John Kenneth Galbraith: “The Great Crash” (1955)

As the market came to be considered less and less a long-run register of corporate prospects and more and more a product of manipulative artifice, the speculator was required to give it his closest, and preferably his undivided attention. Signs of incipient pool activity had to be detected at the earliest possible moment, which meant that one needed to have his eyes on the tape. However, even the person who was relying on hunches, incantations, or simple faith, as distinct from the effort to assess the intentions of the professionals, found it hard to be out of touch. (250)

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One of the clear lessons of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash—his blow-by-blow recounting of the 1929 stock market crash—is that an unstable, bubble economy is actually closely examined. The fact that so many eyes on the missed what was happening is not a surprise, not some mysterious contradiction in economics. In fact, it is because so many people looked narrowly at the workings of the stock market that no one was looking long-term. More eyes did not make for better analysis any more than more students make for a better classroom or more dishes on a menu make for a better restaurant.

This short work is not theoretically sophisticated and lacks the original insights of the three other ground-breaking texts in this Library of America volume, but it happened to be his most consistently popular text, even a favorite of Fidel Castro. I suppose it was readers love of the drama of the late 1920s stock market bubble and crash that made it so popular. What Galbraith is careful not to do is make the stock market crash a morality tale. As a good economist, he understands that there is a logic to even an irrational bubble. What is irrational in the macro makes perfect sense for the individual or the firm. As a narrative, however, it is not the easiest to summarize. Thankfully, for people who want to cut to the chase, there is a final chapter called “Cause and Consequence” about the root causes of the Great Depression, which followed the stock market crash. The same conditions that created the crash feed into the depression. This final chapter also makes Galbraith’s book so important to revisit in times like this, for most of these conditions are with us now, hanging over us ominously.

These causes were (1) inequality, (2) a poor corporate structure and illegality, (3) a weak and overleveraged banking system, (4) low foreign demand for US goods, and (5) myopia among economists. Galbraith studied all of this in other texts. An ideal corporate structure is, for instance, his major focus on The New Industrial State. Inequality and its consequences are studied at length in The Affluent Society. The tendency of economists to look at the world through the window of obsolete theories is also laid out in The Affluent Society. I only mention this because either it means that Galbraith knew what he was talking about, or that he looked at the Great Depression through his own theories.

I will leave my review of The Great Crash at that, because I am planning on some extended reviews of Galbraith’s ideas in the next two or three posts. This book is worth reading, especially for people who want to dig up dirt on corporate corruption and excesses. If the daily newspaper was not giving you enough already.

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Tennessee Williams, “Spring Storm” (1937)

One of my goals for this year in my blog is to expand types of writing. Up to now, I have focused on non-fiction writing, novels, and short stories. I think my coverage has been diverse, there are two areas of writing that I have neglected: poetry and the stage. To begin correcting this, I will take the next two weeks or so reading the collected plays of Tennessee Williams, collected in two volumes. An immediate problem that comes up is that my normal strategy of gobbling around 150 pages a day will not work if I want to give each work the attention it deserves. These two volumes collected over 20 of Williams’ plays. If I take it a work at a time, I will risk writing a longer series than even my lengthy looks at Philip K. Dick and Mark Twain. For now, I plan to post everyday one or two plays to keep pace.

Tennessee Williams wrote Spring Storm for a playwright course at the University of Iowa. He had previously seen a handful of his works staged by amateur and student groups. Spring Storms was a failure in his course and the St. Louis theater troupe, “the Mummers,” refused to perform it despite putting on some of his other works. He was twenty-six when this was written and he has spent most of his adult life facing the Great Depression. Spending most of that time writing, he attended journalism school and performed various jobs, including working at a branch of the International Shoe Company, which his father manages. His career had a slow start and he attended various colleges. Spring Storm was never performed during Williams’ lifetime.

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The social context of Spring Storms is an old Southern aristocratic family—the Critchfields—in a decline accelerated by the Great Depression. As the older generation of the family sees it, their last asset is their daughter Heavenly. By marrying the son of a well-off family, Arthur Shannon, the family’s financial future can be improved. As with much Great Depression literature, class exists at the center of this play. It runs through all relationships between the characters and drives the major action. None of the younger generation are particularly interested in the class divide, however. Whether this is due to their youthful naivety or a more progressive attitude toward class due to the Depression is open to interpretation. In the background of the Critchfield family is the historical legacy of Colonel Wayne, a Confederate officer who fought at Gettysburg. His portrait hands in the background and is commonly discussed. Heavenly even has conversations with him.

