Closer Readings Commentary

November's Literary Lions

"To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement"
—Mark Twain in his letter to Emeline Beach, 1868

November was an important month for four writers who managed "to get the right word in the right place" more often than not: William Blake, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, and Jonathan Swift. William Blake was born on November 28, 1757, and Washington Irving died on the same day in 1859. Jonathan Swift was born on November 30, 1667, and Mark Twain was born on the same day in 1835. That the comings and goings of such famous literary figures should be clustered at the end of November is curious indeed, but we found it to be an irresistible excuse to alert you to the many resources we have for these authors.

Teachers of high school English or those teaching AP English may find it worthwhile to visit The William Blake Archive. William Blake was both a poet and an artist, and at this site you can find electronic editions of Blake's illuminated books. For example, you can see how Blake married art and poetry by visiting Songs of Innocence and Experience, Copy C. Here you will discover both the text and the original illustrations for such poems as "The Tyger" (Plate 50) or "The Chimney Sweeper" (Plate 46). You might even consider having students mimic Blake and illustrate a favorite poem of their own or one they have written themselves. Background information on Blake's life and work can be accessed through the Poetry Foundation.

In our contemporary culture, literature and image often merge into motion pictures. Tim Burton's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was yet another film interpretation of Washington Irving's famous story about a gullible and self-centered schoolteacher who runs afoul of a mysterious Headless Horseman as discussed in EDSITEment's Closer Readings+ blog post, "The Headless Horseman Rides Again!" Access The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to explore how Hollywood has chosen to characterize the teacher, Ichabod Crane, and his nemesis, the Headless Horseman, differently from Irving's original conception. This lesson helps students see the artistry of Irving's characterization and prompts them to solve the story's mystery—What happened to Ichabod Crane?

Washington Irving suggests in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" that his story derived from America's folklore tradition. Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) also relied on the rich stock of folklore for many of his stories as well. In the EDSITEment lesson plan, Mark Twain and American Humor, high school students examine the structure and characterization of the story that made Twain famous and see how the storyteller, functioning as both narrator and trickster, creates humor. For even more information on Twain, including electronic versions of his texts, visit the EDSITEment-reviewed site, Mark Twain in His Times.

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is another well-known literary masterpiece that is often adapted for film, television, and even children's cartoons. Swift's humor is not the humor of Twain or Irving but rather the biting wit of satire. EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web's  "Satire and Significance in Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal," provides discussion questions to analyze this satirical essay often taught in secondary schools. Victorian Web also offers several informative essays on Swift including this biographical overview.

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