Lynd Ward – Six Novels in Wood Cuts, Vol I – A Review

Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (Library of America, Nos. 210 & 211)
Vol I: God’s Man, Madman’s Drum, Wild Pilgrimage
Lynd Ward
Library of America
2010, 839pg

I have written about Lynd Ward several times (Vertigo review, Wordless Books review) and will be doing again when I read volume II, and every time I read his works I am impressed by his graphic style. For me it is such a wonderful example of art deco and illustrative technique. I don’t get tired of thumbing through the pages. His stories, too, can be interesting even if they can push the city versus pastoral theme a little too much. Library of America has just released a two volume set the collects his six woodcut novels in a two beautiful editions which should insure they find a wider audience.

God’s Man, the first novel in the collection, is a faustian story of a painter who accepts a magical paint brush. The brush has helped the great painters of history from the Egyptians to the moderns. The painter takes it and begins to the live the life of a famous artist, only to find it is an empty life and he flees, as many of his characters do, to the country side where he finds peace, a wife, and happiness only to be summoned by the owner of the brush. It is a typical faustian story, and as with all versions of faust, it isn’t the selling of the soul that matters so much, but what the writer does with implications of the sale. For Ward, it is a mixed result. The art is certainly powerful, but the story seems a little simplistic. As he latter said in an essay at the back of the book, it was a kind of a coming of age novel for him and he realized he over emphasized the role of art. Moreover, for an artist the work seems to suggest art is the work of the devil. I don’t know if he meant it, but having the famous artists use the same brush gives the impression that art is horrible, even though he latter shows the artist happily painting in the country side. As a fable it lacks some of nuance of other faust stories, but the art work makes up for any deficiencies in story telling, and his scenes of the isolation in the great cities captures the feeling so well.

Madman’s Drum is a more ambitious work but also a somewhat confusing one. It tells a multigenerational story about a rich family as it dissipates through the generations in tragedies and injustices. All of these injustices stem from the sins of the father who was a slave trader. Over the years as members gain their dreams only to find them destroyed. At the same time there is an argument between a modern, scientific way of looking at the world and a more primitive and free way of seeing the world. The main character is shown throughout dedicating himself to books and science while all around him tragedy strikes. In one scene he throws away a crucifix only to have his mother trip on it and fall to her death. The primitive side is represented by the drum that the slaver brought back from Africa. It is always in the background ready for the family to use and as he suggests, save themselves. You can see Ward developing further the theme he first developed in God’s Man: the over reliance on the scientific and materialistic that leads to a soulless existence. Only returning away from it can one be free. Whether or not is a simplistic story, the notion that somehow African primitives had some secret to life turns African culture into a little more than a freak show. It is a book from a different era so his presentation of the idea while insensitive, doesn’t sink the book since it is such a small part. However, it is indicative of his like of oppositional stories.

Wild Pilgrimage is his first story to really take on the Depression. God’s Man was published the week of the 1929 crash, and Madman’s Drum 1930, before the full effects of the Great Depression could be felt. But Wild Pilgrimage was published in 1932 during the darkest moments of the depression, and you can see his attention to current events with scenes of strike breakers, communist organization, lynchings  and homeless camps. Wild Pilgrimage is similar in that it sees the country side as a refuge, but unlike the other two books, it is not a paradise. It too has moments of darkness. The story follows a man as he leaves the city where factories are closing and labor is under attack. He passes through the country side and his senses are awakened by the country side. He finds work with a farmer and his wife, but when he hits on the wife he runs. He then comes upon a solitary man farming in the woods and he stays with him. Eventually though he commits himself to the injustices in the city and leaves the farm. I won’t say what happens, but it shows how the Great Depression had influenced his work that the end of the story takes place in the city. Wild Pilgrimage is also different in that it is a much more sexual story. Using dream sequences printed in a reddish tint you can see not only the terror that is industrial life, but his sexual desires as he looks at the farmer’s wife. Ward also explores a homo erotic element when the man stays with the solitary farmer, using suggestive imagery to depict the relationship. The figures are also eroticized, a mix of Tom of Finland and Ward’s Art Deco. The story isn’t as rich as Vertigo, but it is his most complex story to that point in his career and shows his development as a story teller. Although ultimately his character must become engaged in the events of the time, it is the emotional life he experiences before he returns to the city that makes the work the best of the volume. Avoiding the committed nature of many works from the era helps the book be more than a legacy of the depression.

In volume I you can see Ward’s steady maturity as a story teller, which served him well in Vertigo. However, one should not think these works cannot stand by themselves as beautiful illustrations and a legacy of the art of the 1930s.