Writing Deafness: The Hearing Line in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

By Tebbe-Grossman, Jennifer | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

Writing Deafness: The Hearing Line in Nineteenth-Century American Literature


Tebbe-Grossman, Jennifer, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Writing Deafness: The Hearing Line in Nineteenth-Century American Literature Christopher Krentz. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Christopher Krentz in Writing Deafness: The Hearing Line in Nineteenth-Century American Literature looks at deafness in the context of how Americans have formed personal identity. Krentz began to lose his hearing at the age of nine. He found his way to the "deaf community" after college. He learned American Sign Language and came to "proudly identify" as deaf (xi). Writing Deafness illustrates what he means by this in its explication of how deaf authors and nineteenthcentury American canon authors addressed the "hearing line, that invisible boundary separating deaf and hearing people" (p2). He uses the terminology of "hearing line" in ways that are similar to W.E.B.

DuBois' discussion of the "color line."

Krentz initially addresses the work of deaf writers who published in the early 180Os: Laurent Clerc (who co-founded the first school for the deaf in the United States with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet), James Nack (publishing the first book in America by a deaf person), and John R. Burnet (publishing a book on poetry). The work of these authors "allowed deaf people to gain more control over their own representation, to prove their reason and humanity, and to combat prejudice" (26). He emphasizes the struggle of deaf authors to write using the English language "slightly differently" in order that it had a "distinctly deaf tinge that would communicate their unique experience" (45).

In re-examining some of the canon authors of American literature in the early nineteenth century, he argues that just as Toni Morrison looked at the "national literature" from the point of view of how it "negotiates racial identity" he looks at the works of such authors as Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper in terms of how they "effectively construct and probe the hearing line" (64). Krentz chiefly finds that the authors express both horror and admiration for deaf characters and ultimately "associate deafness with unfathomable silence, powerful nonvocal communication, and the vast natural world" (97).

As the nineteenth century progressed, Krentz argues, American writers chiefly employed deaf characters in their works as a way to express their "own anxieties and desires and to attempt to demarcate their identities as hearing people" (100). One example is Lydia Huntley Sigourney, a well-known mid-nineteenth-century poet who wrote on religious themes, expressing horror, condescension, and pity toward deaf characters while at the same time as she esteemed, idealized, and romanticized them. Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville, and Sigourney generally incorporated deaf characters in their work as children and women with passive natures. Not developing fully realized adult characters, canon authors objectified the deaf and were never quite able to "humanize" deaf characters. But, Krentz argues they at least "attacked the old notion that deafness is a mark of evil" and "raised consciousness of deaf people in mainstream society" (129).

Deaf authors writing in English expressed concerns about how the deaf experienced a "persistent sense of two-ness" in their efforts to live in American society. They took pride in a deaf community that was able to build and grow schools and associations, support heroic figures who represented the community, and develop American sign language. At the same time, deaf authors expressed the difficulties of living in a hearing world and not being able to withstand "feelings of inferiority and marginalization" (139). Deaf authors suggested a variety of directions that the deaf could take to achieve the best possible outcomes for the community in American society. Laurent Clerc argued that segregated deaf schools were the best strategy. John Jacobs Flournoy argued that deaf people should separate from the larger American society by forming their own communities in a state or territory that would provide "complete segregation until society was more just and accessible" (156). …

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