14 Iconic Book Covers from the ’50s That Would Spark Controversy in Today’s Visual Culture

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The 1950s was a rich literary era with countless masterpieces emerging reflecting the society post World War II. The covers of this book encapsulated the ongoing trends, issues, and attitudes that these authors captured, weaving a narrative around them. However, these covers have showcased imagery that does not align with the values and restrictions of the present-day visual culture. These issues range from gender discrimination and racial stereotypes to explicit and violent content.

Here are 14 iconic book covers from the ’50s that would spark controversy in today’s visual culture.

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Lolita

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Vulgar and inappropriate content approved by media houses dates back to the 1950s, and Lolita, written by Vladimir Nabokov, is a prime example of this. The cover of this book depicts a twelve-year-old girl wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and suggestively licking a lollipop. This cover is offensive for many reasons, first and foremost for the of a minor, followed by the storyline, which deals with the obsession of an old man over her.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

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This book had a few explicit covers before it was banned in the United States, India, Japan, Australia, and Canada for its obscenity. One cover depicted a topless Lady Chatterley from behind on the bed, whereas the other one was her indulging passionately with her lover. This book, written by D.H. Lawrence, was first published in 1928 and is notorious for its tale revolving around affairs, class, and the exploration of passion. Such themes alongside covers will not be passed today.

Catcher in the Rye

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While this cover may not be that explicit or inappropriate, the context and the story regarding the “Catcher in the Rye,” published in 1951, would surely spark controversy. The book was banned a decade later in most US schools and libraries. The cover is a rough sketch depicting a carousel horse and the protagonist’s hat inspired by James Earle Fraser’s famous sculpture, “The End of the Trail”. The uncontrolled horse would later be interpreted as the wildness and rebellious passionate desires that “jump over the fence” transitioning into adulthood.

Peyton Place

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Women are often viewed as weak and always require help. The cover of Peyton Place, written by Grace Metalious, promotes the same notion but adds an extra layer of controversy with images of women in a scandalous manner set in a small town. This cover would be controversial for its stereotypical and scandalous references to female fragility and victimization.

Don’t Go Near the Water

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The cover of this book, written by William Brinkley in 1959, propagates the infamous male gaze that objectifies women. Women in scantily dressed attire sitting on beach chairs are preyed upon by men and naval officers on the beach from behind. The depiction of women in such a manner further promotes their subversion and fuels the lustful desires of those men.

Kings Go Forth

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The controversial cover of the book “King Go Forth,” written by Joe David Brown in the late 1940s but popularised in the early 1950s, featured a white soldier holding a gun to a black man’s head. This story, captured in a wartime setting, perpetuates racist violence and the typical suppression of black men by white soldiers. There is also a stark heroic contrast between the two races, which would align with the values of today’s visual culture.

Kiss Me, Deadly

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Most of the covers throughout the 1950s had the typical woman on their covers: She either had to be rescued or was dominated by a man. She could not oppose him, and this undertone tells a lot about the mindset in those times, similar to the cover of Kiss Me Deadly by Mickey Spillane. It features a scantily dressed woman dominated by a man who is pointing a gun to her head, typical of pulp fiction covers from the era. The image is violent and would not adhere to the visual culture of today for the exploitative representation of the woman.

A Date with Judy

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“A Date With Judy” is a comic book written by Fredrick Manfred that soon evolved to become a famous radio and television series. The cover of this book depicts Judy, who has an hourglass figure glared upon by several boys left and right who are adoring her. Their wide eyes and expressions tell a lot about what they are looking at, reinforcing the male gaze. The question of beauty standards also arises as to whether only an hourglass figure can attract the opposite gender, nonetheless making this cover invalid in today’s visual culture.

Tropic of Cancer

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The novel “Tropic Of Cancer ” by Henry Miller was initially published in 1934 but was soon banned in the United States. It was reissued in 1953, with its cover depicting undressed and semi-undressed women in front of a mirror or a shot from behind. The main reason for its ban was due to its obscenity, but it was later declared as non-obscene by the US Supreme Court in 1964. The cover has been changed as it does not align with the modern visual culture, criticizing it for provocative and explicit imagery.

On the Road

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The first edition of the book “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, published in 1957, is criticized for its rebellious backdrop consisting of violent acts against women and vandalism. The updated covers under the subtitle “Explosive epic of the Beat Generation ”, showcase the same against the backdrop of a man hitting alongside young men in wild poses. This sense of nonconformity aligns with the novel’s theme, which aims to evoke freedom; however, it is not acceptable now. Romanticizing behaviors like substance abuse or glorifying violence is not a characteristic of today’s visual culture.

Junkie

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There have been several reprints and versions of “Junkie” written by William S. Burroughs, each attempting to showcase different themes. One of the major themes of the narrative is drugs and substance abuse, which was reflected in the cover since its launch in 1953. In one cover, a man is grappling with a girl in an alley, while the updated one featured a hand on a blood-red backdrop holding a syringe, glittering under a streetlight. While drug use is an openly discussed topic and awareness is spread against it, such graphics may trigger a lot of people.

Doctor in Love

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The practice of sexualizing every occupation in society needs to come to an immediate halt. The original cover of Richard Gordon’s novel, “Doctor in Love,” did not portray how nurses work alongside hospital doctors. The feature depicted the nurse wrapping her hands and legs around the doctor, and it was not in a modest manner. Other covers feature the doctor carrying the young women in vulgar attire, surrounded by other girls. Today’s standards do not tolerate sexualizing nurses and doctors while disrespecting the profession in such a manner.

The G String Murders

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Gypsy Rose Lee’s book, “The G String Murders” was initially published in 1941 but reprinted in 1957, having been republished once again in 2005 under the Women Write Pulp series. The cover of the book contains explicit and suggestive imagery showcasing scenes with women in provocative poses. The women on the covers initially and throughout the revised version have been smoking and dressed inappropriately around a detective. The key detail of the covers is the highlighted G string and the woman’s bare body, which would not spark outrage due to the nuance of representation.

We Walk Alone

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In contemporary times, widespread awareness, protests, and the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community have led to their recognition and acceptance. Their representation is captured in the cover of Ann Aldrich’s book, “We Walk Alone,” which features a woman in the dark, isolated because she is a lesbian. Published back in 1955, such representation and covers now would be highly controversial as they indirectly perpetuate negative stereotypes. Regardless of the true meaning of the cover and struggles, the imagery might be interpreted as reinforcing outdated views.

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