Vertigo (wordless novel)

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This article is about the wordless novel. For other uses, see Vertigo (disambiguation).
A black-and-white drawing of a rainstorm at an amusement park.  People run for cover, with a brightly-lit roller coaster in the background.
A rainstorm spoils a young couple's carefree trip to an amusement park in 1929, foreshadowing the Great Depression to come.
Author Lynd Ward
Country United States
Genre Wordless novel
Publication date
Pages 230 (recto only)

Vertigo is a wordless novel by American artist Lynd Ward (1905–1985), published in 1937. It tells of the effects of the Great Depression on the lives of an elderly industrialist and a young man and woman.

At 230 wood engravings Vertigo was Ward's longest and most complex wordless novel, and proved to be the last he finished—he abandoned another in 1940, and in the last years of his life began another that he never finished. For the remainder of his career Ward turned to book illustration, especially children's books, some of which he or his wife May McNeer authored.


The story is a criticism of the failures of capitalism during the Great Depression, and takes place from 1929 to 1934. It follows three man characters: a young girl and boy, and an elderly man. They are each the focus of a section of the book,[1] which is in three parts: "The Girl", broken into subsections labeled by years; "An Elderly Gentleman", whose subsections are in months; and "The Boy", subdivided into days.[2]


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.[9] 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).[9] He continued with Madman's Drum (1930), Wild Pilgrimage (1932), Prelude to a Million Years (1933), and Song Without Words (1936), the last of which he made while engraving the blocks for Vertigo.[citation needed] Each of these books sold fewer copies than the last, and publishers were wary of publishing experiments in the midst of the Depression.[10]

Vertigo was the last wordless novel Ward was to complete. In 1940 he abandoned another, to be titled Hymn for the Night, after completing twenty blocks of it. Ward found the story too far from his own immediate experience: a resetting of the Mary and Joseph story in Nazi Germany.[11] He turned to the making of stand-alone prints and book illustration for the remainder of his career.[12] In the late 1970s he began cutting blocks for another wordless novel, which remained unfinished on his death in 1985.[12]

Production and publication history[edit]

Ward spent two years engraving the 230 blocks for Vertigo,[1] which range in size from 3 12 × 2 inches (8.9 × 5.1 cm) to 5 × 3 12 inches (12.7 × 8.9 cm).[13] The book was published by Random House in November 1937.[11] Reviewer Ralph M. Person described Ward's work as "unshackling the picture from its past limitation to the single scene or event and opening up a brand new world as broad as the novel, poem or play and, in its purely visual aspects, as the picture on the stage".[14]

Following initial publication the book was not reprinted for over seventy years.[10] It has since been reprinted by Dover Publications (2009) and Library of America, in a 2010 complete collection of Ward's wordless novels.[citation needed] The blocks for the book—including discards—are in the Special Collection of Rutgers University in New Jersey. The university hosted a display of the blocks in 2003.[15]

Style and analysis[edit]

The pages are unnumbered; the stories are instead broken into parts and chapters.[16] The overlapping of stories encourages readers to revisit earlier portions as the characters appear in each other's stories.[16] Ward stated the title "was meant to suggest that the illogic of what we saw happening all around us in the thirties was enough to set the mind spinning through space and the emotions hurtling from great hope to the depths of despair".[16]

Ward did away with borders in the compositions, allowing artwork to bleed to the edges.[17] The images are more realistic and finely detailed than in Ward's previous wordless novels,[1] and while still essentially wordless, via signs and placards the graphics incorporate far more text into the imagery.[18] To wordless novel scholar David Beronä, this showed an affinity to the development of the graphic novel, even if Vertigo itself was not comics.[18]


  1. ^ German: Die Sonne
  2. ^ German: Schicksal : eine Geschichte in Bildern


  1. ^ a b c Beronä 2008, p. 76.
  2. ^ Spiegelman 2010a, pp. xx.
  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. ^ a b Spiegelman 2010b, pp. 804–805.
  10. ^ a b Ward & Beronä 2009, p. v.
  11. ^ a b Spiegelman 2010b, p. 810.
  12. ^ a b Spiegelman 2010b, pp. 810–811.
  13. ^ Beronä 2008, p. 248.
  14. ^ Ward & Beronä 2009, p. ix.
  15. ^ Ward & Beronä 2009, pp. vii–viii.
  16. ^ a b c Ward & Beronä 2009, p. vi.
  17. ^ Ward & Beronä 2009, p. vii.
  18. ^ a b Beronä 2008, p. 81.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]