The story goes that when Lynd Ward, as a child, discovered that his name spelled backwards was “draw”, he determined to become an artist.
God’s Man, the first of six pictorial narratives that Ward completed, was published in 1929 and became a best-seller. The story is that of an artist who signs a contract with a mysterious stranger who gives him a magic brush. Using this tool, the artist creates paintings that win him wealth and fame. [The first ten pages of God’s Man are reproduced here.] But the artist becomes disenchanted with the emptiness of his fame and the falsity of the things offered him. He strikes out, is arrested, breaks free, and escapes the city.
Outside the city, the artist finds artistic completion, love, and family in a wilderness paradise. One day, the mysterious stranger returns and asks the artist to fulfill the contract by painting his portrait. The artist complies but when the stranger removes his mask, he is revealed as Death and the artist dies.
Susan Sontag called God’s Man kitsch and Art Spiegelman, though sympathetic to Ward’s work, has said that he finds the depiction of the wilderness idyll unconvincing. Part of the problem is the nature of Ward’s medium, wood engraved prints. The printed images are stark black and white and the carved blocks leave little scope for individual nuance — the images are direct and symbolic, the pictorial language is dramatic by its nature. The artist’s eye has been influenced by silent movies, which in turn were influenced by histrionic stage drama styles of the late 19th Century. Gestures are exaggerated and every pose exudes meaning. German Expressionist cinema further developed, but refined, this kind of vision.
Ward engraved his images in the dense endgrain of maple blocks, an exacting process that, as Spiegelman has pointed out, often results in bloody fingers. Still, it was a process that Ward loved, even though he was also proficient in other techniques. Ward spent a year in Germany, 1926-27, studying the work of Flemish master Frans Masreel and others who had pioneered wood-cut stories. This work was largely unknown in the United States and God’s Man became a bestseller, popular enough so that, a year later, Milt Gross published a parody, He Done Her Wrong, which was called the second American all-graphic novel.
Ward’s second novel told in woodcuts was Madman’s Drum, [many illustrations here] an incredibly ambitious undertaking that sought to examine the corrupting influence of accumulated wealth over time. The story opens with a man stealing a magic drum in Africa. He uses the drum to enslave people and these slaves are the foundation of his wealth.
We see the family’s history over three generations as its members disintegrate. But it is not the drum itself that is the agent of this family’s difficulties, rather it is profiting from enslaving and exploiting other human beings that corrupts them. The great problem with Madman’s Drum is that the limits of wood-cut mean that it is difficult to tell the characters apart over three generations. Ward’s art was better suited to symbolic narratives where the main character was The Artist or The Woman or some other typed person, rather than an individual with nuanced personality.
Ward returned to this concept with Wild Pilgrimage, where a young man escapes the city and the crushing demands of industrial society. He wanders into the idyllic countryside and is kneeling to pick a flower when he witnesses a lynching. Ward’s is not a simplistic back-to-nature story. The title is derived from a quote from Arturo Giovannitti, poet and activist, organizer of the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike:
…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.
The man runs away and, after a clumsy attempt at love, stumbles onto the farm of a backwoods philosopher who introduces him to leftist thinking. The young man, now full of ideas to shape his passion, returns to the city, meaning to effect change. He is drawn into a confrontation between police and strikers that becomes a riot. At one point he grabs a policeman by the throat and is strangling him but he sees the man’s face as his own and suddenly recognizes their shared humanity. Too late! He is killed in the riot and we close with a view of his corpse.
One innovation Ward tried in this book was printing some pages in red that show the thinking of the main character. He sees a young woman and imagines them making love in the moonlight, but in black-printed reality, she pushes him away and he runs from rape charges. Factory life becomes a scene in Hell presided over by a whip-wielding demon foreman, after the young man (or The Young Man) reads a bit of socialist literature. The scenes of urban industrial life as Hell inspired Allen Ginsberg’s notion of Moloch in “Howl”. In 1978, a reprint of “Howl” was illustrated with a brand new Lynd Ward woodcut.
