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A Feeling for Wood Itself: Lynd Ward’s Arboreal Modernism

Walking among a series of prints by the American wood engraver Lynd Ward (1905–85), Art Spiegelman was surprised to find himself transported from a chic Binghamton art gallery into a primordial forest. Though he had not left the gallery, Spiegelman was surrounded by networks of branches, trees, and woods reaching out at him from the prints on the wall. Within this gallery-turned-forest, Spiegelman gained a new appreciation of the power of Ward’s arboreal aesthetic. Singling out a particularly noteworthy print, Spiegelman describes “a panoramic treescape of a young man in shadows, groping and climbing through the dense neuronal wickerwork of dappled trunks and branches, carefully exploring and working his way through the maze of marks that surround him.”[1] The print he describes, Pathfinder, is striking for its disorientation.

The “treescape” evokes a sense of kinetic energy and of light within darkness. Trees fracture the perspective of the print as they partially block the human figure. The forest in Pathfinder is disorienting, tree branches are both barriers and bridges on the young man’s journey. Such disorientation is reinforced by the seemingly impossible perspective of the print. At once, viewers are positioned beside the young man, looking at him through the trees in the foreground, and on the forest floor, looking up at the canopy in the background. Ward uses an overabundance of trees to challenge viewers to reimagine their relationship with the natural world.

In his reflection on Pathfinder, Spiegelman also manages to capture what lies at the heart of Ward’s long and prolific career: a very special relationship with trees and wood. Trees and forests populate Ward’s fine prints and the pages of the six woodcut novels he produced between 1929 and 1937. Not only did Ward return again and again to arboreal imagery, but he also used natural wood to create his printed works, even when cheaper, synthetic alternatives became available. Taking wood as both subject and material, Ward created tree-infused art as part of his lifelong commitment to social justice, or, in Spiegelman’s words, of “seeking slivers of light in the darkness” (Gods’ Man, xxv).

Despite their popularity, Ward’s woodcut novels have received surprisingly little scholarly attention. Most recently, David Beronä and David Ball have elucidated the epistemological and narrative complexity and sophistication of Ward’s wordless novels.[2] Ball’s study offers an original and important analysis of Ward’s final novel, Vertigo, as a modernist text, while focusing on integrating Ward’s work within the history of comics. The article at hand likewise recovers Ward’s woodcut novels within the realm of modernist studies, but does so by considering the materiality, aesthetics, and politics of the form. By crafting wordless narratives about trees out of wood, Ward enacted an alternative vision of modernity that promotes the value of a living relationship between nature and culture. His arboreal modernism does not simply suggest a return to nature as a corrective for the ills of urban, mechanized existence, but instead proposes that an increased awareness and appreciation of nonhuman networks, such as forests, can illuminate our own communal or social connections and disruptions.

This study of Ward’s woodcut novels not only recovers him as a significant visual and literary modernist in his own right, but it also makes a case for a heretofore unrecognized modernist trend that extends beyond his work. Modernist artists turned to trees to understand what it meant to be a living being in an increasingly industrial world. Trees grow and regenerate according to a natural, slower rhythm distinct from industrial and modern time, which appealed to people during the accelerated decades of the first half of the twentieth century. In Orlando, Virginia Woolf uses the arboreal (specifically, the figure of the oak tree) to complicate notions of time and gender as fixed categories, while in novels like Mrs Dalloway, encounters with trees are used to decenter human experience and to explore the traumatic effects of war. In Howards End, E. M Forster relies on a wych-elm to comment on a shifting sense of national identity at a time of uprootedness and transformation. Rather than re-inscribing the arboreal within a pastoral view of nature, modernist artists used trees as a means to understand the new world around them, one of accelerating atoms, global conflicts, dislocations, and other profound social transformations that marked the first half of the twentieth century.

The arboreal also appealed to modernists in terms of its materiality, as evidenced by the popularity of the woodcut technique, and of wood-based objects, within the artisanal endeavors of the Hogarth Press and the Omega workshops (and prior, within the production of Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement).[3] In the modernist age, wood-based objects and printmaking techniques became a means of recovering and prioritizing the handcrafted over the machine-made, not simply as a sign of nostalgia (although some nostalgia was involved), but as a means of reexamining the notions of “nature” and “human” in the technological century.

Ward’s woodcut novels emerge within this larger cultural context. By reading his novels through the lens of arboreal modernism we can more clearly see how an individual artist used wood and trees as subject and material to navigate the alienating forces of industrial capitalism within the modernist age. It is precisely Ward’s interest in the nonhuman as having a life and a meaning in excess of capitalist production that makes his woodcut novels of interest to contemporary critics concerned with the relationship between the human and the nonhuman, and in the roles literature and the visual arts play in that relationship. Ward’s use of trees in his woodcut novels, which suggests a model of interconnectedness in an increasingly alienating and individualistic modern world, enriches current ecocritical explorations of modernist literature and art.

This article articulates Ward’s arboreal modernism in two parts: first, I outline Ward’s use of wood as artistic material in contrast to other forms of modernist visual narrative media, specifically film. To create his novels in woodcuts, Ward hand-carved images directly onto woodblocks and printed them on paper. These books were created through a time-consuming process that demanded intimate, handcrafted contact with wood. He employed this technique in contrast to the mechanized production of other visual narrative media at the time. In this way, Ward enacts a sophisticated ecological approach to the relationship between humans and the environment by way of the woodcut novel.

Second, I explore the arboreal as subject matter by taking Ward’s third woodcut novel, Wild Pilgrimage, as case study. Published in 1932, Wild Pilgrimage most effectively encapsulates Ward’s philosophy of arboreal modernism, particularly in the way it casts trees as models for individuals within society. Like all of Ward’s novels, Wild Pilgrimage is a highly political book about the labor struggles and racial injustices that plagued the United States during the Depression. In this section, I show arboreal modernism at work in this visual story, as I apply Michael Rothberg’s concepts of implicated subject and multidirectional memory to show how the arboreal representations in Wild Pilgrimage, particularly those depicting the lynching of a Black man, negotiate collective histories of violence and trauma, as well as advance an ecology of universal community.

