Lynd Ward and Walt Disney: Illustrators of America’s Tumultuous History

As a child of the ’60s and ’70s my appreciation of American history as an engaging, electric, and interconnected tapestry was forged by two men of great imagination whose own narratives couldn’t have been more strikingly dissimilar, yet were suffused with common cultural and geographic ground: Lynd Kendall Ward and Walter Elias Disney.

In the year that civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in segregated Mississippi and Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the walls of my elementary school in Parkersburg, West Virginia, were lined with poster-size reproductions of the dust jackets from the award-winning childrens books that Lynd Ward supplied his now-iconic artwork for.

Much as Walt Disney would do with his famed television programs of the ’50s and ’60s, 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:

US patriot and silversmith, Paul Revere (America’s Paul Revere with Esther Forbes, 1946); statesman and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson with Saul Padover, 1967); Civil War General and 18th US President, Ulysses S. Grant (The Story of Ulysses S. Grant with Jeanette C. Nolan, 1962); the larger-than-life 16th President of the United States (America’s Abe Lincoln with Ward’s wife, May McNeer, 1957); an American Revolutionary War soldier who fought to gain independence for the small state of Vermont by commanding a force of irregulars known as the Green Mountain Boys (America’s Ethan Allen with Stuart Hall Holbrook, 1949).

Book: Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts

Author: Lynd Ward

Publisher: Library of America

Publication date: 2010-10

Format: Hardcover

Length: 1,408 pages (two volumes)

Price: $43.21

ISBN-10: 1598530828

ISBN-13: 978-1598530827

Image: Ward, the son of a prominent Chicago social reform activist who served as the first chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lent his considerable artistic talents to hagiographic young adult books on the California and Alaska gold rushes (with nary an inkling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sentiment that “all gold rushes are essentially negative”), Andrew Jackson’s war on Florida’s Seminole Indians (overlooking Jackson’s ethnic cleansing of many Native American tribes and his mandate from then-US President James Monroe to prevent Spanish Florida from becoming a safe haven for runaway slaves), and, my personal favorite as young reader, Admiral Peary and Byrd: Conquest of the North and South Poles (1952).

Johnny Tremain, the historical fiction tale of a 14-year-old prize silversmith apprentice in Boston who becomes an American Revolutionary War hero with the rebellious Sons of Liberty, was a 1944 undertaking with Lynd’s frequent collaborator, writer Esther Forbes; their effort won the prestigious Newbery Medal for “distinguished contribution to American literature for children”. (Writing for the independent newsmagazine In These Times, Massachusetts Institute of Technology history teacher Christopher Capozzola says that Tremain “told the story of the American Revolution as a populist narrative at the height of the Cold War”, suggesting that Ward had not abandoned his commitment to social justice inherited from his Methodist minister father.)

Johnny Tremain is where Ward’s path intersects with another classic American myth-maker and peddler in counter-factual history, Walt Disney: whereas Ward was bowing to dictates of the marketplace and literary genre, Disney, as a film, television, and overall pop culture producer, recognized the crudely emotional appeal of nationalism and primed the pump for all it was worth.

Capitalizing on Americana

Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, the first hour of a five-part serial featuring wooden and stoic actor Fess Parker in a heavily romanticized interpretation of the adventures of the folkloric American frontiersman, explorer, Congressman, and defender of the Alamo, debuted on the Disneyland show for the ABC Television Network on 15 December, 1954.

Writing at, reviewer Charles Solomon calls Disney’s handling of the Crockett legend “an engaging example of American myth making”. So engaging, in fact, that Disney and his studio officers were caught by surprise at the literal overnight success of the mini-series; Disney capitalized on the popularity by immediately licensing the Crockett name and likeness for a cavalcade of products. Solomon notes that “an estimated $300 million worth of Crockett merchandise was sold during the first eight months of the Crockett craze, including 10 million coonskin caps.”

Author and historian Paula Sigman observed in the Turner Classic Movies documentary, The Age of Believing: The Disney Live-Action Classics, with the Crockett film series Disney was simply (and shrewdly) responding to “a return to Americana and American values after World War II.” No one ever went broke capitalizing on zeitgeist, especially if they get into the game early and aggressively, as Disney most assuredly did.

Realizing the error of killing off such an immensely popular hero in the 23 February, 1955 episode titled Davy Crockett at the Alamo, Disney rushed two prequels into production for the Disneyland TV show. Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates aired in November and December, 1955, respectively.

The popularity of the Crockett TV movies was also due in no small part to the collective American thirst for unambiguous nationalist heroes in the wake of the Cold War, an arms and ideological struggle between the Soviet bloc countries and the Western countries that broke out in the aftermath of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan of 1947 to bolster the economies of Western Europe, ravaged by the hostilities and deprivations of World War II.

