The question of the meaning of America has been asked many times throughout history and many different perspectives have led to that question having different answers, depending on either the author who wrote the answer or the time at which the answer was given. In Lynd Ward’s Vertigo, the answer is given with the backdrop of the Great Depression. The world has a dark tint to it now for those who live in it and values have been turned upside down. Many who had strong beliefs and hope before the Depression are now cynical and no longer believe in a bright future. In Vertigo’s 1929 section, there is evidence of this cynicism and gloomy viewpoint in the images that Ward selected. These images serve as quick flashpoints in American history, but teaching the history is not their main point. They are trying to show how America began as such a promise and then degraded in to the twilight that is the U.S. in 1929. What was supposed to be a bright future for the citizens who came here became a twisted shade of a dream in which workers were exploited by industry. Additionally, there are images throughout the book that correspond as warning signs to the images in the 1929 section, and in particular the motif of the eagle. It is tied in as a symbol of power of the businessmen who are destroying the future of the country. The main theme of this group of pictures is to illustrate that descent into twilight due to the corruption in America. Ward wants to convey the message that big business is taking its toll on the country and the darkness that is consuming it is due to this process of industry.
The first image in the 1929 series is of a ship, possibly meant to be the Mayflower, heading into the distance towards a skyline that is illuminated by a bright star. This ship could be meant to symbolize the making of our country and future. There are two key points in this image to be interpreted along with the ship itself, and the first of which is the lighting. The single large star in sky represents the bright future that America could have in a new world, and the ship follows it towards certain prosperity. Also on the stern of the ship the single lantern has its own aura of light which shines as the hope of the passengers for what is to come when they land at their new home. The second point to consider is the fact that the ship is sailing away from view into the background, and after seeing the other pictures in the section it becomes apparent that this directionality is a foreshadowing. The bright promise that the ship held is sailing away just as America will eventually turn away from its path and move towards the darkness that it is in 1929. This darkness is symbolizing the blackness of the country due to the poisoning from the corruption of business. It has taken the bright future that the ship and country were heading for and taken away the light from the star that was guiding the way and cast everything into shadow and hopelessness. The capability for the country to be what it was meant to be was there at the beginning but it was swept into the new age and corrupted so that it no longer inspired such confidence in the citizenry as it did before.
The foreshadowing is downplayed in the next few images in which the typical American spirit is shown by expected representations. A pilgrim doing honest work, farming his land with a musket in his hand, ready to defend what was his against an encroaching Indian. Buildings rise to mark our progress and show how far we are coming. The images of the Revolution and wagons going west bring up the themes of American bravery and adventurism. These pictures are supposed to be what the light of the star was guiding the ship towards, the prosperity and accomplishment of a nation in control of itself and leading the way towards a better existence. But with the picture of the railroad expanding we see why the foreshadowing was there. A cursory glance shows expansion being driven by American brawn and that with the strength of the common American swinging the hammer nothing can stand in the way. But what the image really shows is industry and profit riding on the backs railroad workers who are not valued as citizens but just as labor to fuel the machine owned by the rich men who pull the strings. During the 19th century when the trans-continental railroads were being built, it was incredibly dangerous and men were often pushed beyond their limit by the bosses who were only interested in making money. Huge populations of foreign workers, such as Irish and Asian immigrants, were indentured into labor because the rail companies would be able to escape scrutiny of the conditions easier this way and pay their workers less to keep even more for themselves. They kept money out of the hands of honest men who wanted nothing more than to be part of the bright American future and built empires upon the backs of the workers. This practice illustrated in this frame points to that motive that is soon to be normal in our country and how it is going to corrupt the ideals that hold America to its course of hope. The next picture shows how that has become a reality. A laborer is bent under the strain of his work while tall metal structures rise above him and smokestacks release black smoke into an already blackened sky. The workers are realizing that the promise of America has been taken from them by the corporate owners and Wall Street men, and that the corruption is real and present and that the America they thought they were a part of is diseased and manipulated into little more than the plaything of the businessmen. The final image in this short history pocket book is that of the college headmaster doing exactly what the book is commenting on. He stands tall, inviting everyone to see the glistening gem of a city that has risen out of nothing while the sun shines down. Unfortunately the sun is shining through a small hole in the cloud of pollution created by the smokestacks in the background, and the man stands there seemingly ignoring it. Perhaps Ward included this image to serve as a warning cry to the graduates coming into the world. It is imperative that this new generation take heed of what is really happening around them and take action against the corruption of America, instead of blindly passing the landscape off as a glistening product as the older headmaster sees it.
