Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Creative Americans

[Detail] Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964 affords a variety of projects that will hone students' skills in the language arts and help them to understand the relationships between language arts and the visual and performing arts. Students may explore questions of authorship by creating their own portraits and by studying biography. They can learn about the profession of criticism and try writing their own critical pieces, or practice their creative writing skills by using a portrait as inspiration for a character sketch. The collection also provides the basis for a project which can be used to assess reading comprehension and to help students understand the relationship between literature and drama.


In addition to being a photographer, Carl Van Vechten was also a published novelist and arts critic. Students can learn about the profession of criticism and write a critical piece of their own. They can start with an account of Van Vechten's career in the collection's biography. Ask them to consider if and how Van Vechten's career as a critic is reflected in his portraits. They may also view Van Vechten's portraits of critics, H.L. Mencken, Gilbert Seldes, and Malcolm Cowley and find out more about each of these individuals through research. Ask your students to consider the similarities and differences between these critics and their writings. What were the subjects of these writers' criticism? Did their criticisms tend to be negative or positive, sarcastic or sincere? What did these critics accomplish through their writing and what purposes did they serve? What is the role of a critic in society?

Working with an example from their research or from current-day periodicals, students can write a critical piece of their own. Whether they write a review of a local production, new movie, or newly released CD, or write a social criticism, they can practice making a persuasive argument, using irony, sarcasm, and humor.