Young Tennessee Williams

Young Tennessee Williams

Four young men and women form the center of the story. Heavenly Critchfield has recently begun a sexual relationship with Richard (Dick) Miles. She suggest to her parents that she is pregnant by him, but this could be a means to avoid marriage to Arthur. Dick is presented as a working class dreamer. Arthur is well-off and has spent some time in Europe, where he sowed his wild oats and enjoyed various privileges that money provides. He is having a relationship with Hertha. Williams describes her as follows. “Hertha is thin and dark, about twenty-eight. Without money or social position, she has to depend upon a feverish animation and cleverness to make her place among people. She has an original mind with a distinct gift for creative work. She is probably the most sensitive and intelligent person in Port Tyler, Mississippi.” (13–14) Unlike Dick, Hertha is smart enough to engage with the world on its own terms. Dick, from a similar class background is more reckless. The initial pairings break class assumptions about who should be with who, but the young people’s indifference to class runs deeper. Arthur holds a grudge against Dick and Heavenly for the insults they lodged at him in school. His money did not translate into class privilege in the context of the playground.

Pushed by her family, Heavenly begins a courtship with Arthur, but she is quite cold and coy with him. She is much more interested in Dick but knows he is unstable. Arthur is filled with jealousy and resentment toward Heavenely and Dick. In a type of misdirected vengeance he focuses on seducing Hertha. His monologue, directed toward Hertha in an attempt to seduce her, is central to the play.

Yes. I told her that I was in love with her, and she said that I should go out and get drunk because that was the only thing that would do me any good. So I got drunk. It’s the first time I ever got drunk in my life and it was swell. Till I started thinking of her making love to Dick Miles. . . . I can forget all that with you, can’t I? You’re a girl, too. You could make love as well as she could. But not with Dick Miles. With me. What are you backing away for? Are you scared? That’s flattering. Nobody’s ever been scared of me before. I was like you, Hertha. I hid behind books all the time because they used to call me sissy when I was a kid in school. I never got over that. Not till tonight when I got drunk. God! I never knew it could be so good to get drunk and feel like a man inside. Literature and the arts. Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms. Concerts, matinees, recitals—what’s all that? If I told you you’d blush. You don’t like that kind of language. Sure, I sat through all that stuff and thought it was great. Got much stuff publishes in those little magazines with the big cultural movements. Art for art’s sake. Give America back to the Indians. I thought I was being highbrow. Intellectual. The hell with that stuff. Dick Mile’s go the right idea. He was one that she gave herself to, not me, not me. The one that got drunk and had himself a good time, he was the one that got Heavenly, and me with my intellectual pretensions, my fancy education, and my father’s money—what did I get? Pushed in the face! (76–77)

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In this monologue, we see Arthur’s class resentment come forth. Whatever freedom his wealth gave him—evidenced by some trysts in Europe and his social clout in the town—he still experiences frustration over the experiences and social circle that his wealth excludes him from. Williams may be feeding into the cultural movements of the Great Depression that focused on the exclusionary nature of class and the divide across America people “the people” and the elite.

Arthur’s sexual aggression toward Hertha leads to her suicide, which his interprets as a murder that he is responsible for. (The stage notes were a bit opaque for me about how she died, whether it was murder or suicide.) Dick, ever a dreamer, quits his work as a local courier and flees both the town and Heavenly. All the characters are thus left alone, their different class backgrounds and perspectives on life making them incompatibles.

Ah, there is much more that could be touched on, most significantly the division between the ages groups and the values changing from nineteenth century to twentieth century America.

James T. Farrell, “Judgment Day” (1935): How to Sleep Through a Revolutionary Moment

Grim-faced men in working clothes and overalls with an interspersing of women in their ranks marched slowly along a high fence surrounding a factory in a mid-western town, watched by special deputies who stood at regularly-spaced intervals with clubs and truncheons ready. Above the geometrically patterned factory windows, two chimney’s smoked. (594)

He paused at South Shore Drive and looked across at the arched entrance-way to the club grounds, wondering again what should he do now. Carroll Dowson had just joined South Shore Country Club, he remembered, and was getting up in the world. Well, the day would come when Studs Lonigan could join a swell club like that if he wanted to. (739–740)

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The final volume of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, Judgment Day, reads like a guidebook on how to squander a revolutionary movement. In the first two volumes of the series we see Studs Lonigan squander his intelligence and potential in a half-hearted resistance against the institutions that dominate his life. His rebellion is only passive and usually unacknowledged. Studs rejects the “American” values of hard work. He rejects Catholic sexuality and religious practices. He even rejects his community, disregarding friends and family for short-term psychological advantage. Yet, into his late 20s and early 30s, Studs is still capable of resting his identity on these very structures. This is him in response to yet another leftist trying to awaken his political imagination.

