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Six Depression era novels without words in two volumes from The Library of America

Book Review: Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts by Lynd Ward

In keeping with its mission to preserve “America’s best and most significant writing in handsome, enduring volumes, featuring authoritative texts,” the Library of America will reach another milestone in October when they release a two volume box set of the work of graphic artist Lynd Ward. This will mark their first excursion into the world of graphic storytelling. The collection, entitled Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts, is edited by Pulitzer Prize winning comic artist Art Spiegleman. Each volume contains three of Ward’s novels without words, several essays by the artist which had appeared as prefaces to previous editions, notes on the texts and some explanatory notes on the essays. Both volumes, because they can be purchased separately, include an introductory essay called “Reading Pictures” by Spiegleman and a chronology of the life of Ward.

Born in 1905, Ward became interested in print making during a visit to Germany where he chanced upon the woodcuts of Frans Masereel, a Flemish artist Spiegleman credits with the invention of the woodcut novel. Moreover it was also in Germany that the style of Ward’s woodcuts was formed under the influence of the German Expressionists, not to mention some of the early German dark cinematic masterpieces like Nosferatu. He returned to the States in 1927, did some illustrating work, and in 1929, after coming across Schicksal, a complex wordless novel by Otto Nuckel, a German engraver, he started on a work of his own.

In the preface he later wrote for that first novel without word, he talks about the nature of what he calls “pictorial narrative.” It is not merely the addition of a picture or two to a verbal narrative. That is illustration. “The measuring stick, if anyone is making a list of what is or is not pictorial narrative, is whether the communication of what is and what is happening is accomplished entirely or predominantly in visual terms.” There may be words, as in comic books, but pictorial narrative requires that meaning cannot depend on the words. It is from the picture that understanding must come.

Gods’ Man, the first of Ward’s novels in woodcuts, is a modernized version of the Faust story in which an Impoverished artist signs away his soul to a mysterious dark stranger in return for a brush that will enable him to create great art. It is a familiar story and very easy to follow despite the absence of words. The second of his novels, Madman’s Dream, on the other hand, perhaps because he is trying to create a dreamlike quality, is quite disjointed and the narrative is difficult to follow. It is the story of several generations of a family haunted by a history of violence.

Wild Pilgrimage, the last of the stories in the first volume, is perhaps Ward’s most ambitious project. It attempts not only a narrative of events, but it also tries to add some psychological depth to the characterization. He does this by distinguishing what is going on in the character’s mind by changing the color of the print from black to a kind of red. In some sense, it is the symbolic story of an attempt to escape from the problems of the country by moving to a more pristine environment, a kind of exegesis on the “go west young man” ethos which Ward explains has often been seen as a way to deal with societal difficulties.

The second volume begins with two shorter works. Prelude to a Million Years deals with the plight of the artist, this time a sculptor, in a society reeling under the inequalities endemic to capitalism. Song Without Words looks at the horrific state of the world in the thirties, Fascism, intolerance, attacks on the working man, and asks what justification is there for bringing a child into such a world. Vertigo, the longest of his works with 234 images, is also the most complex and most carefully structured. It deals with three separate but connected characters faced with the post Depression social devastation. There is “the girl” whose story is told in terms of years, “the elderly gentleman” whose story is told in months, and “the boy” whose story is shown in days. Ward’s characters never have names. While this may be necessitated by the form, it also emphasizes the symbolic qualities of his work. Essentially an attack on the social and economic forces that control our lives but over which we have no control, the final image of the elderly gentleman lying on his bed and cutting his coupons is central to Ward’s critique of America in the thirties.

As with all of the tomes published by the Library of America, the books are beautifully printed. The quality of the woodcuts, printed one to a page as intended by Ward, is excellent. These are not throw-away ephemera. Whether you agree with Ward’s political agenda or not, these are books that are meant to last and to be treasured as part of America’s heritage.

About Jack Goodstein

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