Anti-Russian sentiment was a contagious and hideous virus that spread across the United States throughout the late-’40s and ’50s in the aftermath of the global conflagration; Joseph McCarthy, an otherwise obscure Republican US Senator from the state of Wisconsin, boosted his status on the trembling shoulders of the Red Scare by chairing a government committee obliged to the task of ferreting out and investigating alleged Communists in the government, religious, and social service organizations, the entertainment industry, and even the US military (which would prove McCarthy’s undoing).

Only 12 months before Davy Crockett debuted on ABC, McCarthy’s irresponsible and dangerous demagoguery had been brought to an end after a public censure by the US Senate in December 1954 but not before ruining the lives and careers of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Americans whose only crime was embracing a political ideology contrary to that of the republic of the United States.

Walt Disney, the popular creator of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the first full-length animated feature film to win an Academy Award (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1939), gladly testified before Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, accusing union organizer Herbert Sorrell, and animators William Pomerance and David Hilberman of being Communists; Disney asserted that the attempts to unionize the animators at his Burbank movie studio was the sinister work of Communist agitators; the man with the benign, fatherly face even accused the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood of being a Communist front.

Disney was a proud member and founding father of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization formed in 1944 by a clutch of politically conservative Hollywood heavyweights (including the producer and director of lavish Biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille, and matinee idols Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and John Wayne) who sought to protect the film industry against the encroachment of Communist infiltration.

Writing in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Barbara Branden, biographer of the fiery Russian-American novelist and conservative philosopher, quotes from a manifesto that Rand wrote for the Alliance titled Screen Guide for Americans:

“The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting non-political movies—by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories—thus making people absorb the basic principles of Collectivism by indirection and implication.

“The principle of free speech requires that we do not use police force to forbid the Communists the expression of their ideas—which means that we do not pass laws forbidding them to speak. But the principle of free speech does not require that we furnish the Communists with the means to preach their ideas, and does not imply that we owe them jobs and support to advocate our own destruction at our own expense.”

Because any right-thinking American knew that when Joan Crawford said in Mildred Pierce that she’s “going to wear a red dress tonight”, she was actually sending a coded message to comrades in Moscow.

Theologians and Scoundrels

One notable victim of the Red Scare was Harry Frederick Ward, father of artist and woodwork innovator Lynd Ward who, on 23 June 1953, received the Caldecott Medal for “picture book of the year”, awarded by the American Library Association, for The Biggest Bear, a cautionary children’s tale about the hazards of domesticating wild animals (the younger Ward both wrote and illustrated the book).

Less than a month after Lynd accepted the Caldecott Medal at a ceremony in Los Angeles, Manning R. Johnson, a former senior member of the American Communist Party, testified before McCarthy’s HUAC that Harry F. Ward, Lynd’s father and former chairman of the American League Against War and Fascism since 1933, was “the chief architect for Communist infiltration and subversion in the religious field” in America.

Although the senior Ward was never invited to testify before the HUAC, he found himself blacklisted by editors of mainstream publications and was the subject of intense scrutiny and shadowing (or harassment, if you prefer) by the FBI.

Lynd Ward’s father, Harry a Methodist minister who drafted the blueprints for workplace reform in America, stood chair for 20 years over one of the most influential civil liberties unions in the world, and who organized and mobilized clergy to take on social reform causes, is shadowed by federal agents, blacklisted, and unable to find work as a social activist journalist during the shameful Red Scare because he happened to lead a fight against fascism in Europe that was funded in part by the American Communist Party.

The League that Harry Ward chaired, an effort by ecumenical clergy devoted to resisting the rise of fascism in Europe, was indeed funded by the Communist Party of America, but Harry was not a member of the political party. Johnson’s allegations were nothing more or less than a nasty smear against a devout Methodist cleric who had devoted his life to social service, inspired by the American religious and economic reformer Richard T. Ely’s message, voiced in his tract Social Aspects of Christianity (1889) that “Christianity is primarily concerned with this world, and it is the mission of Christianity to bring to pass here a kingdom of righteousness and redeem all our social relations.”

In 1908, Harry Ward’s Social Creed of the Churches, calling for the abolition of child labor, a shortened work week, greater emphasis on safety in the workplace, and a living wage for all workers, was adopted by ecumenical Federal Council of Churches, and would become synonymous with the moral platform for workplace reform.