Studs laughed at the crazy bastard. A Bolshevik. He supposed the guy was a nigger lover, too. Well, let the Bolshevik get tough. They’d be taken care of, just the same as the shines were during the race riots of ’19. (709)

This is meant to be embarrassing to read, especially after we have been following Studs with no amount of concerned interest for seven hundred pages. He treats the post-World War I Chicago race riots in the same what he treated his childhood brawl with a classmate. He turns what was a vulgar and ugly affair, with no redeeming features, into a celebration that long out lives the event. When looking at the previous volume in the series, I tried to approach the dilemma of Studs’ resistance to institutional confinement along with his embrace of those very structures as his personal identity. Two things make all of this harder to watch. First, Studs is getting old quickly. A life of drinking, smoking, and chasing women has left him worn beyond his years. He is around 30 now and has nothing to show for his life. Second, Studs has been placed in a moment of historical transformation. The novel is set in 1932, during the election campaign that would bring Franklin Delano Roosevelt to office. Studs is surrounded by revolutionaries and revolutionary activity. More so than in the other words in the series, Farrell populates this book with news, trying to hit home that Studs is sleeping through a storm.

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It is time to examine Farrell’s politics. He was from a union family; his father was a teamster in Chicago.  His writing career began in journalism, writing columns and book reviews for newspapers. In his mid-20s, while writing Young Lonigan he advocated racial integration at the University of Chicago dramatic association. After the Great Depression began, Farrell was writing articles for New Masses. His career is largely literary but he engages in political actions such as May Day marches and picketing publishers that fired leftists. By the time he was finishing the Studs Lonigan triology in 1935, Farrell was fully part of the leftist opposition in the United States. He became a follower of Leon Trotsky and was greatly affected by his murder, having earlier travelled to Mexico to support Trotsky in his legal difficulties there in 1937. During the Cold War, Farrell continued his vocal defenses of leftist writers and thinkers and also worked to support the growing United Auto Workers. In many ways, Farrell’s biography reads like a model example of Great Depression era American radicals. Knowing this makes it easier to read Studs Lonigan as a leftist critique of American working class provinciality and false consciousness.

Back to the tale. In Judgment Day, Farrell places Studs Lonigan in a revolutionary situation. Lonigan does everything he can to avoid facing the historical moment he was in. Instead he continued to shuffle through his life, which is becoming increasingly pathetic to watch. Some of his friends are in jail or dead, but this is not as tragic as Lonigan’s own living death. It also suggests the costs of his earlier recklessness. While we do not want to condemn every (or even most) efforts at pleasure seeking, Lonigan refused to ever examine critically the world he lived in, despite being given insight from many of the people in his life. The costs of this is he is impotent to do anything but accept the guidance of others.

Some of what Lonigan does in the first part of this novel include attend funerals and talk about the good old days. He had a steady girlfriend, Catherine, but he is rather indifferent to her. Lonigan realizes that she is a good hearted woman and would make a good wife, but he cannot help but think he is settling for less than he deserves because of her mediocre looks and figure. He cheats on her, they fight constantly, and the relationship goes nowhere despite a marriage proposal early in the story. He is constantly losing money in the stock market because he invests what little money he has on promises made by opportunities who (like President Hoover) promised the recovery was right around the corner. More than a game, it is one more burden on his already immobile existence. It is also evidence that Lonigan has no capacity to examine the world critically. He joins a secret Catholic brotherhood called the Order of Christopher. Of course, he fails to follow through on what membership in this group might provide to the now-middle-aged man.

Catherine properly diagnoses Studs’ problem during one of their fights. “Only you’re walking along here, so self-satisfied acting as if you were so pleased, with a head like a big balloon full of false pride, acting as if you thought yourself . . . indispensable.” (726) His response to this apt critique is the only strategy he has learned in almost 20 years on the streets. He tries to smash Catherine’s self-confidence. At the mid-point of Judgment Day Lonigan pays to sleep with a married woman who has lost her money gambling and feared to return to her husband empty handed. Yet, despite his betrayal, ridicule, and abuse of Catherine he is confident that a pleasant note preparing their reconciliation is waiting for him.