Several images in the Elderly Gentleman section correlate to the reality that this “pocket book” shows is the destination of the current path of the nation. In the January section, one of the businessmen holds up a graph showing their profits are down. Many people are going to lose their jobs and the country is going to suffer, but all they care about is the fact that they won’t make as much money as they did before. This is part of the darkness and venality that has grabbed America in 1929, where the employers no longer care about the employed, just that they can provide those employers with profit. Later in the June and July sections there are riots by the workers, demanding recognition for what they do. They are rebelling against the façade that the pocket book represents, rebelling against the idea that a future is being molded by the hard working American, because the history is not saying that the hard working American is being crushed down under the corrupted heel of big business and industry. In the image where the crowd has the poster, “Don’t Scab: Fight for a Decent Living,” the people are trying to get what they deserve and armed guardsmen paid by the businessmen put them down at the point of a bayonet. The sickness that has infected the upper tiers of American society is apparent now as workers fighting for their own bright futures are put down under the corruption and control of the corporate owners.
An interesting parallel that Ward makes within the Elderly Gentleman section is to the economy of Germany at the same period of the late 20’s and early 30’s. The incredibly frequent appearance of an eagle, representing the business that the Elderly Gentleman is the CEO of, makes this parallel possible and shows that Ward wants us to examine the circumstances of that country as similar to the U.S. and the corruption that was rampant. The image of an eagle with wings spread has long been associated with Germany in the first half of the 20th century, even being a part of uniforms worn by German army officers. Ward uses this to symbolize that country and how it is suffering from the same corruption that is being so detrimental to America. The businessman on this side of the Atlantic are the same as over there by oppressing their workers and reaping the benefits while the potential for the future crumbles. An essay written by Dieter Petzina in 1969 helps shed light on why Ward made this connection in Vertigo. Petzina states that when the crises of 1929 hit the two countries that were damaged the most were Germany and the U.S. in terms of gross national product and thus their economies had many similarities. The indifference that was shared between American and German is exemplified by this observation of the plight of laborers.
“…one in every three of the working population had no job. And even those who still retained their jobs were under constant threat of dismissal because everyone was replaceable; there were vast numbers of competitors ready to take their place, and thus their whole existence was threatened. (Petzina, 60)”
In both places the working class was taken for granted and used up and then tossed away with no thought of how it would affect them. All that the corporate owners care about is the millions that their corrupt empires make them. This shows how the deleterious effect of greedy CEOs was prominent in not just the U.S., but in other countries as well making it a universal tragedy that resulted in the darkness that engulfed the world. But Ward uses the eagle for another purpose as well, a way to foreshadow where America was going to end up if it followed this corrupt path. Germany is meant to be viewed as one chapter ahead, and the product of what the darkness could lead to. Petzina explains in his article that in 1929, “industrialists demanded particularly higher indirect taxation-which is borne mainly by mass of the workers-and at the same time lower taxes on employers and on capital. (Petzina, 66)” This was one more act of how corrupted businesses were strongarming the government into complying with their wishes, and in a year the middle and working class support had changed to the National Socialist Party. Through the 30’s as the Nazis gained power they began political and cultural campaigns that caused fear in their own country as well as abroad, and proved to be a bigger threat than the corruption before it. The fear of this new reality is what Ward is trying to convey with the image of the eagle. The corruption and fear that is the company of the Elderly gentleman, represented by the eagle, and that is poisoning the ideals of America is the same corruption that was in Germany and could lead to the same doom as what that country suffered under the Nazis.
This collection of images in Vertigo, while it is just a few of the number in the book that have meaning, tells us something about an important viewpoint of 1929 and the years that followed. That bright future that was so ingrained into the American dream had been darkened and changed into something that no longer gave hope to the common people, especially when they needed it the most during the Great Depression. There was only the suffering of the common man and the feeling of foreboding that something worse could be near. The wealthy businessman at the top of the pyramid smiling down and proclaiming that the country was a beacon to the world was just a bad joke to those below.
Petzina, Dieter. “Germany and the Great Depression.” Journal of Contemporary History. Vol. 4, No.4. Oct. 1969. 59-74. PittCat. http://www.jstor.org.pitt.idm.oclc.org/stable/10.2307/259836?origin=api
Ward, Lynd. Vertigo. New York: Random House, 1937. Print.