Aside from chairing the ACLU for the first 20 years of its existence, Harry Ward was also a co-founder, in 1907, of the Methodist Federation for Social Services (MFSS), a national organization dedicated to mobilizing clergy and laity to take action on issues of poverty and social injustice; Harry served with the MFSS until 1945, the same year that his son Lynd was elected an Associate Member in Graphic Arts of the National Academy of Design in New York City.

This then was the caliber of a man that the HUAC and so-called “friendlies” of McCarthy’s misguided anti-Communist committee like Walt Disney sought to discredit and destroy with their sanctimonious patriotism.

“Actually if you could see close in my eyes,” Disney once told an interviewer (as cited by Dave Smith in The Quotable Walt Disney), “the American flag is waving in both of them and up my spine is growing this red, white and blue stripe.”

It bears noting that red, white, and blue Walt Disney, by contrast to Harry Ward’s deeds and committee chairs, was a member of the America First Committee, founded in 1940, a stridently vocal and aggressive non-interventionist political action committee opposed to America’s entry in World War II.

The most prominent spokesman for the celebrity-laden America First Committee, who mounted a petition to put some teeth into the Neutrality Act of 1939 and urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to maintain his vow to keep the United States out of the conflict in Europe, was aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, a larger-than-life American icon. (Establishing a paradigm of American hero worship early in his career, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon produced by Walt Disney Productions in 1928 was titled Plane Crazy, in which the world’s most famous animated rodent is inspired by Charles Lindbergh to build and fly an airplane; the aviator appears in the first few seconds of the cartoon short from a newsreel clip.)

There is no doubt that if Disney had ever produced a movie or TV drama about Lindbergh, he would have omitted the 11 September 1941, speech at the America First rally in Des Monies, Iowa, where Lucky Lindy, as he was dubbed by the press after his transcontinental flight, declared that “the three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.”

Lindbergh expressed sympathy with the persecution of Jews in Germany, but cautioned in the same breath that “no person of honesty and vision can look at their pro-war policy here (in America) without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy.”

“Instead of agitating for war,” the advocate of American isolationism declared, “the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention but the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”

Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic “Jews control the media” rant is, unfortunately, still in vogue today and is probably a sentiment that Disney embraced in his time. (Late in 2010, CNN news personality Rick Sanchez was summarily dismissed from the cable news outlet for expressing beliefs similar to Lindbergh’s in a radio interview.)

In a 2006 interview with The Early Show for CBS News, Disney biographer Neal Gabler, something of a Disney apologist, opined: “Was he an anti-Semite? That’s out there. My answer to that is, not in the conventional sense that we think of someone as being an anti-Semite. But he got the reputation because, in the 1940s, he got himself allied with a group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was an anti-Communist and anti-Semitic organization. And though Walt himself, in my estimation, was not anti-Semitic, nevertheless, he willingly allied himself with people who were anti-Semitic, and that reputation stuck. He was never really able to expunge it throughout his life.”

But the fact of the matter is, if it walks like a duck it isn’t an elephant. Saying that Disney “got himself allied himself with people who were anti-Semitic” but wasn’t anti-Semitic himself by modern definitions is like trying to excuse in hindsight the dry cleaner who took in the robes from the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1963; any person of good conscience and clean morals does not want to associate with such emissaries of hate and ignorance.

So, in summation, a Methodist minister who drafted the blueprints for workplace reform in America, stood chair for 20 years over one of the most influential civil liberties unions in the world, and who organized and mobilized clergy to take on social reform causes, is shadowed by federal agents, blacklisted, and unable to find work as a social activist journalist during the shameful Red Scare because he happened to lead a fight against fascism in Europe that was funded in part by the American Communist Party.

To add further toxins to the poisonous broth of conservative hatred that was spilled on Harry Ward’s head, his son, Lynd Ward, the much in demand freelance designer of dust jackets, frontispieces, decorations, and illustrations for books for children, had, prior to his father’s blacklisting in 1953, provided artwork for patriotic works about Paul Revere, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, John Wesley (the founder of Methodism), the Alaska and California Gold Rush, Hildegard Hoyt Swift’s North Star Rising: A Pictorial History of the American Negro (Morrow, 1947), and, of course, Esther Forbes’s young adult adventure of the Revolutionary War, Johnny Tremain, in 1944.

Walt Disney, by contrast—who produced a successful television movie from the Tremain book in order to continue riding the wave of riches he was mining from whitewashed biographies of American folkloric heroes for his television shows (beginning with the seismic success of Davy Crockett), publicly associated with the likes of Red-baiters and anti-Semites, tried to deprive people of their livelihoods with his valuable HUAC testimony, and fought tooth and nail against unionization of his studio workers—is a paragon of virtue and good, clean American values, the man with a “red, white and blue stripe” running up his spine that children were entrusted to every Sunday evening.


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.”