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.

Lynd Ward, “Wild Pilgrimage” (1932)

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Lynd Ward, “Gods’ Man” (1929)

Lynd Ward wrote graphic novels that did not require any words.  He learned the technique from reading German attempts at constructing narratives from wood block prints.  He introduced this method to the United States and created astoundingly expressive novels.  This methods did not seem to evolve from the comics that might be the ancestors of contemporary graphic novels.  Ward never read those early comic, having been forbidden by his strict, yet politically progressive, minister father.  His six graphic novels were rooted in the tradition of 1930s populism.  The “proletrianization of American culture” that historian Micheal Denning called the left-ward turn of 1930s culture is strongly expressed in these six novels.  According to Denning, the strong Communist and socialist movements, the government investment in the arts, and the trauma of the Great Depression informed an entire generation of culture.  (Indeed, we might add, it was the cultural milieu of the “greatest generation” if we want to participate in that generational hero-worship.)  Gods’ Man is the first of Ward’s novels, published in the same week of the Stock Market crash of 1929.

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Ward’s suspicion of the artistic merit of comics is laid out in a short essay he wrote on Gods’ Man (included in Library of America collection and completely unnecessary for understanding his tale).  “It [pictorial narrative] has a long history and includes visual sequences in a variety of media.  It ranges in time from the wall decorations in Egyptian tombs to contemporary comic stripes.  The measuring stick, if anyone is making a list of what is or is not a pictorial narrative, is whether the communication of what is and what is happening is accomplished entirely or predominately in visual terms.” (779)  Most comic books fail this test.

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Gods’ Man is put together into five parts and contains 139 wood block images.  Part one (“The Brush”) starts with an artist on a ship.  He lands and observes a city in the distance.  It is a modern city that reminds us of New York, with tall skyscrapers.  He meets a beggar and gives him his last coin.  When he arrives an a suburban village, he is taken in by an innkeeper but lacks the money to pay the innkeeper.  He tries to pay with a painting but the innkeeper laughs.  Apparently he is not such a good artist.  A strange man pays his bill and looks at his work.  He tells the artist that he owns a special brush, previously owned by the greatest artists in history.  The artist can have it if he signs a Faustian contract.  (The terms are not spelled out.)  The artist signs it.  He is like the proletariat.  Not without skills, but hardly exceptional.  Lacking any wealth but his mental and physical capacities.  The Faustian bargain that all workers engage in is their willingness to sell their precious labor for mere survival.

Part two (“The Mistress”) explores the alienation from labor introduced by capitalism and helps explain why we so often accept that alienation.  The artist enters the city and is overwhelmed by its power.  He starts painting which the new brush.  The people of the city are instantly amazed at his prowess and rich man offers to be his agent.  The rich man immediately sells the painting he is working on to the eager public.  He procures for the artist a penthouse studio, an apartment, and introduces him to the social elite, including “the mistress.” The artist is out of place among these people, but eventually finds his place among then, aided by alcohol.  Bedding the beautiful woman incorporates him into that elite culture even more.  The artist is there for the money he can make other people.  Too naive to understand this now, he will come to learn that his alienation from his artistic work comes at too high a price.

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Part three (“The Brand”) explores the broader alienation and atomization of modern urban life.  “The mistress” admits she is only sleeping with the artist for money.  He flees the apartment and wanders the city.  Ward describes the loneliness and horror of urban life brilliantly in a few images of the artist wandering.  He sees couples on the street, but always imagines the woman is “the mistress.”  He imagines her laughing at his foolishness.  This obsessions leads to an altercation with a policeman, who puts him in jail.  He is able to escape by killing the man bringing his food.  The artist is forced to flee the city.

Part four (“The Wife”) finds the artist escaping from the city to a pastoral paradise.  Ward seems to dislike cities.  This will not be the only time his characters flee the city for nature.  A woman there nurses him back to health and shows him the beauty of nature by taking him to observe the night sky, far from the city.  He falls in love with this woman and they have a child.  He creates something of worth for himself, not for the rich man, and without the aid of the brush.

Part five (“The Portrait”) is set a few years later.  The artist is training his son how to paint.  The man who sold him the brush returns and asks for a portrait.  The artist eagerly takes him up the mountain, thinking this will complete the contract he signed at the beginning.  When the painting is near complete, the man exposes his face and revealed himself as a demon.  The artist dies and the brush returns to its owner.

Gods’ Man explores several themes of importance to this blog.  The first is the relationship between poverty/want and our alienation from our abilities.  A second theme is the corruption of urban life and Ward’s clear preference for the countryside.  Here I am more skeptical.  Urban life provides a great number of alternatives for individual tastes and is inherently more flexible than rural communities.    As I explored way back in the early days of this blog, intentional communities in rural areas can often be more internally oppressive than modern urban environments.  Ward’s image of rural areas as single farmers or women in a cottage is simply silly.

If I were to interpret the entire story it is that the artist resemble the modern industrial working class.  They sold themselves to capital for the possibility or success in urban environments.  Even those who make it, like our artist, are being used and will be discard when no longer necessary for profit.  The deal the proletariat made is Faustian.  He cannot escape it horrors.  The flight to the countryside is a mad fantasy.  Ward will re-explore this theme in Wild Pilgrimage with a character who comes back from his time in the countryside with a desire to destroy capitalism.  For Ward, this seems the more mature option.  Both characters will die, but one will die as a victim and the other as a revolutionary.