Though the voice be silent, the pen is as mighty in the hand of the deaf mute who knows how to wield it, as when held by one whose vocal chords give word to thought in melody of sound.Deaf-Mute Voice 16 Apr. 1887
In 1859, Adele George, a young, white deaf woman, stood on a street in southeastern Michigan and sold copies of her autobiography, A Brief Narrative of the Life of Miss Adele M. George, (Being Deaf and Dumb), to passersby for ten cents each.1 George, homeless and seriously ill, had written her narrative in desperation, hoping to publish it and earn enough money to provide for herself and her widowed, invalid mother.
Almost a century and a half later, Christopher Krentz was searching widely in University of Chicago archival holdings for any nineteenth-century US deaf-related writing and stumbled upon a copy of George's long-forgotten autobiography (Krentz, Message). Krentz began recovery of the text by including an excerpt of it in his anthology of deaf American writing, A Mighty Change (2000).2 However, beyond the information offered in George's surviving narrative, almost nothing was known about her or her text. Her later years (assuming she lived beyond the writing of her autobiography) were unrecovered, as were further details regarding her writing. She seemed permanently lost to the records of the disabling, hearing world in which she had lived. George portrayed herself in her autobiography as homeless, deaf, and forsaken: "Having [End Page 172] lost the sight of one of my eyes, and my health being poor, I have no other means of obtaining a livelihood, and therefore have written this little narrative of my life" (1).3 With only her autobiography remaining to inform readers, George was fixed as poor and pitiable both in her text and in the past. Given this static representation, she was even more than usually vulnerable to what Michael Bérubé has called "the ableist assumption that all people with disabilities are suffering" (114).4
Through extensive research with key databases and newly digitized materials, we have recently recovered the history of George's life.5 Our work now traces multiple editions of her autobiography across decades of the US nineteenth century.6 As a result of this new information, George emerges as a resourceful, courageous public woman who prospered late in life in an unsympathetic world that multiply marginalized her. The recovery of her life and further information about her texts expands and nuances our frames of understanding regarding nineteenth-century US women, writing, and disability.
On 15 November 1834, George was born deaf to hearing parents in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the only child of Harriet and John George. When she was four years old, the family moved to Michigan, where she lived most of her life. In 1846, twelve-year-old George attended a school for hearing students. The experience was frustrating for her because the school was ill equipped to teach deaf students: "I tried hard to learn, but it was a hard, tedious process, no one being qualified to instruct the [deaf and] dumb, and I gave it up in despair, feeling, oh! how bitterly, that I was not like the rest, and could never hope to acquire as much knowledge" (11). That same year, George's father died of tuberculosis. His surviving wife and daughter subsequently entered a harsh, downward economic spiral. George was forced to withdraw from school due to lack of funds, and her mother sold their farm to pay debts incurred during John George's illness.
Mother and daughter then moved to Jackson, Michigan, and for the next few years lived in poverty. They tried to earn a living by sewing and other work. During this time, George met Almena Knight, another deaf woman: "She was the first deaf and dumb person I ever saw, and immediately we were drawn together by the mysterious tie of sympathy" (13). Her friendship with the more educated Knight motivated George to seek further education.7 In 1854, when George was about twenty years old, local support enabled her...