By way of conclusion, I consider how these woodcut books demand a new kind of reading praxis—one that eschews language and instead draws readers into Ward’s arboreal ecology to make meaning. Ward’s woodcut novels require the reader to slow down and contemplate each image, and this act necessitates readerly contact with arboreal materials (paper, woodcut prints). Reading a woodcut novel thus becomes a more embodied experience, a remedy for an increasingly accelerating and alienating world.

The Arboreal as Material

Ward was heavily influenced by the visual art of German expressionism, cinema in particular. A side-by-side comparison of a classic of expressionist cinema such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Ward’s first woodcut novel Gods’ Man (1929) illuminates a similar monochrome aesthetic and a reliance on exacerbated human emotions. The similarities are not coincidental. Ward acquired the skill of wood engraving during a year-long fellowship in printmaking at the National Academy of Graphic Arts and Bookmaking in Leipzig. The year spent in Germany would have long-lasting effects on Ward’s career. Not only was Germany the place where Ward learned the practice of wood engraving, but it was also where he first encountered the woodcut novels of Frans Masereel and Otto Nückel, as well as the silent films of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. As a consequence, Ward embraced the expressionist reliance on emotion as part of his own pictorial vocabulary and took home an appreciation for the power of expressionist printmaking. While Ward embraced the German passion for wood, thematically, he rejected the German expressionists’ penchant for the salacious and the macabre in favor of a distinctly American brand of social realism. This dialogue between German and American aesthetic and political concerns places Ward within a transnational modernist circuit of artistic exchange that has long been overlooked.

Like the classics of German expressionist cinema that he drew inspiration from, Ward’s woodcut novels can also be described as “silent” (even more so given the absence of music and intertitles). Ward was adamant that his novels remain wordless. His decision to create wordless woodcut novels was a political one. The artist believed that, through the intimate and direct process of carving images out of wood, he could come up with a new kind of language, one that would register to readers across linguistic, cultural, and political barriers. David Ball argues that one way in which Ward’s woodcut novels participate in the modernist project of experimenting with language is through their wordlessness. Taking Ward’s final published woodcut novel, Vertigo (1937), as case study, Ball outlines the ways in which the purely visual syntax of Ward’s woodcut novels creates a reading experience which relies on defamiliarization and on “resistance to hermeneutic singularity” in ways that are congruent with “the more easily recognizable, radical formal and narrative experimentation in modernist literature and art” (“Lynd Ward’s Modernist ‘Novels in Woodcuts,’” 133).

The stakes for creating this new means of communication were high. Like many other contemporaneous artists, Ward became profoundly disillusioned with the political discourse which dominated the 1920s and 30s public arena in both in the United States and abroad, as well as with the ways in which new technologies of mass communication were used to spread violence. Though never directly affiliated with any political party, Ward remained a staunch pacifist and left-leaning activist throughout his life and career. Responding to what he perceived as a profound crisis of language in the first half of the twentieth century, Ward saw in the wordlessness of the woodcut novel a way to escape political manipulation. Unlike modern technologies of visual storytelling like cinema, the visual language proposed by Ward was made effective by the way it combined the old with the new. The monochrome woodcut novel appealed to modern audiences because it evoked the aesthetic of silent cinema; however, unlike the new technology of film (which proved as easily corruptible by the fascist propaganda machine as the radio), the woodcut novel relied on the ancient technique of carving images out of wood, one of the oldest materials.

Ward’s artistic project depended on a relationship with the arboreal. His insistence on using wood and wood engraving, instead of a more modern technology like film, was itself an artistic and political choice. Ward rejected the Neoplatonic idea that the artist transforms material from a basic object into a higher aesthetic form. Instead, he advocated a much more modern approach that demands an artist act in cooperation with materials. In doing so, his artistic philosophy subverts the historical tradition of material as subaltern; material is not something to be manipulated or mastered by the artist. Instead, material—and wood in particular—holds life and agency of its own.

This return to craftsmanship is also at work in the form and content of Ward’s woodcut novels. Ward’s narratives criticize what he calls the “mechanized and thereby brutalized” nature of modern existence. They suggest that the alienation from labor, bodies, and materials that was characteristic of the increasingly postindustrial world of the twentieth century can only be overcome through intimate and affective connection with nature. Ward enacts his philosophy of arboreal modernism by working with wood, a material which, according to the artist himself, “unlike the metal and stone of other graphic processes, was once a living thing.”[4] When discussing the process of wood engraving, Ward describes wood as an active participant in the creative process. In many ways, Ward suggests, the artist “releases” what is already present in the body of the wood: “The woodblock develops its image by bringing details out of darkness into the light. In a sense, what is happening is already there in the darkness, and cutting the block involves letting only enough light into the field of vision to reveal what is going on” (Ward, “The Way of Wood Engraving,” 22).

For Ward, the woodblock possesses a form of agency, and any wood engraving that he creates must achieve its final character and exact definition in the transaction between engraving tool and the wood itself. This synergy, between artist and artistic material, rests at the heart of Ward’s approach to art in general, and wood engraving in particular. In his essay “The Way of Wood Engraving,” Ward goes on to explain that this exchange is affect-based, and very much an embodied experience. Rather than just factually describing the labor-intensive activity of carving wood, Ward describes engraving as a matter of the heart, as something that resides outside of the realm of the rational:

With wood, every movement of the tool involves overcoming resistance and demands a certain amount of sheer physical force. Every block and every subject is a new challenge. The result is an emotional involvement between man and material that, enduring over the years, somehow takes on the character of an addiction, or a love affair, or something similarly irrational. At any rate, there seems to be no known cure. (16)

For Ward, the irrational, almost primal nature of working with wood is what makes the ancient technique of the woodcut appealing to the modern artist. Words such as “physical force,” “addiction,” “love affair,” and “irrational” describe the process of wood engraving as an intimate, hyper-physical activity. This connection is not only a means of ensuring that both artist and art consumer maintain their humanity in the face of an increasingly mechanized and dehumanized world, but it also suggests a model of labor based on craftsmanship and emotional involvement.[5]

