It was in the depths of the Great Depression that Lynd Ward created his the masterpiece of pictorial narrative, Wild Pilgrimage. Its narrative reminds us of Gods’ Man, with a frustrated laborer fleeing the city for the countryside. The difference is that in Wild Pilgrimage, the countryside is far from idyllic and the protagonist returns to the city to struggle against the enemies of his class. It is a pessimistic rejection of individual escape and what we might no recognize as lifestyle politics. The title derives from Arturo Giovannitti. Ward included a passage of his writing as an epigraph: “Thinking things that cannot be chained and cannot be locked, but that wander far away in the sunlit world, each in a wild pilgrimage after a destined goal.” Ward discussed his inspiration in a 1974 essay on the work. “At no time was the impulse [to flee civilization] more evident than during the thirties, but because of the nature of the times it operated in a variety of ways. There were some who sought a way out for themselves alone. There were those who fled the urban and industrial wastes and sought a hermit’s refuge in whatever place there was a hint of sanctuary. There were others who, seeing so much hunger and so little work close at hand, roamed aimlessly across the land, hoping that in some far-off place they would find at least some work and less hunger. And there were those who, equally disenchanted, felt that while flight might provide an answer for a few, for the many there was no choice but to stay, and that by confronting one problem at a time, dealing first with the one closest to hand, a day might come that would be better.” (794-795)
The novel has no internal divisions but is divided into seven parts, each separated by images of the protagonist’s mental realm printed in off-red (I will call them “dreams”).
Scene 1: A factory closes and the workers return home. Some visit prostitutes, some listen to a communist, others go home, but the protagonist wanders through his working-class town. He sees a funeral procession and imagines a world outside of the factory and the small town for himself. He fears it might be his last chance before he dies.
Dream 1: Industrial society is a prison for the protagonist. He hopes to break down the bars and escape to the wilderness, where he will find a nymph for companionship.
Scene 2: The countryside is not what he imagined in his dream. He comes across the lynching of a black man. In sad despair he picks a small flower but members of the lynch mob perform the same sentimental act. He finds a farm and begins working for the farmer. At the end of the day he enjoys some contentment for performing meaningful work, enjoys dinner with the family, and finds a place to sleep in the barn. He looks on a woman (the farmer’s wife or daughter we do not really know). An ugly man with no family of his own, he cannot contain his yearning.
Dream 2: The man fantasizes about a life with the woman. Recreating the idyllic paradise he imagines in the first dream.
Scene 3: He approaches the woman who screams in fear. The farmer arrives and throws the man out of his home.
Dream 3: He imagines himself as being chased by the lynch mob and sees several previous victims. He sees the noose set up for him.
Scene 4: Lost in the forest, the man comes upon another farm. He steals some carrots. The farm owner catches him and puts him to work. At night they enjoy the carrots for their dinner. The farmer introduces him to a book that seems to have radical anti-capitalist themes (the cover shows a man impaled on a knife). He ponders the lesson.
Dream 4: He imagines himself in a pit of fire and the farmer pulls him out. He turns around and notices several others in the fire, with ropes around their necks. These ropes are controlled by allegorical figures of capital. The protagonist and the farmer uplift the pit of fire, which is actually a giant ball, and throws it into space. It is a clear symbol of the ability of a unified people to overthrow the oppressive system.
Scene 5: The man and the farmer are at work. He enjoys an evening of relaxation by the fire.
Dream 5: He imagines himself at work and observers an overseer. He uses his sledgehammer to chase the thug away. He flees to his master on top a long stairway.
Scene 6: The man leaves the farm. On his way home he passes a shanty town. His arrival at home comes right in the middle of a strike (or some sort of class war fought between the police and the workers of the town). The protagonist immediately enters into the fight.
The Final Dream: He imagines a final clash between himself and capital. After his victory he lifts up the head of his enemy and its is his own.
The Final Scene: He struggles against a police officer, which ends in his death. The final plate shows a woman in sorrow looking at the dead bodies, left behind after the brawl.
Ward is expressing some degree of ambivalence. The violent confrontation, imagined by the protagonist to be between himself and capital, turns out to be between two sets of working people, police and the factory workers. Another unavoidable theme is the relationship between thought and action. Previously I had looked at William James, who argues that action informs thought and our conception of free will. Ward is of the old-type here, believing in the necessity of thought, discontent, and vision as the springboard for action.
Having looked at three of Ward’s novels, we can also make an observation about assumptions about the roles of men and women. In all three novels, the exploited are men (the artist, the slave, the striking workers, the protagonist in Wild Pilgrimage). Women emerge as objects of sexual desire, protectors of a stable home-life, or denziens of idyllic scenes better positioned in a Greek tale. As frustrating as that is, we can still find in Ward part of the collective frustration felt by Americans in the 1930s, grappling with the logical consequences of inequality and capitalism.