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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

11. Modernist Portraits

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Sherwood Anderson
- Hart Crane
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Susan Glaspell
- Ernest Hemingway
- Nella Larsen
- Marianne Moore
- John Dos Passos
- Gertrude Stein
- Wallace Stevens
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Wallace Stevens (1883-1963)

Bend in the Road
[6041] Paul Cezanne, Bend in the Road (1900), courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Wallace Stevens Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Wallace Stevens grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Harvard University for three years, leaving in 1897 to pursue a career as a writer. At the age of twenty-one, he joined the editorial staff of The New York Tribune, but discovered that he did not enjoy journalism. A year later he enrolled at New York Law School and was admitted to the Bar in 1904. He became a member of the legal staff of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1916 and remained with the company until he died in 1955. He prospered with the company and became vice president, all the time working on his writing. In 1914, he began publishing his poetry in the popular "little magazines" of the period. He joined the literary culture of New York City in the early part of his career and became friends with such figures as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams.

Harmonium (1923), his first published collection, sold fewer than one hundred copies but was reviewed favorably and established Stevens as a leading poet of his day. His second volume of poetry, Ideas of Order, did not appear until 1935, and in 1936 he followed it with Owl's Clover. The Man with a Blue Guitar was published in 1937, Parts of a World in 1942, Transport to Summer in 1947, and The Auroras of Autumn in 1950. His work is characterized by an interest in imagery and an attention to language, often revealing his belief that much of human meaning was created in the act of regarding the material world. In response to the modernist suspicion that humans could be sure of nothing, Stevens emphasized the importance of the activity of perception; though our perception is always extremely subjective, it is nonetheless meaningful. In "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," for example, the speaker takes pleasure in the different ways one may perceive a single object. In a world where religion had lost its force, Stevens believed that an appreciation of beauty--of nature, of music, of language--might help to reestablish human faith.

Three works in particular have received extensive critical attention: "Sunday Morning," in which a woman enjoys a Sunday at home rather than worshipping in church, and "The Comedian as the Letter C" and "Peter Quince at the Clavier," which consider the life of the mind and the life of the senses, locating meaning within appreciation of the world. Stevens's wit, insight, and careful diction earned him a place as one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century.

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