Ward’s cooperation with wood as artistic material is most apparent in his unfinished woodcut engravings. In these works, Ward responds to and engages with the grain, body, and structure of wooden material. For example, in an unfinished print, Ward drew the image of a man’s body while taking into consideration the grain of the wood material. Notably, the man’s left thigh is drawn upon the woodblock at the same angle as the grain of the wood. Instead of crafting a leg against the grain, Ward forms his bodies in response to the body of the wood. Similarly, the man’s breast is attuned to the texture of the wood; the striation of the wood grain almost mimics the texture of human muscle. Accordingly, the body of the wood and the body of the man are inseparable and interdependent. This unfinished image also illustrates the unusual nature of Ward’s approach to engraving wood. Usually, an artist making a wood engraving would first draw the desired image on a sheet of paper, which is then transposed on the wood. The goal is to minimize the possibility for errors. Wood is an unforgiving material; once carved into, a line cannot simply be erased. Ward’s approach is thus unusual and risky—a mistake means discarding the entire woodblock. When read in the context of his artistic philosophy of cooperation with materials, however, this approach seems less risky and more necessary. For Ward, working with wood had to involve spontaneity and free play, to avoid any kind of automation of the artistic process. Thus, his act of engraving wood was not “a purely mechanical process of removing the bits and pieces between the drawn lines,” but a process that allows for “a major amount of free play” (Ward, “The Way of Wood Engraving,” 14). The emerging image achieves its final character and definition in the negotiation between the artist’s engraving tool and the wood itself. For Ward, writing directly on the woodblock is not only a way for the artist to build and maintain an intimate connection with the material, but it also allows wood itself to play its part in the artistic process., Ward drew the image of a man’s body while taking into consideration the grain of the wood material. Notably, the man’s left thigh is drawn upon the woodblock at the same angle as the grain of the wood. Instead of crafting a leg against the grain, Ward forms his bodies in response to the body of the wood. Similarly, the man’s breast is attuned to the texture of the wood; the striation of the wood grain almost mimics the texture of human muscle. Accordingly, the body of the wood and the body of the man are inseparable and interdependent. This unfinished image also illustrates the unusual nature of Ward’s approach to engraving wood. Usually, an artist making a wood engraving would first draw the desired image on a sheet of paper, which is then transposed on the wood. The goal is to minimize the possibility for errors. Wood is an unforgiving material; once carved into, a line cannot simply be erased. Ward’s approach is thus unusual and risky—a mistake means discarding the entire woodblock. When read in the context of his artistic philosophy of cooperation with materials, however, this approach seems less risky and more necessary. For Ward, working with wood had to involve spontaneity and free play, to avoid any kind of automation of the artistic process. Thus, his act of engraving wood was not “a purely mechanical process of removing the bits and pieces between the drawn lines,” but a process that allows for “a major amount of free play” (Ward, “The Way of Wood Engraving,” 14). The emerging image achieves its final character and definition in the negotiation between the artist’s engraving tool and the wood itself. For Ward, writing directly on the woodblock is not only a way for the artist to build and maintain an intimate connection with the material, but it also allows wood itself to play its part in the artistic process.

Ward’s approach to art, specifically the idea of cooperating with the artistic material rather than mastering it, was heavily influenced by his political inclinations. While Ward himself never overtly aligned himself with any party, his art was infused with anti-capitalist, leftist ideals. All of Ward’s woodcut novels stand as moving social commentaries: Gods’ Man reinterprets the Faustian myth as a reflection upon the role of the artist in a capitalist, consumerist society. Song without Words, which was published soon after the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, addresses a mother’s painful decision of bringing a child into a world wherein fascism loomed darkly on the horizon. Wild Pilgrimage and Vertigo explore the sense of failed capitalism and corrupted democracy through powerful images of strikes, layoffs, street protests, and individual and communal agony. All of these works directly engage the social problems and unrest that permeated American society in the wake of the Great Depression.

In order to participate in this political art movement of the interwar period, for Ward, no other artistic material but wood, and no other technique but the woodcut would do. Ward chose wood as material and medium to craft these anti-capitalist narratives for three reasons: the woodcut’s long history as a democratic art medium, wood’s organic qualities, and the significance of working with wood in the context of a post-Depression economy. By the time Ward crafted his wordless narratives, the woodcut had already enjoyed a long, transnational reputation as democratic art medium. Woodcuts were crafted by and for people who had less financial capital to publish books and visual arts. They were cheap to produce and were designed to reproduce multiple copies of a single image. Moreover, in their early uses, woodcut illustrations enabled people who could not read the ability to learn, understand, and be entertained by books. This was the kind of art made not for elites, but for everyone regardless of class.[6] Factory workers, starving Dust Bowl farmers, the thirty-four million Americans left without income as a result of this unprecedented economic collapse were at the heart of American art in the 30s and 40s, the period when Ward produced his wordless woodcut novels.

Aside from the woodcut’s long history as democratic art form, what also drew Ward to this medium was its reliance on wood, a material that had once been a living thing. In his essay “The Way of Wood Engraving,” Ward discusses the particularities of the medium by relying heavily on personification. The artist suggests that wood possesses certain qualities that make it human-like. Thus, each woodblock is unique, “some blocks are easily affected by humidity, and, like old codgers who grow more cantankerous during spells of dampness, become warped and bent and increasingly uncooperative as the weather worsens” (Ward, “The Way of Wood Engraving,” 15). Ward certainly could have described the challenges of the medium by using more technical notions, but in doing so, he would have failed to convey what he saw as the essential trait that separated wood from all other artistic materials: its organic qualities.

While it might seem somewhat counterintuitive for an artist to think of cut wood as living, Ward engages with wood in a way that echoes Jane Bennett’s concept of “vitality.” In her influential work Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Bennett describes “vitality” as “the capacity of things . . . not only to impede or block the will and design of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.”[7] Ward’s above description echoes these materialist interactions between human and non-human elements that Bennett references. According to Ward, if the woodblock is “cantankerous” and “uncooperative” because of bad weather, there is little the artist or his engraving tool can do. Ward reorients the artist’s relationship to the non-human, non-sentient woodblock in ways that appreciate the material aside from its instrumentality, acknowledging it as “actant,” to again use Bennett’s eco-materialist terminology.