Ward had similar political beliefs to those of his father, Harry F. Ward, a Methodist minister in the days when Methodism was deeply involved in social issues. Harry Ward was leader of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1920 until he resigned in 1940 because the organization banned communists.
After Wild Pilgrimage, Ward created two graphic novels not meant for a general readership. Prelude to a Million Years was a collection of thirty woodcuts that showed Ward’s more developed ideas about art and artists since God’s Man. It was printed directly from woodblock onto rag paper and hand-bound in a very small printing.
In 1936, Ward and many other people could see that the future looked grim. Lynd and his wife, May McNeer, were debating whether to have another child. This is the old “how can I bring a child into existence in a world like this?” problem. So Ward did a series of twenty-one blocks that showed one woman facing the prospect of death and destruction as she considers having a child. The blocks were published as Song Without Words. In the end, life triumphs over death, as always, and a child is born. The Wards’ child was their daughter Robin, who has become a keeper of her father’s legacy.
In 1940 Ward published his last completed novel in woodcuts, Vertigo, [sixteen examples plus a bit of synopsis here] where he attempted to apply all the lessons he had learned over a decade. There are three main characters: A Boy, A Girl, An Old Man. There are three time periods, shown in periods of years, months, and days: in the first, we see The Girl, a violinist, sacrificing herself to care for her father while The Boy yearns for her; in the second, The Girl takes up with The Old Man, a capitalist who is presented in terms quite different from the top-hatted, pot-bellied stereotypes of Ward’s earlier work — here he is simply old and lonely, with no purpose other than clipping his stock coupons; then, The Old Man is out of the picture, The Boy and The Girl are reunited and we are left to wonder how successful their union will be. Spiegelman considers this the best of Ward’s Novels in Woodcuts, though personally, I prefer Wild Pilgrimage.
During the years that Ward did his woodcut novels, he also did other work — a lot of other work. He illustrated Alec Waugh’s Book of Women… and Hot Countries, a series of ghost stories, and Frankenstein [all of the Frankenstein illustrations here] in woodcut but he also did other kinds of illustrations for work like Beowulf. And, like many illustrators of the era, he worked on children’s books.
Lynn Ward’s children’s books deserve a post or two all by themselves. Over the years he illustrated books by his wife, May McNeer, his daughters, and himself as well as those of other people. He won numerous Newbery Awards and finally a Caldecott for his own book, The Biggest Bear. In all, he had six Newbery Honor Award books and two Newbery Award books besides the Caldecott award books that he illustrated. No other illustrator has matched this record.
Ward was working on a new Novel in Woodcuts. The Silver Pony, when he died in 1985 at the age of 80. The extant prints were issued as a limited edition to a lucky few. Robin Ward has collaborated in a documentary on her father’s work, O Brother Man, the title taken from a Whittier poem later set to music as a hymn:
O brother man! fold to thy heart thy brother;
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.
If you can’t find it at your local theater, O Brother Man; The Life and Work of Lynd Ward will probably turn up on PBS’ American Masters. And that is a fitting title for Lynd Ward.
The Library of America has issued Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcut with an introduction by Art Spiegelman.
If you can find it, the Out of Print Storyteller Without Words has the same six novels, a few extra illustrations, plus intros by Ward (also in the LoA version).
Dover has reprinted Gods’ Man: A Novel in Woodcuts, Mad Man’s Drum: A Novel in Woodcuts, Wild Pilgrimage: A Novel in Woodcuts, Prelude to a Million Years and Song Without Words: Two Graphic Novels, and Vertigo: A Novel in Woodcuts at rather cheap prices.
The illustrations for the unfinished The Silver Pony: A Story in Pictures is available. Also, the illustrated versions of Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition and numerous children’s book illustrations have been reprinted.
If you are an aficionado, you may find original printings of God’s Man or Wild Pilgrimage at your local used book dealer. Other titles are more expensive.
A Lynd Ward bio.
A very good essay here.
Art Spiegelman on the Wordless Book.
Chris Lanier blogs on the artists featured in the exhibition “Silent Witness”
As always, for more Ward picyures Google Image Search and Flickr.com are your friends.