, by extension, the nations they built and the civilization they claim to fight for. The final stanza opens by deprecating and disavowing the power of the crime for which the boy was lynched—speaking one’s mind—resolving finally into a resigned moral condemnation of the absent “heart” of white society. By the poem’s conclusion, a maternal southern voice has said her piece as she “sings” away the lynching blues. Her voice merges intertextually to earlier, starkly activist and angry voices in Hughes’s poetry: his controversial language, Black Christ imagery, and Mother Mary “mammy” in “Christ in Alabama” (1931) would appear in the Scottsboro Limited pamphlet published by the Golden Stair Press of van Vechten and Prentiss Taylor in 1932. Both poems draw the connection between the South’s lynching violence and the fight against fascism abroad since WWI, points made even earlier and more sharply in Hughes’s “The Colored Soldier” (1919) from The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations (1931).12