Unlike contemporary materialist thinkers like Bennett, however, Ward seemed to recognize this vitality only in the arboreal. Ward’s woodblocks, housed at Georgetown University, provide clues as to why that might be. Many of the ninety-five original woodblocks Ward used to create his third woodcut novel, Wild Pilgrimage, show signs of wear and tear; a couple of them display such deep fissures that the blocks appear to split in two at the lightest touch. This kind of phenomenon is by no means exceptional; despite proper care and preservation, in time wood will split, crack, bend, and warp. In other words, it will transform and remain animated. Thus, almost nine decades after they were carved, and three decades after Ward’s death, these woodblocks are still changing shape. So significant is this transformation that if we were to make print s using these original woodblocks, the result would look considerably different from the images published in the first editions of Ward’s woodcut novels.

Maintaining a lifelong close relationship with wood and trees, Ward observed how woodblocks continue to age and adapt over time, how wood changes and evolves long after the tree dies. For Ward, wood maintained this vitality more than any other artistic material. Even more, Ward believed that wood and trees possessed something unique that could teach us about our own humanity and place in the world. Wood—as a once-living and ever-responsive medium—allowed him to craft politically conscious art. In the following section, I turn to the proliferation of trees and forests in Ward’s illustrations and woodcut narratives and consider what this layering of wood-on-wood has to tell us about his artistic project.

The Arboreal in Wild Pilgrimage

Up to this point, I have argued that Ward chose the woodblock as artistic material because the vitality of wood enabled it to convey its own story. In what follows, I extend this understanding to show how Ward used carved woodblocks to tell both arboreal and human stories. I will focus on the 1932 woodcut novel Wild Pilgrimage to show how Ward’s representations of trees and forests serve a political function. Out of all his woodcut novels, Wild Pilgrimage most effectively encapsulates Ward’s philosophy of arboreal modernism, particularly, in the way it casts trees as models for individuals within society. In this wordless work (composed of ninety-five sequential wood engravings), trees have the capacity to teach readers about the trauma and violence of racism and capitalism, while illustrating the value of interconnection and interdependence within a social body.

Published by New York-based publisher Harrison Smith and Robert Haas in 1932, Wild Pilgrimage follows the story of a lone man during the Depression as he attempts to escape the social injustice around him. The novel begins with a series of monochrome images depicting a sinister-looking factory town, and a tall, hard-featured protagonist walking through this urban desolation amidst a heavy atmosphere of hopelessness. The sequence, which could have been taken right out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, illustrates the powerful influence of German expressionism on Ward’s work. The protagonist witnesses this image of quiet despair, which makes him reflect on his existence and the existence of those like him, laborers trapped in the cogs of an unforgiving machine. As the protagonist moves forward, he fantasizes about breaking free from this prison-like existence.[8] He imagines a different life, one in which he can bounce off mountain tops, let himself drift in the gentle waters of a river, and rest amongst the undulating branches of trees. In pursuit of this different lifestyle, he ventures into the countryside. There, the protagonist learns valuable lessons about equity and social justice. Inspired by these ideas, he returns to the factory town, determined to change things for the better. Upon his return, he discovers that the other workers had rebelled against their poor working and living conditions. Caught in a violent protest, the protagonist loses his life, alongside those of many other protesting laborers.

In the first section of Wild Pilgrimage, Ward creates an opposition between the protagonist’s perceptions of the modern industrial city and the natural world. Within this opposition, the city dehumanizes the protagonist, whereas the natural world has the capacity to enliven him. As the narrative unfolds, however, the protagonist learns that this distinction is a fantasy in itself. Inspired by his reveries about the natural world, he starts his journey outside the confines of the oppressing city, where he discovers that “Nature” in the modern age had lost the romantic, bucolic qualities that appeared in his daydreams. In this natural environment, the presence of man remains visible, either as minute dwellings in the distance, or as man-made markers which delineate the transition from farmland to uncultivated land. Very soon, readers find out just how tragic the consequences of man’s presence can be.

Ward was certainly not the only American artist of the interwar period to explore and complicate the relationship between the categories of “rural” and “urban.” In fact, as art historian Amanda Burdan points out, this blurring of lines was one of the defining characteristics of American visual modernism.[9] While the European avant-garde appeared much more interested in abstraction and depicting the modern metropolis, American visual modernism remained representational and often looked outside the big city. Burdan explains that these interwar representations of nature, so central to American modernism, participated in a larger cultural project of fashioning a sense of national identity. From coast to coast, agrarian depictions of farms, open fields and skies, of canyons and marshes, even the perpetual deserted industrial landscapes of Charles Sheeler, worked to create “a shared experience of the land as the focus of nationalism” (Burdan, et al., Rural Modern, 20). With the exception of a few idealized and nostalgic depictions of “America the beautiful,” most of the visual art produced during the interwar era was imbued with an undercurrent of darkness which sprang from the many environmental, social, and economic crises that marked this troubled period. These visual products, laden with political messages and cultural critiques, were designed to challenge viewers. Art historian Helen Langa refers to this type of art as social viewpoint art, works that “focused on the difficult social issues that troubled liberal and leftist communities, such as labor unrest, racial violence, and the rise of fascism” (Langa, Radical Art, 5). All of Ward’s woodcut novels fit within this category of social viewpoint art; Wild Pilgrimage in particular addresses early twentieth-century racism.

In some of the most striking images of Wild Pilgrimage, Ward depicts the lynching of a Black man by a gang of white men. This particular sequence of images provides a good illustration for the kind of social viewpoint art, and its political engagement with nature, that Burdan and Langa describe in their studies. As readers, we are not given any warning for what we are about to witness. In fact, the image right before the scene depicts the protagonist inside a forest, picking some flowers. The next image could not provide a starker contrast: a Black man is about to be hanged from a tree by a group of five white men, one of whom is carrying a rifle. In the following image, the horrific act is carried out; the victim hangs from a tall tree, his hands tied together with rope. Three of the five perpetrators stand in the foreground examining one of the same flowers that the protagonist, who has witnessed the lynching, had picked moments prior. Given the sequencing of the images, we are led to believe that the white flowers had something to do with the Black man’s death. Relying on their symbolic value, Ward is suggesting that the man was accused of making advances toward a white woman. In this striking scene, trees tower over the human figures and serve as witnesses to the racial violence of the lynching (fig. 1).

