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Book cover design disaster – 1978 edition of Tristessa

tristessaMcGraw Hill – what were you thinking back in 1978 when you brought out Jack Kerouac’s Tristessa with this remarkable cover. This cover, featuring a chicken sitting on a woman’s head, sparked a lengthy debate yesterday at this office about the symbolism behind this artwork.

Tristessa is a novella about a drug addicted prostitute in Mexico City. I believe the book was first published in 1960. So why did the designer put a chicken on that woman’s napper? The wikipedia page says ‘Allen Ginsberg, in describing the book, wrote, “Tristessa’s a narrative meditation studying a hen, a rooster, a dove, a cat, a dog, family meat, and a ravishing, ravished junkie lady.”‘

A lady called Karen Davis presented at a paper called The Dignity, Beauty, and Abuse of Chickens: As Symbols and in Reality at the International Conference on The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History at Yale University in May 2002. (I’m not making this up.)

She writes, ‘The chicken figures as a symbol of parental and spiritual love in the literature of the West. In Matthew 23:37, for example, Jesus invokes the symbol of a mother hen and her chicks to express the relationship he desires to have with the Hebrew people when he says, “O, Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings.”‘

My marketing colleague Jordan Gordon has informed me about the slang term ‘chicken head ho’ which refers to a pain-in-the-ass girl who talks nonsense incessantly (and boy, I have known plenty of those). Apparently, it’s a fairly modern creation.

Of course, there is lots of symbolism around cocks and roosters for their crowing at dawn and willingness to fight. I’m sure McGraw Hill’s design team had good reason in 1978 but time has not treated this particular piece of artwork very well. Chickens should not be put on the heads of ladies, even if they are prostitutes.

Just for giggles. Here are two other covers for Tristessa (and there are more). I love the Italian one.


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