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American Annals of the Deaf

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Forging Deaf Education in Nineteenth-Century France: Biographical Sketches of Bébian, Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc

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prepared students in the arts, the sciences, or the trades according to their particular proclivities and abilities; foreign students were taught in their own language. Unfortunately, as with so many projects, finances exacted their toll, and the school was forced to close. His efforts did not go unrecognized, however. In 1830 a deputation from the Deaf Institute (led by Berthier) arranged for a reception in Bébian’s honor hosted by Louis-Philippe himself. (The king’s lengthy tribute is excerpted in the text.)

In spite of his problems at the Paris Institute, Bébian was still held in high esteem by many in the deaf community, and he was offered directorships at institutes in Saint Petersburg and New York, but he preferred to remain in France. His chance came in 1832 when the city of Rouen recognized the need to establish a school for deaf children. His rapid success at the newly founded institute won the hearts of the community and made news as far away as Paris. Berthier reports with great reluctance that by 1834 failing health and administrative shortcomings that left the school’s affairs in disarray caused him to resign his position. The die had been cast. There was no longer room for him in deaf education in France. Unable to procure employment, he returned to his native Guadeloupe, where he passed away five years later.

The Abbé Sicard (1742–1822)

If, as a relatively short work, the Bébian text does not exhibit the extensive documentation or complexity of the l’Epée and Sicard biographies, neither is it beset with their shortcomings. Readers may be bothered at times by the infelicities typical of a fledgling undertaking (as noted above), but they need not endure the tedium of the second half of the l’Epée book that chronicles—rather inelegantly—the business of promoting and protecting the educator’s legacy. There are but four brief footnotes over the forty-plus pages of the Bébian biography. For the sake of readability, and because each of them can be justifiably omitted (as parenthetical asides) or readily encapsulated, any pertinent information they contain has been folded seamlessly into the text. Otherwise, the translated text conforms to the format of the original French publication.

The Sicard biography presents greater challenges. In addition to numerous footnotes (many of them parenthetical asides), twenty lettered endnotes of significant length—A through T—occupy (or rather encumber) the forty pages following the final chapter. Whereas the practice was common at the time and therefore not out of place in a historical sense, having to toggle back and forth between the body of a text and its digressions is always an nuisance. In this case the reader usually discovers either that the endnote is tangentially relevant at best or that it is absolutely vital to the chapter it references. In other words, despite the experience gained over several decades of writing, Berthier did not progress very far in the art of putting together what has come to be recognized as “the modern biography.” The book also adds an appendix of seven letters written to the Baron de Gérando by the Abbé Sicard over a period of some twenty years. They are not essential to the text by any means, but they do have the virtue of being presented chronologically and of conveying a sense of an evolving relationship and a shared system of values. Berthier explains that the letters were sent to him by Gérando’s son just as the book was going to press and that, not being able to incorporate them into the biography, he deemed them nevertheless of sufficient documentary value to be appended to the volume.

Given such complicating factors, considerable thought has gone into the best format for the Sicard translation in the interests of both fidelity to the text and accessibility for the reader. Decisions take into account the fact that scholars have access to the original Sicard biography either on site at several university or institutional libraries or through interlibrary loan. Thus any questions or debate arising from the English language text can be resolved by consulting the French text. That consideration led me to make the following decisions: The letters written to Baron de Gérando have been excluded; and with two exceptions, pertinent information contained in the many footnotes has been incorporated into the text. Because of their importance the two exceptions have been referenced by an asterisk and placed at the end of the appropriate chapter. The first, appearing in the author’s introduction titled “A Word of Explanation,” refers to the updating of published accounts of the annual “silent banquets” since 1863. This reference and the reference to the July 1869 death of Laurent Clerc assures the reader that both the introduction and the final chapter of the volume were composed during the period directly preceding the 1873 publication. The second, in chapter 6, offers a key contemporary definition of “sourd et muet” as opposed to “sourd-muet” (“deaf and mute”/“deaf-mute”) and thereby documents both the preferred nomenclature as well as prevailing sensibilities. The voluminous endnotes have been similarly excluded, encapsulated, or incorporated fully into the text. Perhaps the most salient example of the latter is found in chapter 14, where Berthier presents a description of the fire that devastated one of the wings of the school, his role in the bucket brigade, and the heroism of a fellow student. The problem is that the narrative cannot be fully appreciated unless it is read in tandem with the official report of the fire—provided in an endnote that offers essential information and an account of the ensuing drama. Finally, the detailed table of contents in vogue at the time has not been replicated. While it was useful as a guide in publications whose chapters are of great length and contain considerable subtext, the relative brevity of most chapters renders it superfluous.


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