“I need not tell you that a mighty change has taken place within the last half century, a change for the better,” Alphonso Johnson, the president of the Empire State Association of Deaf-Mutes, signed to hundreds of assembled deaf people in 1869. Johnson pointed to an important truth: the first half of the 19th century was a period of transformation for deaf Americans, a time that saw the rise of deaf education and the coalescence of the nation’s deaf community.
This volume contains original writing by deaf people that both directed and reflected this remarkable period of change. It begins with works by Laurent Clerc, the deaf Frenchman who came to the United Sates in 1816 to help found the first permanent school for deaf students in the nation. Partially through is writing, Clerc impressed hearing Americans–most of whom had never met an educated deaf person before–with his intelligence and humanity.
Other deaf writers shared their views with society through the democratic power of print. Included here are selections by James Nack, a deaf poet who surprised readers with his mellifluous verse; John Burnet, who published a book of original essays, fiction, and poetry; Edmund Booth, a frontiersman and journalist; John Carlin, who galvanized the drive for a national college for deaf people; Laura Redden, a high-achieving student who would go on to become an accomplished reporter; and Adele Jewel, a homeless deaf woman living in Michigan.
The final sections contain documents related to deaf events and issues at mid-century: the grand reunion of alumni of the American Asylum for the Deaf in 1850; the dedication of the Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet monument in Hartford; the debate over the viability of a deaf state; and the triumphant inauguration of the National Deaf-Mute College (now Gallaudet University) in 1864, which in many ways culminated this period of change. Taken together, the individual texts in this remarkable collection provide a valuable historical record and a direct glimpse of the experiences, attitudes, and rhetoric of deaf Americans during this time of change.
Christopher Krentz teaches English and American Sign Language at the University of Virginia.