The second half of the novel really focuses on Studs rapid decline. After the argument with Catherine, he attempts to sleep with the gambler again but is humiliated and thrown out of her house. Studs, who rests much of his masculinity of a perception of his sexual prowess, is told “you don’t even know how to jazz.” (771) Failed, he returns to Catherine. After reuniting Studs rather violently has sex with her. As he apparently raped her and took her virginity, he feels instantly guilty about it and shows some humility before his friends refusing to gossip about it. Throughout their subsequent sexual relationship, Catherine insists on marrying soon. Studs knows that times are bad and he lost most of his savings in playing the stock market so I attempts to evade the commitment. The announcement that Catherine is pregnant forces his hand, but neither family understand why they must hurry to marry given the Depression. He looks for jobs and catches pneumonia and dies.

The political assertiveness of the first half of the novel falls away, for good reasons. Studs’ times for dreaming and making a name for himself ended with Catherine’s pregnancy. At that point, even if he had a political awakening (which he did not), he was forced to focus solely on the family. Responsibility got forced upon him is one way of saying it. Another way to say it is that Studs was forced into action. But is this not exactly the place the nation was at in the early 1930s? When writing this blog, I have rarely looked at what literary critics have been saying about these works, but I cannot help but see the Studs Lonigan trilogy as more than a description of working class life. Studs is a metaphor for America in the 1920s and 1930s. The Depression, like Catherine’s pregnancy, forced the nation into bold action. In 1935, Farrell has no way of knowing if the half measures of the New Deal would be enough. I suspect he would have found them limiting, which is why Lonigan has to die at the end.

In the second to last chapter, we see Studs’ father walking the street, bumping into a “Red parade.” Old man Lonigan has become increasingly fascist during the Depression, even suggesting the need for a Mussolini to help correct America’s economy with an emergency dictatorship. We are reminded at the end, through this parade, that many in the United States were not sleeping through the revolutionary moment. It also paints a sharp contrast to the street as it has been presented in the previous 900 pages. Instead of a place of rootless wandering, racial violence, and sexism, it becomes the space of re-creation and re-imagining. This takes place while Studs is dying (his father wonders if he is already dead).

Strange music filling the street, the shouts and cries of an approaching throng headed by an overcalled white man and a Negro carrying an American and a red flag, policeman stretched along the cubs in both directions, shabby people behind the line of bluecoats, a crowd constantly augmenting in front of the corner speakeasy saloon, children scampering and dodging through the group; all this befogged and confused Lonigan, and he puzzled with himself trying to figure what it was. . . The noise and music swelled in volume, and he told himself, as if in an argument with someone else, that with things as bad, why couldn’t the Reds let well enough alone. (934–935)

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Union Square Rally, 1930s

The scene goes on for quite some time, juxtaposing the lively parade scenes with the failure of Old Man Lonigan to understand that the people he condemned throughout his life were doing the promethean imagining that he and his son could not.

What shocks him above all is their capacity for political pleasure (something he never had through a lifetime of support for the Democratic Party).

He seemed happy. That frail little woman in blue. They were happy. And they didn’t look like dangerous agitators, that is, except the eight-balls. All black boys were dangerous, and they couldn’t be trusted farther than their noses. But the white ones, they looked like men and women, with faces the same as other men and women. He could see that most of them were poor, and many of them, like that fellow in gray dragging his feet, were tired. He wondered how they could be Reds and anarchists, so dangerous and so perverted that they even made little children into atheists. He shook his head in bewilderment, and repeated to himself that these people were happy. (940)

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Old Man Lonigan navigates the protests and starts drinking at a bar, spending the last moments of his son’s life angry and drunk.

 

 

James T. Farrell, “Young Lonigan” (1932)

It was just a well, because he wanted to slip around to the can and have a smoke before he joined the folks out in front to be told he looked so swell and all that boushwah. Inside the damp boys’ lavatory on the Indiana Avenue side of the building, he leaned against a sink and puffed away, absorbed in the ascending strands of smoke. He wondered if it was really a sin to smoke, and told himself that was all bunk. (35–36)

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It is time to take on Studs Lonigan. Studs Lonigan, one of the important figures in Great Depression-era literature, was the creation of 28-year-old James T. Farrell. Farrell was from a working class Irish immigrant family in Chicago. He has this in common with his most well-known literary creation. I cannot say for sure how much of what happened in these novels is autobiographical, but it seems likely that much of it was drawn from life. Studs was born around the same time Farrell was. They both attended Catholic grade school and liked to play baseball. While Farrell lives a long life as a productive writer, Studs dies young and worn out from a squandered life. As with Frank Norris, we are not given a simple morality tale. Like Norris’ Vandover, Studs is a product of his culture and environment. We can blame both for individual bad choices, but we would be misreading these texts to avoid appreciating the role of fate. Farrell clearly appreciated Norris, who is quoted at the beginning of the first novel about Studs Young Lonigan. (“A literature that cannot be vulgarized is no literature at all and will perish.”) Perhaps Studs Lonigan reflects this vulgarization of naturalism.

