“In the American experience there is probably no more basic or recurrent impulse than to leave society. It is a madness- or a sanity- that can take hold of any citizen when the daily grind becomes suddenly more abrasive than anyone should be asked to endure; when the crush of too many people in too small a space is finally more than one can take; when the noise and smells of the city are at last too stifling to be borne. Then the urge to pick up and leave, to get away somehow, is irresistible. Surely, the impulse whispers in your ear, it is not inevitable that I should live and die in this hellhole; surely, there is more to the world and to life than this.”
-Lynd Ward on Wild Pilgrimage
The American graphic novel debuted in 1929 with God’s Man: a Novel in Woodcuts by Lynd Ward (1905–1985), published just as the stock market crashed. Often referred to as a wordless novel, the only text to be found in the book, aside from publication information, are chapter headings.
Wild Pilgrimage is the third wordless novel of American artist Ward, published in 1932. It was executed in 108 monochromatic wood engravings, printed alternately in black ink when representing reality and orange to represent the protagonist’s fantasies.
Ward simplified his approach after the more complex, novelistic story of his previous book, Madman’s Drum (1930), returning to the simplicity of his first, Gods’ Man (1929). Wild Pilgrimage achieves more fluid pacing and varied imagery than the first two books, incorporating the influence of art movements such as American Regionalism and Futurism.
A factory worker leaves his place of work to live a free life. He travels deep into the woods, where he witnesses a lynching. Deeper in the woods, he finds farm work, but it does not last long—when discovered attempting to enact his sexual fantasies on the farmer’s wife, the man is forced off the farm.
He finds refuge with a hermit, who allows him to stay in his cottage and teaches the man to grow fruits and vegetables. The man educates himself with the hermit’s books. He finds himself in a reverie in which he and the hermit battle a slave-owning capitalist. The man returns to his former place of employment and rouses a workers’ rebellion. During the fray, he fantasizes that he decapitates his employer’s head; when he raises it, he discovers the head to be his own. Awakening from the fantasy, he is felled in the midst of the battle.
“Ward’s books deal with the role of the individual in society, the identity of the artist, and the hardships and exploitation suffered by the working classes. Ward worked primarily in wood engraving, which allowed for a refined line and detail. His style combines the emotive elements of Expressionism with the monumental, muscular figures of Art Deco. Ward varies the use of space and even the dimensions of his images, providing the reader with a changing experience as pages are turned.” – Kelli Hansen, Libraries, University of Missouri
“Ward was way ahead of his time, a visionary, in understanding the importance of the book as an object, as a container of a kind of content. His books were made with great attention to the container and he worked within it as precisely as a concrete poet works with language.” – Art Spiegelman 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner for graphic novel Maus
In addition to his pioneering re-envisioning of what a book could be, the thematic content of Ward’s wordless novels is equally progressive. Ward’s stories emanate from a proletariat that fights to live dignified lives under bleak circumstances. Ward presents their collective struggles with sensitivity and compassion.
Two years after a chance encounter with Ward in 1970, Spiegelman embarked on his own totemic work, Maus, which confirmed the importance of the graphic novel as vibrant literature, and, more importantly, continued the legacy of Lynd Ward’s tradition of the sublime artistry of storytelling.
Also see an Essay by Art Spiegelman, The Woodcuts of Lynd Ward