Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lynd Ward: Two Epic Novels, Without a Word of Text...

Having missed last week’s entry, I have decided to cover two books in one posting this week.


One of the dirty secrets of most libraries is that they frequently discard duplicate or out-of-date, out-of-demand books. Sometimes these deaccessioned volumes are sold or given away free in book sales, sometimes they are donated to other collections, and sometimes they are simply thrown out. This week’s books were rescued from this sad fate by a quick-thinking librarian who knew their worth; fortunately, she’s also closely related to me and knows of my bibliophilia. Thus they’ve found a safe and permanent home in my collection -- your local library may deaccession books in their collection, but as anyone who knows me will attest, I never do.


These two volumes are from the famed, award-winning American graphic artist Lynd Ward (1905-1985) and represent two early works from the career of this visual and narrative master. The first is the sixth edition of his first “novel in woodcuts”, God’s Man, published by Peter Smith of New York in September, 1933, and printed by the Colonial Press of Clinton, Massachusetts. The other book is the first edition of his second book, Mad Man’s Drum, published by Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith Inc. of 139 East 46th Street, New York (it was published simultaneously by the firm’s offices at 91 Wellington Street, West Toronto, Canada and Cape’s own office at 30 Bedford Square, London). The book was printed by the Plimpton Press of Norwood, Massachusetts. Both books are in black hardcover -- God’s Man in cloth with a paste-on print on the cover and title label on the spine, Mad Man’s Drum in boards with a pictorial patterned cover and title label on the spine.


The pages in both books measure 14.5cm x 25.5cm and are a heavy stock, rough cut to the edges and slightly fading with age (the final leaves of Mad Man's Drum, both blank, are still uncut). Both books are bound in octavo. The sixth edition of God’s Man -- which had first appeared in 1929, arriving in bookstore’s the same week as the great stock market crash -- is relatively rare on the market and is valued at approximately $75 to $100, though an oddity in my copy makes me suspect that it is more peculiar (and thus perhaps more valuable). Though it came from a library, it has none of the typical ex-library markings. The first edition of Mad Man’s Drum is ironically more common on the market because, by the time of its appearance in 1930 Ward was a well-known and well-loved artist, which encouraged the publishers to release multiple issues of the first edition. The true first (or “first first” as the jargon goes) was bound by Plimpton Press with pictorial boards (as mine is); subsequent issues of the first edition reverted to cloth boards. The first first of this book is valued at approximately $150 to $250. Individual original engravings, usually inscribed by the artist, are still available for sale from some art dealers as well (they typically go for between $300 and $500 apiece). My copy has the typical ex-library markings on the spine and inside the front cover.


My copy of God’s Man has 144 leaves, including the standard preliminaries (blank flyleaf, half-title, title page with publication information on the verso, and dedication); with one image per leaf that comes to 140 illustrations (the engravings on the chapter heading pages are all the same). The story tells the heartwarming tale of a young artist whose idealistic soul is crushed by the brutal, capitalist machine of urban life, a gray world in which beauty and love are mere soul-less cash commodities.


At the start of the tale, the young artist comes to the city expecting to make a living; his hopes are bolstered when he meets a shadowy gentleman who pays him dear for his paintings and who then sells him a paintbrush guaranteed to make him as great the masters of the Renaissance -- in exchange, the shadowy gentleman (obviously meant to be the Devil) demands the artist’s soul upon his death.


The young man’s fortunes do indeed seem to rise and rise, until love for a prostitute brings him crushing despair; when he goes to the woods to try to kill himself he is rescued by a farm girl. The two fall in love, marry, and have a child. Rather unsurprisingly, one day a shadowy figure arrives and asks to have his portrait painted on top of a nearby mountain; when he poses for the painting he removes his cloak and reveals himself to be, of course, the Devil, and the young man falls to his death from the mountain-top. The chapters are, in order: “The Brush”, “The Mistress”, “The Brand”, “The Wife”, and “The Portrait”. The artistry in the book draws from numerous springs of inspiration, ranging from Gustav Klimt’s 1908 "The Kiss" to tarot card symbolism and from medieval iconography to Soviet-style architecture.


As noted above, the 144 leaves are bound octavo-style into 18 gatherings of 8 leaves apiece (both this book and Mad Man’s Drum are without either signatures or pagination). Bizarrely, the book’s penultimate gathering in my copy -- consisting of the final 8 illustrations of the sequence involving the artist going to the mountain-top and discovering, fatally, that he is painting the Devil’s portrait -- are repeated as the final gathering of my copy (with the exception of the last leaf which has been cruelly ripped out of the book). I have no idea whether or not another gathering was intended to follow these 8 illustrations (though it would not seem logical since, with the artist’s death, we have lost the protagonist from whose point-of-view we’ve followed the entire story thus far), nor do I have any idea why the printers (Colonial Press did both the printing and the binding) bound this duplicate gathering in or how common this mistake is in extant copies of the book.