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Studs Lonigan’s life is told over the course of three novels, written between 1929 and 1934, and published between 1932 and 1935. They probably should be read together. Farrell has already seen the novels published as a single trilogy in 1935. I can imagine Studs becoming a kind of nostalgic working class figure for the Great Depression generation, even as it works as a warning against self-aggrandizement and reckless squandering of potential. I would want to read both at the same time. Studs’ more attractive and heroic moments (even if they are few) suggest the idealization of the working class experience, so common in New Deal-era literature. The metanarrative, of improper self-confidence and wasted potential is actually the story of the entire nation.

The story of Young Lonigan covers around one year in the life of Studs Lonigan. It begins with his imminent graduation, at the age of fourteen, from a Catholic grade school in Chicago. He begins to plan to attend high school but has no clear idea of what he wants to do. (Of course, his mother wants him to prepare for the priesthood.) Instead of going back to school, he just sort of drifts into a new group of friends who spend much of their time just hanging out, smoking, drinking, and fooling around with girls. This boredom leads to episodes of ethnic and racial violence and antagonism. The climax of the novel involves Studs’ participation in anti-Semitic intimidation. By the end of the novel, Studs has moved to the wrong side of the tracks.

Young Lonigan is also a story of generational conflict, education, and the struggle between the individual and the institution. Since these themes are all combined, I want to discuss it as a single unit and suggest it as a way to approach the text from a libertarian perspective. To start with, Studs’ parents have hopes for him, but are aware that their own life does not present much of a good model for them. For this reason, they entrust the local Catholic schools to set Studs on the right path. Education is clearly presented here a moral corrective much more than as a cultivator of autonomy and critical thinking. “Old Man Lonigan” himself was familiar with the streets but in his older age sees it as a warning and the reason for educating Studs through the church.

And the old gang. They were scattered now, to the very ends of the earth. Many of them were dead, like poor Paddy McCoy, Lord have mercy on his soul, whose ashes rested in a drunkard’s grave at Potter’s Field. Well, they were a find gang, and many’s the good man they drank under the table, but . . . well, most of then didn’t turn out so well. (16)

We quickly learn what a waste the investment in education was, if the goal was to set Studs to the correct moral path. One suspects that the teachers know this was well as anyone, which is why the priest devotes his graduation speech to a final plea to the students to evade Satan’s clutches. (If Catholic education worked as a moral correction, we suspect this would not be necessary.) If anything, the children learned to have only contempt for their teachers. Much of their education seems to involve learning how to evade the regulations of the school. Smoking seems to become one way that these young men express their independence from the lessons they were taught in school.

Just another cover

Just another cover

Another tension between the individual and the institution is seen in how central the community is to the thought of Studs’ parents. They are clearly very concerned with how the neighbors look on their son, his actions, and what he becomes. At a more vulgar level, they seemed to care that neighbors might think they were cheap if they did not send Studs’ to high school. Education for the Lonigan’s is almost completely detached from utility and is mostly about image.

We should not be surprised that Studs choses the streets over the schoolhouse. This is, in fact, the more practical and natural path. Indeed, this may be a general problem in mass education. It has never been explained to me why everyone is better off going to school. It seems each career and each regional context would have its own educational needs. For some, the street provides a more useful education than does the schoolroom. Studs’ choice to abandon his education for a rather unfortunate circle of friends is not strictly speaking irrational. It was rather the practical choice, given his choices as a working class, second-generation immigrant, youth. Yet, while it may have been the moral practical and natural of the two choices, we need to ask why Studs was given only two choices. I am not calling for massive dropouts of students, but questioning why the choice we give many working class urban youth is between the street and boring, irrelevant classrooms.

We learn just how tragic this limited choice was by the end of the novel. Studs’ education does not really end when he commits to the street. One thing he learns is racism, which he takes up by the end of the novel. We are not sure how much he really likes picking on local black and Jewish youth. He is likely parroting what his peers do and say. But how is that different from the classroom?

 

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.

Gods' Man

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.

Richman

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.