Monday, February 4, 2013

Prelude to a Million Years and Song Without Words by Lynd Ward

Two brief, beautiful works by the master of wordless books
Lynd Ward was an artist and book illustrator who is indisputably the American master of the woodcut novel. By combining wood engravings into sequential narratives, he created wordless literary masterpieces—most notably the novels God’s Man, Madman’s Drum, and Wild Pilgrimage—which were influential precursors to today's graphic novels. The two pieces contained in this 2010 edition from Dover Publications, Prelude to a Million Years and Song Without Words, could be considered graphic short stories. The former, originally published in 1933, is comprised of thirty images, and the latter, from 1936, of twenty-one. Though these brief works are less monumental achievements than his lengthier novels, the shorter format proves to have been somewhat liberating for Ward. In these two works he seems less beholden to narrative conventions than usual, and more willing to experiment with abstract, symbolic imagery.

Of the two pieces included here, Prelude to a Million Years has the more concrete narrative structure. It tells the story of an artist who worships beauty, yet nonetheless must deal with the ugly reality of the world in which he lives. When not engaged in the act of artistic creation, he navigates a bleak cityscape, bearing witness to domestic violence, labor unrest, and the rampant jingoism preceding the Second World War. Song Without Words illustrates the fears of an expectant mother as she contemplates giving birth to her child in a world threatened by the spectres of Fascism, Nazism, and imminent war. This piece has less of a straightforward linear narrative than one usually finds in Ward’s wordless novels. It reads more like a portfolio of trippy, dreamlike visions, often employing surrealistic imagery. It contains some of the most shocking and powerful images Ward ever created, some of which rival the creepiest creations of Salvador Dali.

The book features a very good introduction by David A. Beronä, a respected historian of woodcut novels. In addition to some brief interpretation of the works, Beronä offers interesting historical information about the creation and publication of the original editions. Unfortunately, this introduction is only four pages long and leaves the reader wanting more. Dover, a publisher known for their inexpensive reissues of classic works, is to be commended for bringing these works back to life, but the reproduction quality of the illustrations is merely adequate. The book is printed on a smooth matte-coated sheet which allows for the preservation of Ward’s intricate line work, but robs the illustrations of the rich blacks and tonal depth that would have resulted from a softer, uncoated sheet. True fans of Ward’s work should splurge on the Library of America’s two-volume hardcover edition of his complete woodcut novels. Overall the price would probably be cheaper than that of collecting all the individual Dover editions. Those not ready to make such a big commitment to Ward’s work, however, can’t really go wrong by buying this inexpensive edition. These beautiful and moving works are well worth the price.

Works in this collection
Prelude to a Million Years 
Song Without Words 

Left: Lynd Ward, from Prelude to a Million Years, 1933. Right: Lynd Ward, from Song Without Words, 1936.

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