 Lynd Ward, wood engraving from Wild Pilgrimage (1932) depicting a Black man about to be lynched by a group of white men.
Fig. 1. Lynd Ward, Untitled (Lynching Scene), illustration 17, in the book Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Kendall Ward (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932), wood engraving. Image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 

Amidst this traumatic and violent scene, Ward draws attention to the human characters’ presence in the forest. Leaves loom above the men, and the trunks of trees stand among them. In this way, Ward characterizes the forest as a witness to the violence. After seeing the lynching from a hidden place, the protagonist is depicted walking through the forest, attempting to process what he just witnessed. Though he is the only human figure in the image, several trees surround him (fig. 2). His figure leans forward with slightly slumped shoulders; a posture that is mirrored by the tree in front of him. Together, the protagonist and the trees—his fellow witnesses—hold the trauma of the recent past.

Ward utilizes trees in ways that far surpass their symbolic value. In Wild Pilgrimage, trees act as silent witnesses and timekeepers. Similar to Ward’s own pictorial depiction of such an event, many real-life lynchings took place in the secrecy of dense, remote forests, and other hidden places. Thus, in Ward’s visual narrative, trees are presented as silent observers who witness the trauma of racial violence that might otherwise go unknown. Moreover, Ward imbues the trees in Wild Pilgrimage with a kind of agency where trees engage with the protagonist, their fellow witness, as both hold knowledge of violence in the recent past.

Ward uses trees to complicate conventional representations of trauma, memory, and victimhood, and also to suggest a way forward. The artist’s representation of racial violence is in keeping with Michael Rothberg’s concept of the “implicated subject,” a subject position of indirect participation to systemic acts of violence. In Rothberg’s view, the implicated subject is “neither a victim nor a perpetrator, but rather a participant in histories and social formations that generate the positions of victim and perpetrator, and yet in which most people do not occupy such clear-cut roles.”[10] In engaging with the notion of implication, Rothberg does not dispute the categories of victim and perpetrator but seeks to expand our understanding of these structures past this habitual binary in order to paint a more complete (and uncomfortable) picture of what participation in systemic injustice looks like.

Lynd Ward, wood engraving from Wild Pilgrimage (1932) depicting the protagonist, who just witnessed the lynching of a Black man, walking through a forest
Fig. 2. Lynd Ward, Untitled, illustration 20, in the book Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Kendall Ward (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932), wood engraving. Image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 

Based on Rothberg’s conceptual framework, the protagonist in Ward’s Wild Pilgrimage emerges as an implicated subject. As he indirectly participates in the lynching of a Black man, he becomes implicated in this act of violence. His implication becomes clearer in the series of images which follow the actual lynching. Trees abound in these images, in which the protagonist appears overwhelmed and tries to process what he witnessed. The processing of trauma takes place most notably while the protagonist is dreaming, a state that is marked by the artist through the visual cue of red ink. It is during a dream-state that the protagonist imagines going back to the forest and seeing the bodies of many Black men hanging from trees. The multiplication of lynched Black bodies in this dream sequence indicates that the protagonist experiences a sense of responsibility and guilt for such acts of violence that were carried out in the past, as well as those that might be carried out in the future. Thus, this image suggests that the protagonist feels implicated not just in this one particular event, but also in the larger system of oppression that the murder is a part of.

Ward relies on trees (as silent witnesses and timekeepers) in order to visually represent these “different temporalities of injustice,” to once more borrow Rothberg’s terminology. Through the use of the arboreal, Ward signals to his readers that the protagonist, a white man living in a world wherein Black men are consistently subjected to horrific acts of violence, is implicated in the larger structures of systemic racism and white supremacy.

The protagonist’s engagement with the arboreal continues as he explores and reinvents the trauma of the past in an attempt to “fully own” it. In an image from the same dream state sequence, the man is depicted resting against a tree, his body posture evoking exhaustion, perhaps even hopelessness (fig.3). As the beams of flashlights close in on him from multiple angles, the image suggests a chase. The noose hanging over the protagonist’s head reinforces this interpretation; in his dream, the man imagines the feeling of being hunted down and possibly lynched. In other words, he imagines what it would be like to occupy the position of the oppressed.

Lynd Ward, wood engraving from Wild Pilgrimage (1932) depicting part of the dream sequence.
Fig. 3. Lynd Ward, Untitled, illustration 42, in the book Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Kendall Ward (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932), wood engraving (red). Image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.   

In his book The Implicated Subject, Rothberg discusses the presence of identification in more recent instances of antiracist discourse such as the “I am Trayvon Martin” movement. He suggests that while problematic and carrying obvious limitations, the act of identification with victims of oppression can play a part in the process of negotiating individual and collective responsibility (Rothberg, Implicated Subject, 2–8). A similar kind of negotiation is at play in Ward’s Wild Pilgrimage. Through the figure of the protagonist, Ward encourages his readers to imagine what it would be like to be hunted down, chased through the forest, and possibly lynched. With the dream sequence, Ward suggests that participation in acts of violence is subject to a constant process of negotiation, and that the traditional way of thinking about this participation (as either victim or perpetrator) fails to convey the complexity of the issue. Ward complicates the victim/ perpetrator binary by depicting the protagonist as neither; instead, the artist opens up the possibility of a third option, an in-between space occupied by what Rothberg calls the implicated subject.

By casting his protagonist and by extension, his readers, as implicated subjects rather than perpetrators of racial injustice, Ward’s intention was to show that people can occupy positions aligned with power and privilege without being direct agents of harm. Ultimately, the artist’s goal was to engender a sense of solidarity and collective responsibility in the face of racial injustice in his predominantly white readership who, given the artist’s reputation and the “leftist” themes of his woodcut novels, tended to be on the progressive side of the political spectrum. More than simply generating an abstract sense of responsibility, this served a concrete political purpose. Together with many other Depression-era printmakers, like Mabel Dwight, Hale Woodruff, or Harry Gottlieb, Ward tackles in his art the issue of violence against African Americans. Lynching in particular was a common subject in American art during the 1930s, originating in part as a reaction to the growing frequency of lynching, which almost always went unpunished.[11] After the NAACP’s effort to gain congressional support for an anti-lynching bill failed in the mid-1920s, progressive, left-leaning artists such as Ward used art to inspire political and social change; even more concretely, their goal was to make lynching a federal offense.[12] Therefore, it is important to examine the lynching scene in Wild Pilgrimage while keeping in mind the concrete political agenda behind it.

