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When Students Tire of the Written Word

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English teacher

New Yorker essayist Joseph Mitchell once wrote, “When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile.” It is the first line in “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” which relates Mitchell’s discovery of an old African-American burial ground still lovingly tended by a local minister. 

In the same way, when reading and interpreting literature gets to be “too much” for my students, we, too, depart for someplace new—the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward. This usually occurs in mid-April, with summer looming on the horizon.

Ward, who died in 1985, was an illustrator of adult books (such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and children’s books (including Caldecott winner The Biggest Bear). In the 1930s, he wrote and illustrated with woodcuts six adult books of his own. He dubbed them “wordless novels,” and they depicted both the daily and the existential struggles of artists and working people. Though at times burdened with populist sentiment, the books are magical in their detail of faces, forests, and urban settings.  Ward’s masterful woodcuts take readers fluidly through the storyline.  (The novels were re-issued by Library of America in 2010, edited by Maus author Art Spiegleman.)

My approach is to take the illustrations one at a time. We go around the room, with each student taking the next image and describing what he sees. In this way, I hope to teach students, who are inundated with fast-moving imagery, how to sit tight and observe. Why does Ward draw this scene from a perspective that makes humans look small and factories big? How has Ward’s foliage changed as his protagonist moves from city to country? There is also a lot of symbolism to decipher.

Each novel, which ranges from 150 to 200 pages, takes about three days. I start the unit with a video primer on woodcutting (YouTube has many), and one day we view the documentary O Brother Man: The Life and Art of Lynd Ward, which contains some keen insights by Ward’s daughter.  All told, students get a “week without words,” which often supplies that last boost of stamina to finish the year.