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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Angels and Outcasts: An Anthology of Deaf Characters in Literature
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These particular qualities of sign language are illustrated by the following recent anecdote about a man who became interested in learning it:
But there is one thing he said that I will never forget. He wanted me to sign a poem of song so that he could got an idea of how the deaf enjoy them. I chose “The Star-Spangled Banner...”

When I was through he stared at me for a while and then said: “I’ve heard it so many times but never understood it with feeling and meaning until now.” (As narrated by Ed Holonya to Toivo Lindholm, in The Deaf American, September, 1970, p. 17.).

It has been conclusively demonstrated by the distinguished linguist William C. Stokoe and others that sign language is a distinct and autonomous language with its own specific rules of grammar and syntax. It is the native language of the deaf, not English, which is one reason for the relative scarcity of deaf writers, another being the suppression of instruction in sign language-since a man who has never received methodical instruction in his own language can hardly be expected to write well in another language. But read Ballin and find out for yourself what sign language means to the deaf.

Yet the autobiographical centering of narrative on conflict between the deaf individual and the hearing society does not mean that the deaf writer is so preoccupied with the problems of the deaf in society as to forego the luxury of writing about the subtler and finer aspects of human perception and feeling. The Frenchman Eugene Relgis, a deaf friend and disciple of Romain Rolland, has written a more or less veiled autobiography (one chapter of which is included in this book) which sheds interesting light on what deafness means to a sensitive and intelligent young man who senses more keenly than most the attendant humiliations and Psychical tortures and yet succeeds in refining his powers of observation and imagination to a rare degree.

But Relgis’ hero, while not unique, is not really representative of the deaf majority. The deaf Steppenwolf, the lone deaf outsider, is rarely encountered in real life in the United States. In Europe and elsewhere, for historical reasons there exists a sharp cleavage between deaf intellectuals and artists and the deaf man in the street, so that there such outsiders account for a much larger proportion of the deaf population. Belgis illustrates the danger of the isolation of the deaf intellectual from the community: toward the end of his fictionalized autobiography he loses his contact with reality so much that he resorts to the notorious miracle-cure motif and is thus perhaps the only deaf writer to give credence to a fallacy that has been foisted upon the public by misinformed hearing authors: if he had only associated with the other deaf a little more, if he had only studied the anatomy of hearing, he would have known that no cure is possible for those with a sensorineural hearing loss, i.e., for a majority of the deaf.

The truth is that most deaf people do not lead lives of isolation. On the contrary, they love to associate with one another to such an extent that clannishness is a byword for them even more than for other minorities, but it is a clannishness informed by a special zest. It is this other, much more prevalent type of the deaf, the joiner, the hustler, the go-getter with his thirst for an active enjoyment of life, that is represented in No Sound, the autobiography of Julius Wiggins, which is not surprising when we consider that, unlike the other classes of the physically handicapped, unlike the lame, the halt, the blind and all the other varieties, the deaf are distinguished by a special vigor and robustness. No Sound is of additional interest in that it is an unusually authentic literary depiction of the everyday life of the deaf, of their particular concerns and pleasures. Read Wiggins and you will understand a little more how the deaf live and what they are really like. The other two sections, divided historically, contain stories that are fascinating in the way they show the feelings of hearing people toward deaf people. The fantastic variety of roles we find deaf characters playing in this book suggests that deafness inspires strong reactions in hearing people - sometimes they feel threatened (for at times many hearing people see themselves as deaf - that is, as what they imagine deaf people to be - lonely, isolated, “strange”); or sometimes they feel suspicious (it is, for some reason, hard for a hearing person to really believe that someone else can’t hear); or they feel somehow that there’s something “wrong” about deafness (in earlier days it was firmly believed that knowledge of God could come only through the ear).

At the end of the book is a bibliography compiled by Dr. Daniel Nascimento of the English Department at Gallaudet. Taken as a whole, then, with its selections, introductions, prefaces and bibliography, this volume is a nearly complete survey of all the important western literature relating to deafness in the last century and a half. I use the word “survey” advisedly: we have obviously had to be highly selective in our excerpts and even in the titles cited in the bibliography and in the various introductions and prefaces we have also had to ignore many titles we felt would not materially add to our awareness of the deaf experience.

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