Up to this point, I have suggested that Ward’s 1932 woodcut novel challenges readers to confront the long history of racial violence in the United States. Readers, like the protagonist, should feel implicated within the system, and motivated to implement concrete, social and political change such as passing the federal anti-lynching bill. Fundamental to this message is Ward’s philosophy of arboreal modernism. Each of the engravings that depict these scenes are filled with trees. The protagonist runs through forests filled with trees, he enters his dream state when he rests his body against a tree. Trees are used to lynch Black bodies. Trees loom over the protagonist as he mourns the act of violence. Throughout this scene, forests and trees populate both the imaginative and actual worlds of the novel. In fact, contact with the tree is what enables the protagonist to enter the dream state, experience identification with the victim, and feel implicated in the man’s murder and the larger system of injustice that caused it. In Wild Pilgrimage, trees function like time capsules because they retain in their physical bodies the violence they were a part of. The protagonist is depicted repeatedly touching trees, and resting against them, and this enables him to access this arboreal memory of trauma and violence contained in the bodies of trees.[13]

Ward and other American printmakers during the Depression-era used complex, and at times symbolic, representations of trees in order to further their powerful anti- lynching and anti-racism messages. In what remains of this section, I argue that Ward takes the philosophy of arboreal modernism one step further by proposing that forests of interconnected and interdependent trees can serve as an ideal model for society. Images of networked trees allow Ward to illustrate his philosophy that the human and nonhuman are intimately connected, and that nature and culture are interdependent. For Ward, no tree and no person is separate from the ecological whole. Ward once again enlists images of trees to communicate this vision within Wild Pilgrimage. For example, after the protagonist witnesses the lynching, he ventures further into the woods where he encounters an old farmer. The hermit teaches the protagonist how to grow fruits and vegetables, and he introduces him to books and new ideas. In the woodcut that illustrates their first meeting, trees are conspicuously present; in this engraving, unlike the scene of the lynching, the branches of the trees reach out to one another in interconnection. Like the new friendship between the protagonist and the farmer, these trees are connected. These socially connected trees are much more vibrant than others throughout the novel; the leaves on these trees are lush and full.

For Ward, trees and forests offer a radical model of interconnectedness that is very much in keeping with the way trees actually cooperate in nature. Arborists and dendrologists often describe how the ecological community of natural forests is based on cooperation. A tree’s “success,” dendrologists explain, depends on many factors, such as the type of soil, how much water it receives and its location, and thus trees experience different growing conditions. While typical evolutionary reasoning would have us think that, given these differences, trees would be competing for resources, in fact, the opposite is true. Trees equalize differences by equally distributing resources such as nutrients and water, through a complex system of roots, between the strong and the weak members of the forest. Trees “understand” that their well-being depends on their community, and that even strong trees can get diseased, thus relying on their neighbors for help.[14] Ward incorporates a similar concept of community in his woodcut novels.

Ward’s social model was not steeped in idealism. Instead, like a forest, it accounts for both the health and the disease of a given social world. Ward does not shy away from the reality of broken communities, from Prelude to a Million Years’ haunting images of starving children in concentration camps, to the ruthlessness of economic elites and its consequences on working families in Vertigo, to the image of lynching in Wild Pilgrimage. In a broad sense, Ward’s woodcut novels explore the consequences of defective communities, of broken social ecologies, but at the same time he offers his readers an alternative. Thus, in Wild Pilgrimage, Ward suggests that lynching does not exist in isolation, but is part of a larger system of social injustice. Ward, like many of his colleagues from the distinctly leftist American Artists’ Union, perceived slavery as capitalism’s original sin, and held the belief that racial injustice was part of a broader spectrum of economic and social inequities bred by capitalism’s inherently rotten mechanism.[15] Within this representation, Ward embraces the value of a living relation between nature and culture. As a social practice, this kind of interconnection would work to acknowledge past wrongs and to lift up the most vulnerable within a society. Like the symbiotic sharing ecology of the forest, Ward’s arboreal modernism binds everyone together, and suggests that social health depends upon an acknowledgement of and respect for interdependence.

Wild Pilgrimage illustrates the persistence of interconnection even against the alienating forces of the capitalist machine. After witnessing the lynching and spending some time with the farmer in the woods, the protagonist returns to the factory town, where he joins a labor rally that clashes with armed factory guards. As he battles against the guards, he has a fantasy where he strangles the factory owner and cuts off his head. When he raises the severed head, the head is revealed to be his own.

Not only does this powerful image illustrate the disembodied nature of labor within the capitalist model, but it also represents the interconnection between the protagonist and the factory owner. Even in this scene of violent resistance, the protagonist learns that he is connected to his oppressor. This scene at once serves as a warning for the alienating effects of capitalism, and as a reminder that individuals occupy a shared ecology. Moreover, the beheading evokes the earlier lynching in the forest. The implication of the beheading scene is that the social injustices generated by capitalism cannot be dealt with by simply overturning those in power, or by seizing the means of production. Instead, individuals within a society should embrace their interconnectivity as a corrective for broken social ecologies. Rothberg introduced the concept of multidirectional memory as a way to challenge the conventional view of memory as “competitive” when talking about histories of trauma and extreme violence such as the Holocaust or the history of the slavery in the United States. Memory is not a zero-sum game, Rothberg argues, and memories of trauma do not crowd each other out of the public sphere. In contrast, he argues, “memory works productively through negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing. Collective memories of seemingly distinct histories are not easily separable from each other, but emerge dialogically.”[16] In essence, Rothberg proposes that it is productive to bring histories of suffering and oppression together in conversation, a notion present in Lynd Ward’s Wild Pilgrimage.  In this wordless woodcut novel, the labor injustice and anti-capitalist sentiments at the center of the Depression-era struggle for labor rights are placed in conversation with systemic racism, and implicitly, with slavery, capitalism’s original sin. Like Rothberg, Ward seemed to believe that histories of collective systemic oppression do not compete with one another, but together point to a broken social ecology in desperate need of repair.[17]

