When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf
The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education
Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard
We are remarkably ignorant about deafness, which Dr. Johnson called “the most desperate of human calamities”—much more ignorant than an educated man would have been in 1886, or 1786. Ignorant and indifferent. During the last few months I have raised the subject with countless people and nearly always met with responses like: “Deafness? Don’t know any deaf people. Never thought much about it. There’s nothing interesting about deafness, is there?” This would have been my own response a few months ago.
Things changed for me when I was sent a fat book by Harlan Lane called When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, which I opened with indifference, soon to be changed to astonishment, and then to something approaching incredulity. I discussed the subject with my friend and colleague Dr. Isabelle Rapin, who has worked closely with the deaf for twenty-five years.
One more acknowledgement by way of preamble. In 1969 W.H. Auden gave me a copy, his own copy, of Deafness, a remarkable autobiographical memoir by the South African poet and novelist David Wright, who became deaf at the age of seven: “You’ll find it fascinating,” he said. “It’s a wonderful book.” It was dotted with his own annotations (though I do not know whether he ever reviewed it). I skimmed it, without paying more attention, in 1969. But now I was to rediscover it for myself. David Wright is a writer who writes from the depths of his own experience—and not as a historian or scholar writes about a subject. Moreover, he is not alien to us. We can easily imagine, more or less, what it would be like to be him (whereas we cannot without difficulty imagine what it would be like to be Laurent Clerc—or the Wild Boy of Aveyron). Thus he can serve as a bridge for us, conveying us through his own experiences into the realm of the unimaginable. Since he is easier to read than the great mutes of the eighteenth century, he should if possible be read first—for he prepares us for them. Toward the close of the book he writes:
Not much has been written about …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.