Mad Man’s Drum is broken up into several untitled chapters. The graphic style of its woodcuts is similar to that of God’s Man and, like its predecessor draws liberally and creatively on a range of well-researched inspirational sources (such as Edvard Munch’s 1893 “The Scream”, indigenous African ritual patterns, and even early nineteenth-century Anglo-American fashion trends), but the scale of the story has changed considerably. Whereas God’s Man centered on a single main character, Mad Man’s Drum is almost epic in its narrative. The story begins with a shady looking white sailor coming across a native drummer in the African wilderness; fascinated by the drum, the sailor steals it and, with his crew, enslaves the drummer’s town. The legacy of this barbarism haunts the sailor and his family over the next two generations, emblematized at key points in the tale by the eerie drum. As with most cursed-item sagas, the sins of the father are visited (to a modern reader’s view, somewhat unjustly) upon the children, when his wife dies young, his son grows up to be a scholar but finds his views scorned and harshly rejected by the academic community, and his three granddaughters end up entangled in rather horrible, depressing sexual relationships with men as moral-less as their grandfather. It’s a testament to Ward’s sense of visual pacing and imagery that he is so successful in placing at the core of his silent novel a musical instrument of considerable sound.


It is difficult, if not impossible, to do full justice to the remarkable story of Lynd Ward in the space of a single blog entry. Raised by an itinerant radical preacher father (who helped found the ACLU), Ward inherited his hybrid brand of ascetic Protestantism and Marxist communism. However, ever since he realized, in first grade, that his last name spelled “draw” backwards, Lynd determined to be an artist. He studied fine arts at Columbia Teachers’ College in New York and, in 1927, graphic design (including book design -- hence the similarities between these two books, despite coming from different printers) at the National Academy of Graphic Arts in Leipzig. During his studies he was inspired by the work of Belgian woodcut artist Franz Masereel, who had published an entire novel told exclusively through woodcuts.


Upon returning to the United States the next year, Ward published the first edition of his own woodcuts novel, God’s Man. As Christopher Capozzola notes:


The book’s subject matter—an allegorical fable about an artist who sells his soul for worldly success—was timeless. But its artistic innovations were unprecedented; its visual structure and pacing owed as much to silent film and mass-circulation comic pages as they did to artistic predecessors like Kollwitz or HonorĂ© Daumier. Wordless novels were political interventions, too, meant to take advantage of what Ward called the “great asset of the book’s thousandfold duplication of contact with people.” Ward wanted to get art out of stuffy museums and snooty galleries and into the hands of an international community of readers who shared the language of images.


Ward's political opinions, including his brutal honesty about America’s shameful heritage of racial injustice, sharpened as the dismal years of the 1930s accumulated misfortunes upon the people of the working classes. However, with the rise of anti-communistic furor in the 1940s and 1950s he found himself increasingly in trouble with the FBI and the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee.


In his later work he turned increasingly to illustrating existing novels (including a now highly collectible edition of Shelley’s Frankenstein), many volumes of the long-running Heritage Press series (including a gorgeous rendition of William Ellery Leonard's translation of Beowulf) and children’s books (including his own 1953 Caldecott Medal winning book The Biggest Bear). His cover-art graces the boards and dust-jackets of dozens upon dozens of highly sought-after books. His legacy, appearing in over 200 published works, persisted beyond his own material, however, as his keen eye, artistic vision, and talent in multiple media (including woodcuts, watercolor, oil, ink, lithography, and mezzotint) inspired the generation of modernist Art-Deco artists -- in love with angles, linear forms, and evocative grades of shading -- that took the national art scene by storm in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ward's work continues to inspire artists today, such as John Coulhart and Eric Drooker. And for us literary types, the debt we owe to Ward is equally considerable: in 1955, a young poet in San Francisco pulled a copy of God’s Man from the shelf and drew inspiration from its narrative and images, later sharing the work at an event called “Six Poets at the Six Gallery” held on October 7th of that year. The poem’s title was “Howl”...


(l-r) Allen Ginsburg, book artist Michael McCurdy, and Lynd Ward in front of Ward's house in Cresskill, New Jersey in 1978

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