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Crossing the Divide: Representations of Deafness in Biography

Rachel M. Hartig

On the Nature of Biographical Form

Is Biography Disguised Autobiography?

Modern biography is marked by the spirit of free inquiry. As readers, we do not expect biographers to allow preconceived ideas to dictate judgments. We expect them to be guided by the facts, unimpeded by either admiration or hostility. This differs from an earlier era when a biographer might write uncritically about a friend or family member, offering praise or at least withholding information that would be unflattering to the subject. Today’s biographers are held to a different standard. They must not alter historical truth, and while aspiring to a standard of objectivity, biographers must have some “sympathy of feeling” for and with their subjects.1

Noted twentieth-century biographers André Maurois and Leon Edel stressed that biography must reveal the individual within history. According to Edel, “No lives are led outside history or society; they take place in human time.”2 Nevertheless, because human beings are at the heart of the biographical enterprise, historical events must revolve around them, serving as a background for, or intersecting with, each life and often providing a rationale for the subject’s choices and actions.

This volume explores the efforts of three French deaf biographers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to find themselves as individuals and as artists and to bridge the cultural divide between deaf and hearing people by means of their biographical studies of others. All of the authors included took seriously the historical dimension of their work, but they recognized the centrality of their protagonists. Jean-Ferdinand Berthier (1803–1886) always sketched the history, particularly the political history, that encircled his protagonists. He wrote not only of politics within the Paris Institute for the Deaf, which was the setting for most of his work, but of the politics in France that similarly impacted his protagonists. Thus in the 1839 study entitled Notice sur la Vie et les Ouvrages d’Auguste Bébian (Notice on the Life and Works of Auguste Bébian), Berthier relates that Bébian was fired from the institute because his spirit of rebellion angered those in power in the school administration. Berthier’s lengthy 1873 analysis of Abbé Sicard, the second director of the institute, recounts Sicard’s arrest in 1792 as a counterrevolutionary and his close brush with the guillotine. These dramatic circumstances notwithstanding, it was the lives-in-full of the two men that Berthier portrayed and that hold the attention of the reader.

Yvonne Pitrois’s portrait of Helen Keller, Une nuit rayonnante: Helen Keller (A Shining Night: Helen Keller), placed Keller in the context of other deaf-blind people whose lives preceded hers, that of Laura Bridgman in particular. But it was the destiny of Helen Keller and her unique relationship with her teacher Anne Sullivan that was the focus of Pitrois’s study. Corinne Rocheleau recounted the historical circumstances that led French-Canadian pioneer women to leave France, but the true value of her work, Françaises d’Amérique (Heroic French Women of Canada, 1915), is found in the portraits that she wrote of the pioneer women. She depicted them as individuals, reflecting a broad spectrum of female personalities and activities: maternal women, warriors, religious women, and the emphasis was clearly on their lives and the choices they made.

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