Madman's Drum

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Madman's Drum
A book cover with a black-and-white illustration of a man standing atop an African drum with the image of a face on it.  The title at the top reads "Madman's Drum", and at the bottom reads "A novel in woodcuts by Lynd Ward".
First edition cover of Madman's Drum (1930) by American artist Lynd Ward
Author Lynd Ward
Country United States
Genre Wordless novel
Publication date
Pages 118 (recto only)

Madman's Drum is the second wordless novel by American artist Lynd Ward (1905–1985), published in 1930. In 118 images, it tells the story of a slave trader who murders an African and steals the victim's demon-faced drum, and the tragic consequences it has for his family.

The book was executed in wood engravings, and was the second of Ward's six wordless novels, after 1929's Gods' Man. Ward was more ambitious with his second work in the medium, and created more individuated characters, a more complicated plot, and a more explicit outrage at social injustice than in the first book. He used a finer degree of detail in the artwork using a wider variety of carving tools. and was expressive in his use of symbolism and exaggerated emotional facial expressions.

The book was well received upon release, and the success of Ward's first two wordless novels encouraged publishers to publish more books in the genre. In 1943 psychologist Henry Murray used two images in his Thematic Apperception Test of personality traits. The book is considered less successfully executed than the first, a slump Ward overcame by streamlining his work in his next wordless novel, Wild Pilgrimage (1932).


A slave trader kills an African and steals the victim's demon-faced drum,[1] condemning his family to its curse.[2] The slave trader becomes rich and buys a mansion for his family, in which he displays the drum and the sword he used to kill the drum's original owner. He catches his son playing on the drum, beats the boy, and insists he read and study. The boy grows to reject religion and becomes a successful scientist, all the while distancing himself from the vices of his peers. He marries and has two daughters, but loses his mind when his family dies tragically.[1]


Born in Chicago,[3] Lynd Ward (1905–1985) was a son of Methodist minister Harry F. Ward (1873–1966), a social activist and the first chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union. Throughout his career, Ward displayed in his work the influence of his father's interest in social injustice.[4] The younger Ward was early drawn to art,[5] and contributed art and text to high school and college newspapers.[6]

After graduating from university[7] in 1926, Ward married writer May McNeer and the couple left for an extended honeymoon in Europe[8] Ward spent a year studying wood engraving in Leipzig, Germany, where he encountered German Expressionist art and read the wordless novel The Sun[a] (1919) by Flemish woodcut artist Frans Masereel (1889–1972). Ward returned to the United States and freelanced his illustrations. In 1929, he came across German artist Otto Nückel's wordless novel Destiny[b] (1926) in New York City.[10] Nückel's only work in the genre, Destiny told of the life and death of a prostitute in a style inspired by Masereel's, but with a greater cinematic flow.[7] The work inspired Ward to create a wordless novel of his own, Gods' Man (1929).[10] In his second wordless novel, Madman's Drum, he hoped explore more deeply the potential of the wordless novel medium, and to overcome what he saw as a lack of individuality in the first book's characters.[11]

Production and publishing history[edit]

Ward made 118 woodcuts for Madman's Drum.[1] The black-and-white[12] images are not uniform in size—they measure from 4 by 3 inches (10.2 cm × 7.6 cm) to 5 by 4 inches (13 cm × 10 cm).[1] Cape & Smith published the book in October 1930 in trade and deluxe editions.[13]

Style and analysis[edit]

Madman's Drum is a more ambitious work than Gods' Man, with a larger cast of characters and more complicated plot. The book is more explicit in its radical leftist politics, and includes a subplot in which the main character's sister's communist lover is executed for his political beliefs.[14]

The art has more detail than in Gods' Man, and Ward availed himself of a larger variety of engraving tools, allowing for a variety of line qualities and textures.[15] The large cast of characters are distinguished by visual details in faces and clothing, such as the main character's sharp nose and receding hairline and his wife's checked dress.[16]

A wide range of emotion such as resentment and terror is expressed through exaggerated facial expressions.[17] Ward broadens his use of visual symbolism, such as a young woman's purity represented by a flower she wears—she is deflowered by a young man whose vest is adorned with flowers,[1] as is the stucco pattern of his house, which is adorned with phallic spears and an exultant rooster as a weathervane.[16] To French comics scripter Jérôme LeGlatin (fr), the "madman" in the tale could be interpreted as a number of its characters: the laughing image adorning the drum, the subdued African, the slave trader, and even Ward himself.[2]

Reception and legacy[edit]

The book was well-received when it was released in 1930.[18] The success of Ward's first two wordless novels led American publishers to release a number of such books, including Nückel's Destiny in 1930, as well as books by Americans and other Europeans. In 1943 psychologist Henry Murray used two images in his Thematic Apperception Test of personality traits.[19]

A reviewer for The Burlington Magazine in 1931 found the book hard to follow with uneven homework, and judged it a failed experiment.[20] Cartoonist Art Spiegelman considered Ward's second wordless novel a "sophomore slump",[21] whose story was bogged down by Ward's attempt to flesh out the characters and produce a more complicated plot. To Spiegelman, the artwork was a mix of strengths and weaknesses: it had stronger compositions, but the more finely engraved images were "harder to read".[14] Spiegelman considered Ward to have broken free from this slump by streamlining his work in his next wordless novel, Wild Pilgrimage (1932).[22] Jérôme LeGlatin considered Madman's Drum Ward's first masterpiece, "[triumphing] at every fault, [succeeding] in each failure" as Ward freed himself from the restraint displayed in Gods' Man.[2]


  1. ^ German: Die Sonne; originally French: Le Soleil[9]
  2. ^ German: Schicksal : eine Geschichte in Bildern


  1. ^ a b c d e Beronä 2008, p. 52.
  2. ^ a b c LeGlatin 2012.
  3. ^ Spiegelman 2010b, p. 799.
  4. ^ Beronä 2008, p. 41.
  5. ^ Spiegelman 2010b, p. 801.
  6. ^ Spiegelman 2010b, pp. 802–803.
  7. ^ a b Spiegelman 2010a, p. x.
  8. ^ Spiegelman 2010b, pp. 803–804.
  9. ^ Beronä 2008, p. 244.
  10. ^ a b Spiegelman 2010b, pp. 804–805.
  11. ^ Spiegelman 2010a, p. xiv.
  12. ^ Ward & Beronä 2005, p. iii.
  13. ^ Spiegelman 2010b, p. 806.
  14. ^ a b Spiegelman 2010a, p. xv.
  15. ^ Ward & Beronä 2005, pp. iii–v.
  16. ^ a b Ward & Beronä 2005, p. iv.
  17. ^ Ward & Beronä 2005, pp. iv–v.
  18. ^ Walker 2007, p. 27.
  19. ^ Ward & Beronä 2005, p. v.
  20. ^ E. P. 1931, p. 99.
  21. ^ Spiegelman 2010a, p. xvi.
  22. ^ Spiegelman 2010a, pp. xv–xvi.

Works cited[edit]