Friday, August 7, 2015
August 7, 2015: Virginia Connections: Writing Deafness
[If it’s August, it must be time for my annual pilgrimage to my Virginia homeland with my boys—and my annual series AmericanStudying the Old Dominion. Leading up to a special weekend post on the people who really signify “Virginia” to me!]
On the seminal scholarly book that helped usher in one discipline, and broadened many others.
During my last visit to Virginia, I finally had the chance to read a book I’ve been meaning to look at for a good while: Christopher Krentz’s Writing Deafness: The Hearing Line in 19th-Century American Literature (UNC, 2007). In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that Krentz worked on his dissertation with my Dad, Stephen Railton, and has since been hired as a colleague of my Dad’s in the University of Virginia English Department; he also helped create the university’s American Sign Language (ASL) program. But while those facts reflect the development of Krentz’s ideas and project, as well as their clear significance to broader academic communities like UVa, they don’t have anything to do with how impressed I am by his book—that’s entirely due to what it offers to AmericanStudies conversations, both evolving and longstanding.
Most obviously, Krentz’s book represents a pioneering entry in the evolving academic discipline of Deaf Studies (sometimes but not always defined as a sub-category of Disability Studies). Indeed, when taken in tandem with Krentz’s edited anthology A Mighty Change: An Anthology of Deaf American Writing 1816-1864 (Gallaudet, 2000), Krentz’s work in Writing Deafness offers a foundational template for an American Deaf Studies, a discipline that analyzes representations and realities of deafness, hearing, and related issues across the scope of American literature, culture, and society. That is, this discipline, as exemplified by Krentz’s complementary and interconnected projects, is not the slightest bit contained to deaf authors or characters (or the like)—instead, it touches on themes and histories, identities and stories, that span a wide range of texts, communities, and time periods. As Krentz himself makes clear, other scholars have also contributed significantly to the creation of that new discipline—but his book and his work are vital parts of those efforts to be sure.
As with all of the best scholarly work, however, Krentz’s book also offers valuable insights into conversations and disciplines well beyond its specific focus. The “hearing line” of Krentz’s subtitle is a purposeful echo of W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of the “color line” in American culture and society, and Krentz likewise positions his book as a parallel to Toni Morrison’s groundbreaking Playing in the Dark (arguing that deafness and hearing have functioned not at all unlike black and white in the American imagination and psyche). It’s a hugely bold comparison, and Krentz acknowledges the many differences and complexities within and across the concepts in play—but it also works very well, not only to develop Krentz’s readings of deafness and hearing in culture and literature but also to help us think about the presence and role of such dualities more broadly in our conversations and histories. As is so often the case with great scholarship, that is, Krentz’s book enters into and participates in many other disciplinary conversations, not because it does not sufficiently develop its own focus but rather precisely because that new, well-researched and -grounded, and compelling focus has a great deal to offer many other perspectives as well. I can’t recommend the book highly enough, and I look forward to seeing what’s next for Krentz’s work and career.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?