Lynd Ward, “Vertigo” (1937)

Lynd Ward’s final wood block novel, Vertigo, completes a series of statements on how capital had crushed the American people.   All of novels expressed to some degree the fate of individuals trapped into systems of oppression, alienation, or poverty.  In most of these novels, these forces were abstract, mythical, or not even seen.  Only in Madman’s Drum do we see the persecutor in any human terms.  In Song without Words, the horror of the world in the 1930s is represented in terrifying images, rats, or symbols.  In Vertigo we get the most complete and human portrayal of the victims of Great Depression America as well as the oppressors.  We are reminded that we can name names and that the actions of powerful people directly cause our suffering.  We may want to blame “the system” and we should.  But attacking “the system” should not prevent us from pointing out criminal behavior of our bosses.

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Ward wrote on Vertigo: “During the thirties there were very few people, whether artists or not, who could remain uninvolved, either on a direct personal level or indirectly as human beings of conscience.  It seemed that only the morally crippled or the socially irresponsible could fail to react to the obvious effect that vast, complicated, and impersonal social forces were having on the substance of so many individual lives.” (654)  Vertigo attempts to give some precise blame rather than express ennui at “impersonal social forces.”

Vertigo is divided into three stories.  The first (“The Girl”) considers a young woman’s life from 1929 to 1935.  The second (“An Ederly Gentleman”) documents a year in the life of a rich capitalist.  The third (“The Boy”) examines one week in the bleak life of “The Girl” boyfriend or fiance.  There three lives are interconnected.  More importantly, the girl and the boy suffer due to the decisions of the elderly gentleman and in different ways the elder survives on the sacrifice of the two lovers.

The girl is quite talented musically.  Her father gives her a violin as a gift and she matures into a musician.  In 1929, she invites her father to her graduation.  Here the working class community comes together.  A man there gives a speech about how the working people of America built the country.  The girl and her sweetheart leave the graduation and attend a carnival.  They look into a crystal ball and see their future.  She will be a great musician and he will become an engineer.  This is the American dream as it was sold to the Americans of the 1920s.  Work hard and your effort will be repaid with success.  At the carousel, the boy grabs a ring and uses it to propose to the girl.  In 1930, the relationship is made more formal and the boy goes off to look for work.  In 1931, she hears no news of the boy.  (It is likely in this year that the final two sections of this story take place.)  In 1932, we learn more about her father.  He is an accountant at Eagle Corporation of America, but is laid off.  He purchases a life insurance policy and tries to kill himself.  He only wounds himself thanks to the girl’s intervention.  The next three years are examined only in passing.  We learn that she plays for her father during his recovery, that the family has to sell most of their possessions, and her story ends with her in the relief line.

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The elderly gentleman is the owner of Eagle Corporation.  It begins with the man purchasing art, dedicating a Great War memorial, giving out food to the poor at Thanksgiving, and attending a concert.  He is clearly concerned about his image.  In January, we learn more about what he does.  He is a frail man.  Ward shows him naked in an early plate to emphasize this point.  He needs help to dress and had servants prepare his food.  At a company meeting, he learns that profits are down.  Many people give advice to him.  In February, the man vacations in some warm climate and relaxes on the beach.  In March, he returns to the city and oversees the docking of all the worker’s wages.  In April, these cuts continue with lay offs and reduced breaks.  In May, the man hires a private detective agency to crush any labor activism, which, of course, emerges in response to these cuts.  Despite his earlier charities, the man is a typical, cynical capitalist.  In June, the strike heats up into violence.  In July, although he is falling ill the man achieves victory over the strikers by brutally suppressing it with the help of the nation guard.  In August, he falls seriously ill.  In September, he nearly dies but is saved by a blood transfusion.  In October, he remains ill. In November, he learns that his new measures were a success and the company profits have increased.

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The boy, who is indeed “the girls” sweetheart, who never returned from his quest to claim the American dream, is the focus of the third part.  It takes place over one week.  In a prelude, we learn that he was the son of a grocer who abused him, but remained optimist about his dreams to become a engineer.  We also learn that he left town after a violent confrontation with his father.  He had difficulty finding work on the road.  On Monday, he witnessed a terrible car accident.  He steals the dead victims clothes.  On Tuesday, he is on a train but gets off and looks for a job in the city.  On Wednesday, he passes a sign recruiting for the military.  He considers that, but sees a someone who looks like “the girl.” He realizes that without money he cannot return to her.  He follows a “Help Wanted” sign but the large number of applicants makes his success unlikely.  On Thursday, he goes to a job placement agency.  He gets a job and goes to the site but when he gets to the construction site he finds that the building has been delayed.  On Friday he finds a job but learns it is strikebreaking.  On Saturday, he almost robs a man leaving a bank but another robber gets to the victim first.  The police intervene and kill the mugger.  He finally gets some money by selling his blood.  It will be this blood that is later used to save the life of the elderly man.  The final plate shows the boy and the girl, worn down by their experiences on a carnival ride, a sad reminder of their earlier happy dreams.

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Ward is arguing in Vertigo that the American dream has been crushed and that it has been crushed by identifiable individuals, such as the elderly man.  We are not in the realm of stock images an allegories, which is where we started in Gods’ Man.

I want to read Ward’s work as a window into the populist culture of the Great Depression, a reminder that although we live in an age where film, television, and literature praise wealth and the powerful that there was a time when America’s culture had a radical potential.

Ward pioneered a type of story telling that liberated the reader from the tyranny of the printed word.  More like an oral tradition, his novels have a meaning that changes on retelling.  Maybe we need more of this today.

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