Vertigo: A Novel in Woodcuts by Lynd Ward is about the Great Depression and the effects it has on three characters with interlocking stories. Very early in the book, within the very first section there is a speech about America’s history. The meaning of the history presented in ‘1929’ is about lost potential. It is presented as a speech about the capability and bright futures of the girl and boy characters, but given the circumstances that later befall the country and characters, that potential is not realized and the bright future everyone is looking forward to proves false.
Looking at the individual images in and surrounding the history, you can see a lot of important details. First off, it’s pretty clear that the speech is told as part of the graduation ceremony of the girl and boy. As a commencement speech, it is meant to inspire the young graduates to go out into the world and hopefully do great things. Its inclusion in the greater narrative is there to show how the girl and boy could have gone out and found their ways in the world had things been different.
The history begins with a ship sailing towards a bright and shining star. While you know the ship is headed towards America, that star is an important symbol. The image of a single star reoccurs throughout the novel. It seems to represent the potential that the future holds. Sure enough, when the girl and boy go out to celebrate after the graduation, a single star is brightly shining in the sky. As the story progresses, however, the star seems to become smaller and smaller. You can see it when the girl is in line for relief and when the boy is going in for a transplant with the old man. At those points, though, the star is so diminished that it can be hard to make out. The symbol even appears a few times in the elderly man’s story, but it is not nearly as prominent as the man is older and has less future ahead of him.
Most of the rest of the speech is all about hard work and industry. First there are men in the woods, hacking away at trees. Then you see them plowing and protecting their fields. After that you see a town being built, and then there is an image of men fighting in the American Revolution. Following, the fighting there are images of people traveling west and toiling to build the transcontinental railroad. The second to last panel of the history depicts construction workers in a city building a skyscraper. All of these images are of labor and strife. They are of hard work, laying down the foundations of the country and then building upon them.
In the very last panel of the history, you see the speaker standing triumphantly in front of a great city. The sun shines over everything, the brightest star in the sky. The message that the speaker is trying to make is that with lots of hard work, the graduates can build themselves a bright and prosperous future. The world is in their hands. Of course, this is not the full story. It is merely a short section in the very beginning of the novel. As the story progresses, it goes about showing just how wrong the message of the history is.
When the ceremony is over, the boy and girl hand their diplomas off to the girl’s father and go out to celebrate. They visit a fortune teller, who seems to confirm that their futures will be just as prosperous as the history promised. The girl will be a great violinist and the boy will work in construction. They continue to celebrate by riding amusement park rides and dancing, but their frolicking is cut short by an awful storm. Clouds cover the star and the two characters are forced to run for cover from the rain.
In the rest of the novel, all of the characters’ lives fall apart around them. The girl’s father is laid off of work and, when they can no longer pay for their home, he attempts suicide and fails. The girl and her father are then evicted from their home and find themselves struggling for relief. The boy sets out to look for work, but his endless searching is fruitless. He travels far and puts out everything he has to offer, but his hard work leads him nowhere. Even the elderly gentleman is greatly affected. His finances plummet out of control and he is forced to take worse and worse measures just to hold onto what he has. None of the characters have any control over their lives at this point. None of their hard work means anything when the system around them fails. The history speech’s message that their labor will give them a brighter future is foiled. All of the potential they had was lost due to reasons beyond their influence.