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From Gods' Man (1929)

Generations

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In Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (1991), generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe define the social generation of Baby Boomers as those born between 1943 and 1960, “too young to have any personal memory of World War II, but old enough to remember the postwar American High.”


Born into a family of postwar military veterans and munitions factory workers in San Francisco in early 1959, I and my contemporaries are sometimes referred to as second generation baby boomers, born into a time “when never before in history had youth been so idealized as they were at that moment” (Claire Raines, Beyond Generation X).


Those Lynd Ward dust jackets of children’s history biographies earlier referenced, the book covers that adorned the walls of my elementary school classroom in Parkersburg, West Virginia, circa 1963-1967, emphasized the youth of America’s revolutionary leaders, both real and fictional (Johnny Tremain is only 14-years-old), indoctrinating children of my era into the self-important belief that history is for and made by the young people of the world.


My generation was raised on a steady diet of childrens books with a strong emphasis on history and Disney fare, both on television and at the movies, that sold the same sentiment. Never in the tale of this nation had children been so aggressively marketed to with not just physical, tangible products, but an entire philosophy of self-absorption.


The Great Depression that emerged on the other side of the Crash of 1929 spread ripples of trauma across the globe and in response fascist and authoritarian political regimes—never missing an opportunistic moment and a desperate, malleable populace—moved to the forefront in many European countries, most notably the Third Reich in Germany; born of economic despair, the expansionist dreams of Germany, Italy, and Japan would lead to the Second World War, a nightmare that anti-fascists like Harry Ward tried to thwart while anti-interventionists like Walt Disney promoted American insulation from a chaos that the United States had no small role in creating.

What did our elders think was going to happen when we grew up and learned that Davy Crockett’s equally heroic confederate at the Battle of the Alamo, Jim Bowie, trafficked in the slave trade, that the war for that lonely garrison on the southwest border was a direct backlash to Mexican authorities attempting to enforce their anti-slavery laws in Texas? Or that the food shortages suffered by General George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge was due to the boundless avarice of colonial farmers who sought a higher price for their bountiful breadbaskets from the occupying British military armed forces?


As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis writes in his outstanding 2007 work, American Creation, “the bulk of the populace (during the Revolutionary War) identified with the patriot cause, but were forced to put their patriotism aside in order to feed their own families … their decision to sell to the British army was not so much a political statement as it was a wholly rational economic calculation based on self-interest.” Hardly the self-denying American heroes that were spoon fed to us children of the ‘60s and ‘70s.


The Great American Economic Machine
“There is nothing more exhilarating,” writes Lynd Ward in his 1974 essay, The Ways of Wood Engraving, “than the discovery of an overall purpose behind the seemingly unrelated events that comprise the past of either a nation or a citizen … Looking back enables us to spin the long strand of cause and effect that can be called history for humanity in general and destiny for the individual in particular.”


As history tells us, most of the fourth decade of the 20th Century that began on 1 January 1930, and ended on 31 December 1939, saw modern, industrialized humanity in a state of economic downfall, a suffocating quicksand brewed from the seeds of limitless greed and avarice, vices that always seem to have a hand in human history. 


In the summer of 1929, severe price declines on the Dow Jones Industrial Average caused mass hysteria among Wall Street investors large and small (including a firm whose name has been back in the headlines the last couple of years, the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation) and by late October anxious and overextended investors flooded the stock market with sell orders, depreciating the value of supposedly fail-proof stocks even more severely.


The snake was eating its own tail, and on 29 October the stock market simply crashed; before finally reaching bottom in July 1932, the Dow Jones Average lost 89 percent of its total value.


The Great Depression that emerged on the other side of the Crash of 1929 spread ripples of trauma across the globe and in response fascist and authoritarian political regimes—never missing an opportunistic moment and a desperate, malleable populace—moved to the forefront in many European countries, most notably the Third Reich in Germany; born of economic despair, the expansionist dreams of Germany, Italy, and Japan would lead to the Second World War, a nightmare that anti-fascists like Harry Ward tried to thwart while anti-interventionists like Walt Disney promoted American insulation from a chaos that the United States had no small role in creating.


“The early Thirties was a time when it seemed problematical whether the great, complicated American economic machine, which had but recently made such confident promises about the future, could ever be cranked up again,” Lynd Ward writes in the 1974 essay On ‘Wild Pilgrimage’, expressing sentiments that are downright eerie in their contemporary application.


“But to many thoughtful persons,” Ward continues, “the real question was whether getting things going again was all that worthwhile, for to do so seemed to promise an existence so mechanized and thereby brutalized that the only possible salvation for any individual lay in somehow getting away from it all.”


Ward was writing about the “urban and industrial” wastelands that modern American cities had become in the interwar years between the two World Wars, what he saw as a Kafkaesque struggle between the underpaid and overworked laborer, fascistic corporations, and “the impersonal social forces” (Ward’s pet topic) that negate and invalidate the importance of the individual.


With Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (boxed set), the Library of America resurrects Ward’s towering achievement in the most demanding of graphic-story forms, the wordless novel composed entirely in woodcuts, engravings that, when “read” in sequence, tell a complex story in rich visual terms; in his challenging endeavor, Lynd Ward was inspired by Frans Massereel and Hans Alexander “Theodore” Mueller, European graphic artists/woodcut novelists whose works denigrated the status quo and promoted the individual against a powerful, faceless bureaucracy, a melding of the German Expressionist cinema of Fritz Lang and the existential dread of the literature of Franz Kafka.


I do not intend to write grand epitaphs to Lynd’s work or provide dense biographical lore other than what has already been composed here, but I will interject what is perhaps obvious: that Ward was one of the most significant forefathers of what we know today as graphic novels (in October 2010 Penn State University named the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize after him, to be awarded each spring to the best graphic novel, fiction or non-fiction, published in the previous calendar year in the US by a living American citizen or resident); anyone who wishes to learn more about this singularly talented man can read about Ward’s career on the web or by purchasing the deluxe two-volume boxed set of his six novels, which brings Ward’s masterworks to a new generation of readers, together with nine essays by Ward about his craft and a foreword by series editor Art Spiegelman (Maus: A Survivor’s Tale).


What concerns us is that from the eve of The Great Depression (Ward’s first woodcut novel, Gods’ Man, was released in October 1929, coinciding with the Wall Street meltdown) to the start of World War II, Lynd Ward created six unforgettable works that “observed the troubled American scene through the double lens of a politically committed storyteller and a visionary graphic artist”, works that are startling in their relevance to contemporary society and politics.


But as In These Times writer and historian Christopher Capozzola notes, Ward’s sociological works would be short-lived because “politically engaged artists of the Depression era were silenced” by the surge of patriotism in the run-up to the mobilization for America’s involvement in the Second World War.


The fascist, soulless corporations that Ward denounced so vigorously in his woodcut novels were reconverting their factories to war production and millions of idle and unemployed workers were soon to find gainful employment through the war production plants of Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, the production of B-24 bombers and C87 transports at Consolidated Aircraft Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas, North American Aviation in Southern California and Kansas City, Kansas, Douglas Aircraft, the Ford Motor Company, and on and on.


Once the final bullet was fired and the last bomb dropped and the troops were back home, socially progressive artists like Lynd Ward (and social reformers like his father, Harry) were silenced by the jingoistic, ultra-patriotic, Communist-fearing deeds of political figures like Joseph McCarthy and cultural icons like Walt Disney; the relief, recovery, and reform programs that F.D.R. put into place during the Great Depression would not gain any further traction in American postwar politics—programs like the WPA and Social Security struck conservatives as smelling of “socialism” and “communism”.


It’s worth noting that Lynd Ward and Walt Disney were born four years apart in Chicago, Illinois, America’s heartland; Disney in 1901, Ward in 1905. Ward graduated from Columbia University, Disney took night classes at the Chicago Art Institute. As adults, both men made a living from packaging Americana and American history for youth.


The works of Lynd Ward and Walt Disney were indelible elements of my education as a youth, both urged and encouraged me to learn more about history and literature. But with hindsight and the darkening sun of my later years, only one of the men earns my respect. Christopher Capozzola writes that even though Ward may have “moved away from explicitly political art” in postwar America, he “never abandoned his commitment to social justice … Readers may be tempted to read just a bit more into the redness of The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, one of Ward’s most beloved works. For once, they may be right.” 


As for Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, the animator who brought Popeye and Betty Boop to life as cartoons (and the man who Disney considered his rival), perhaps said it best when he referred to the creator of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland as “an intellectually undistinguished saccharine manufacturer from the Midwest.”

Rodger Jacobs has won multiple awards and grants for his work as a journalist, documentary writer and producer, screenwriter, playwright, magazine editor, true crime writer, book critic, columnist, and live event producer. He provided the preface and original inspiration for Jack London: San Francisco Stories (Sydney Samizdat Press) in 2010.


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Despite her love of books, Jackie Kennedy Onassis spent a lifetime trying to prevent people from writing about her, sometimes with the accompanying threat of legal action. Her entire life was led with one arm thrust outward, eyes cast downward, keeping the world at bay.
3 Feb 2011
Much as Walt Disney would do with his famed television programs of the '50s and '60s, Lynd Ward used his talents with watercolor, oil, brush and ink, mezzotint, and lithography to illustrate hundreds of inspiring historical biographies of true-life American heroes for children to admire and emulate.
10 Jun 2010
Marion Meade's new book begs the question: Are literary biographies necessary? Somewhere in the afterlife, Nathanael West is having a good chuckle.
4 Feb 2010
“The chief proof of a man’s real greatness lies in his perception of his own smallness. It argues... a power of comparison and of appreciation which is in itself proof of nobility.”
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