There is a complex and multifaceted interplay between the human and the arboreal in Ward’s woodcut novels that works on two levels. First, he uses wood to create his political artwork, using an approach that is always attentive to the physical particularities of the medium. Second, he uses trees as both a model for understanding trauma and a model to represent the social world. In the final section, I draw together these two elements to show their inter-dependence. In Ward’s arboreal modernism, medium and message are interrelated and codependent. Only wood engravings arranged sequentially could depict visual narratives of sufficient intensity and complexity to turn readers into civic activists against social injustice.

Reading the Woodcut Novel

Using image as narrative, Ward crafted stories that escape the bounds of conventional language. One way in which Ward achieves this effect is though the new kind of reading praxis demanded by the sequential woodcut book. Unlike conventional, word-based novels, Ward’s books have a distinctive arrangement on the page. Usually, books have words or images on both verso and recto pages. Woodcut books, however, only use recto. Accordingly, when a reader opens the book, they only encounter a single image at a time. The reader is thus encouraged to slow down, spend time with, and contemplate each individual image, while simultaneously engaging with the images narratively. Moreover, all of Ward’s woodcut novels are unpaginated, further enhancing a contemplative reading experience that often resists linear, narrative progression.

Ward’s reliance on image rather than word-based language is part of a larger modernist project of denaturalizing and destabilizing language in its familiar form. At a time when the function of language as a tool of mass manipulation became increasingly and painfully evident, Ward’s refusal to engage words can and should be interpreted as a political choice. By eliminating words in favor of a visual means of communication centered on emotion, Ward’s woodcut novels participate in a larger modernist project of reinventing the book and the way stories are told. For Ward, the medium itself became a signifier of meaning, and process became a dimension of the formal properties of the work. Arguably, conventional word-based books do not abide by the same rules as the woodcut novel, whose final shape is determined by an array of material factors, from the type of wood selected, to the technique used to craft it, to the kinds of carving tools, ink and paper onto which the carved images are then impressed.

In 1931, Ward enacted this political artistic philosophy on a larger scale. He and a few other like-minded artists and entrepreneurs founded the Equinox Press to create a model of labor that reaffirmed the value of handiwork and an appreciation for the book as art object. Equinox produced books that reaffirmed the value of craftsmanship. The members of the press considered every aspect of the book-making process, from paper, to binding, typeface, and the materials for the covers, themselves. Books produced by Equinox Press, like Lynd Ward’s own woodcut novels, recognize the value of craftsmanship within the “mechanized and brutalized” nature of modern existence. In being intimately involved in every aspect of book making, Ward and his collaborators challenged a pervasive atmosphere of techno-anxiety, or the belief that modernity was turning people into machines.

It was through the book, then, that Ward saw a channel for remedying modern social problems. As literary critic Matthew Brown observes, readers do not merely read books, they also “operate them.” For Brown, the encounter between a reader’s hand and a page generates a “materialist and affective connection” between reader and text.[18] In Brown’s account, the process of operating a book invites readers into a relationship of reciprocity with it, in which the material properties of the book reinforce its content. We can extend Brown’s configuration to the relationship between book and hand in Ward’s woodcut novel.

Ward’s woodcut novels present an interconnected social model inspired by wood, trees, and the natural world. From this perspective, we might see the simple act of using one’s hand to turn the pages of the book as part of Ward’s larger artistic project of bridging the gap between the human and the natural world. These gestures, picking up a book, a hand turning a page, are opportunities of imagining oneself coming closer to the natural world. If the book’s format matters to how we encounter its content, as Ward’s artistic philosophy suggests, then reading a handcrafted woodcut novel becomes not just a way of symbolically conceptualizing an interconnected social world, but also a physical reminder of that connection. Not only do Ward’s books encourage readers to feel emotions, but reading his woodcut novels asks them to feel paper and wood.

In light of the intertwined material and political dimensions of Ward’s arboreal modernism, the apparently anachronistic decision of selecting wood as artistic material in the age of modern, synthetic alternatives should be interpreted as a protest against capitalism. Engraving wood promotes an intimate, hyper-embodied relationship between artist and material that posits itself in opposition to the capitalist model, wherein both capital and labor have an abstract and disembodied quality. By way of producing handcrafted books as art objects, Ward hoped to establish a more intimate and embodied connection to his readers.

Ward wasn’t alone in this project of arboreal modernism. Although relatively few in number, woodcut novels were produced in various places throughout Europe and the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. Artists like Frans Masereel, Vanessa Bell, Helen West Heller, and Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová deliberately chose to work with the old, time-consuming process of carving images out of wood instead of more modern techniques; in part, working with wood, the oldest organic material, was a response to a symptomatology of techno-anxiety brought about by modernity. Moreover, these artists likewise use the arboreal as subject and material to advance anti-capitalist, socially and environmentally conscious visual narratives.

More broadly, trees are used as metaphor, model, and material in modernist literature and visual art. Modernists use trees to explore social and class relationships, history, temporality, and identity. Despite their different usages, looking at the arboreal collectively can reveal what modernists thought about their place in the natural world and their relationships to one another. Future studies of arboreal modernism have the potential to illuminate circuits of exchange, shared aesthetic practices, and overlapping commitments to social justice that have yet to be recognized. In this way, Lynd Ward’s woodcut novels stand as trees within a broader modernist ecology with roots that draw resources and inspiration from unexpected places.


Notes

[1] Art Spiegelman, “Reading Pictures,” introduction to Lynd Ward, Gods’ Man, Madman’s Drum, Wild Pilgrimage (New York: Library of America, 2010), ix–xxv, xxv.

[2] See David Beronä, Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008) and David Ball, “Lynd Ward’s Modernist ‘Novels in Woodcuts’: Graphic Narratives Lost Between Art History and Literature,” Journal of Modern Literature 39, no. 2 (2016): 126–43.

