Writing about the Big Picture: American Ekphrasis

byJames Foltz

The titular character from Lewis Caroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland asks: "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" In this unit, students will not so much ponder Alice's question as they will ponder its "looking glass" image: "What is the use of pictures without literature and conversations?" Teachers and their classes will delve into this question, but also and more specifically, delve into the literary approach to writing about pictures known as ekphrasis. Ranging from the blazing scarlet letter pinned to Hester Prynne to the ghostly eyes of T.J. Eckleburg to Longfellow's burden of a "Cross of Snow" to Ahab's nailing his crew's fate to the Pequod's mast, students will explore during a school year through American literature the relationship of text and pictures and of text's power over its optical cousin, which is the written word's ability to manipulate the visual arts' meaning.

(Developed for English II American Literature, grade 11, and AP English Language and Composition, grades 11-12; recommended for English, especially those that use American Literature heavily, High School grades 11-12)

Comments (1)

    James Anthony Foltz (Middletown High School, Middletown, DE)
    Subject taught: English, Grade: 11
    Elizabeth Pain Gravestone Photo Credit:
    Regrettably, Sean P. Aune - who so graciously gave permission to use his work - was not given a photo credit for the Elizabeth Pain gravestone. My sincerest apologies for this oversight.

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