Sign Language Studies 2.4 (2002) 452-459
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A Mighty Change:
An Anthology of Deaf American Writing 1816-1864
A Mighty Change: An Anthology of Deaf American Writing 1816-1864 edited by Christopher Krentz (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2000, 224 pp., $45.00, cloth; $24.95, softcover)
TRACING EARLY Deaf history is a bit like tracing the paths of fireflies. The field is mostly dark, except for scattered moments of illumination. The darkness results in part because manual languages have had no written system, no way of preserving thoughts beyond the moment of utterance. One is always haunted by the sense of how much may have occurred among Deaf individuals and communities throughout history but was never recorded. What we do have are moments of brief but dim lights casting shadows on the existence of signing communities. These appear as hearing philosophers, poets, and artists have come into contact with Deaf individuals and their communities and then wondered in writing about this alternative way of being and thinking in the world. Two and a half millennia ago, for example, Plato referred to a signing Deaf community in Athens in the Socratic dialogue, Cratylus. Since then, a number of philosophers and writers—including St. Augustine, da Vinci, Descartes, Rousseau, Leibniz, Diderot, Condillac, and others—have mused about deafness and manual languages. In the end, we are left to connect the dots from one sighting of deafness to the next to form what is a strange type of mute historiography, where the actual lives of Deaf people and signing communities are known only through the writings of others.
It was not until 1779 that a Deaf person, the French printer Pierre Desloges, seized control of the light and turned it toward himself and his community in Paris (see the article by Fischer in this [End Page 452] issue). Had Desloges not committed his thoughts to paper, we would likely have no evidence of a Deaf community prior to the founding of the Abbé de l'Epée's school for Deaf students in Paris. We are left to speculate about how many other signing communities have existed throughout history. How much don't we know and will never know? Such speculation might better be left to writers of fiction than of history.
Hence the importance of the emergence of Deaf writers in Europe and America. Rather than our having to speculate, the original writing of Deaf people offers us lenses, or spectacles, if you will, through which we may glimpse the past lives and contexts of Deaf individuals and communities. Yet all too often these original documents—pamphlets, letters, journals, and books—have been hidden in the bowels of university archives, preserved yet mute.
Now, with the publication of Christopher Krentz's A Mighty Change: Deaf American Writing 1816-1864, the original writing of the Deaf individuals at the beginning of the American Deaf community have been recovered, dusted off, and given a stage so that they may speak, recite poetry, and debate on their own. And we are fortunate enough to join the audience even though we arrived eight generations after the original act of putting thought to paper. Christopher Krentz has done an invaluable service in revealing to his readers a constellation of forebears of the American Deaf community. Unlike the intermittent light of prerecorded Deaf history, the light from this constellation will continue to shine for generations to come. Prior to A Mighty Change, most students of Deaf studies and Deaf history have had to rely on the interpretation of predominantly hearing historians. Although these writings have been sharp and perceptive, students rarely enjoy the opportunity to engage original sources one on one. 1
One must commend Krentz for his able job at editing A Mighty Change. He begins with a well-composed introduction that sets an ample stage for the readings to come. He then introduces a series of individual authors. This section begins with the single most important figure of the founding of the American Deaf World...