[3] For more on wood and the woodcut technique in modernist visual art and literature, see Benjamin Harvey, “Lightness Visible: An Appreciation of Bloomsbury’s Books and Blocks,” in A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections, ed. Nancy Green and Christopher Reed (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 88–118; Monika Wagner, “Wood—‘Primitive’ Material for the Creation of ‘German Sculpture,’” in New Perspectives on Brücke Expressionism: Bridging History, ed. Christian Weikop (New York: Routledge, 2016), 71–88; Perry Willet, “The Cutting Edge of German Expressionism: The Woodcut Novel of Frans Masereel and Its Influences,” in A Companion to the Literature of German Expressionism, ed. Neil H. Donahue (New York: Camden House, 2005); and Helen Southworth, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, The Hogarth Press and the Networks of Modernism (Edinburgh UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

[4] Lynd Ward, “The Way of Wood Engraving,” in Storyteller Without Words: The Wood Engravings of Lynd Ward with Text by the Artist, ed. Lynd Ward (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1974), 7–22, 13.

[5] Ward offered a tangible example of this kind of model of labor when he cofounded, in 1931, the Equinox Cooperative Press, a small, artisanal press where books were designed, printed, folded, cut and bound entirely by hand by its members, who shared both workload and profits equally and democratically (hence the term “cooperative” in the press’s name).

[6] I draw this idea of the democratic potential of printmaking from Helen Langa, Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Andrew Hemingway, Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002); and Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists of the WPA Federal Art Project, ed. Frances O’Connor (Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1975). Printmaker Fritz Eichenberg, a close friend of Ward’s, writes: “since its origin the woodblock has been the most democratic medium of art. Whatever its social, political, or religious significance may have been, it has always been the carrier of a message” (Fritz Eichenberg, “Eulogy for the Woodblock,” in Art for the Millions, 245).

[7] Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), viii, ellipsis added.

[8] As readers, we become aware that what we are seeing are the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind, due to a clever, innovative device used by Ward: a change in color of the images. In “The Way of Wood Engraving,” Ward himself explains this visual narrative device as follows: “To establish this contrast between inner and outer worlds, I employed a technique that, as far as I know, has not been used elsewhere. This was to change the color in which the alternating sequences of the story are printed” (126). Thus, when the story depicts external reality, we are presented with the same monochrome palette which we have come to associate with the genre of the woodcut novel. However, when the story shifts to the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind, the coloring turns to a sanguine off-red.

[9] For more on the place of the rural in American modernism, see Amanda C. Burdan et al., Rural Modern: American Art Beyond the City (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2016).

[10] Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 1.

[11] Like Ward, many Depression-era artists used trees in their depiction of racial violence. One such visual representation in particular echoes Ward’s own from Wild Pilgrimage. John Steuart Curry’s 1935 lithograph The Fugitive (once the NAACP catalog cover) depicts a runaway African American man who hides in a tree in an attempt to escape the gang of hounds and armed lynchers circling in on him. Curry’s image does not depict trees as weapons of murder, quite the opposite, it seems as if the tree and surrounding foliage help camouflage the man and thus save his life. For an exceptional account of lynching as a prominent feature of Depression-era art see Langa, Radical Art.

[12] It is important to note that as of summer of 2020, the most recent piece of anti-lynching federal legislation, the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, is still waiting to be signed into law by the President of the United States.

[13] A similar idea is explored by Ken Gonzales-Day, contemporary artist and author of Lynching in the West: 1850–1935 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006). In his visual project Hang Trees, Gonzales-Day attempts to assemble the most “complete record of lynching in California” by taking photographs of trees used in lynchings (Ken Gonzales-Day, “Hang Trees,” kengonzalesday.com/ projects/hang-trees/). While Gonzales-Day relies on historical documents and accounts to trace some of these trees, the fact that many lynching locations went undocumented adds a dimension of artistic performance to the project. When describing his project, Gonzales-Day alludes to trees’ arboreal memory as well as their ability to bear witness.

[14] For a scientific explanation of arboreal cooperation see the work of ecologist Suzanne Simard, as well as several scientific articles such as: Kevin J. Beiler et al., “Architecture of the wood-wide web: Rhizopogon spp. Genets link multiple Douglas-fir cohorts,” New Phytologist 185, no. 2 (2010): 543–53 and Yuan Yuan Song et al., “Defoliation of interior Douglas-fir elicits carbon transfer and stress signaling to ponderosa pine neighbors through ectomycorrhizal networks,” Scientific Reports 5, no. 8495 (2015).

[15] Ward explores slavery most extensively in his second woodcut novel Madman’s Drum, published in 1930. In this complex narrative, slavery is depicted as a phenomenon that transcends the boundaries of time. Beginning with the story of a brutal seafaring slave trader, the novel weaves together the story of multiple generations to show the historical and cultural legacy of slavery.

[16] Michael Rothberg, “Multidirectional memory,” Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire 119 (2014), doi.org/10.4000/temoigner.1494/.

[17] Rothberg’s concepts of “multidirectional memory” and “implicated subject” work together to showcase the intersecting nature of systems of injustice. Rothberg engages terms like “perpetrator,” “victim,” and “implicated subject” not as ontological categories (in other words, not as human essences), but as roles that are subject to change. In this way, not only can a participant move from one subject position (victim, implicated subject, perpetrator) to another within the same system, but they can also be part of intersecting systems (what Rothberg calls “complex implication”), meaning they can simultaneously occupy different roles in different systems of injustice. This theory is effectively illustrated in Wild Pilgrimage, wherein the protagonist simultaneously occupies the positions of implicated subject (racism) and victim (labor movement).

[18] Matthew P. Brown, “Hand Piety; or, Operating a Book in Early New England,” Cultural Narratives: Textuality and Performance in American Culture before 1900, ed. Sandra Gustafson and Caroline Sloat. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), 14–33. Even though Brown writes about seventeenth-century devotional texts, I find his way of articulating the affective relationship between readers and the material properties of books very useful in interpreting handcrafted texts like Ward’s woodcut novels.