The early twentieth century may seem, at first glance, a strange place to begin a survey of attitudes towards deafness. At this point, the American Deaf community was just forming, American Sign Language was not yet recognised as a language, and most Americans who did consider deafness thought of it as a disability, an affliction to be pitied. As I will demonstrate, however, modernist writers actually had a great deal of insight into issues central to the experience of many deaf people: physical and visual language. While these writers were not thinking of such language in relation to deafness, their experimentations into the merging of the body and language can offer us fresh perspectives on the potential of manual languages to impact mainstream society today.
In the early decades of the twentieth century deafness was becoming visible in new ways, due in large part to the rapid expansion of schools for the deaf. This increased visibility led to increased representation in popular culture. Unfortunately, as Trent Batson and Eugene Bergman point out, these literal portrayals of deafness were predictable and clichéd. According to them, deaf characters in literature functioned almost exclusively “to heighten interest, to represent the plight of the individual in a technocratic society, or simply to express a sense of the absurd” (140). In all of these cases, such characters were presented as pitiable. In the least derogatory accounts, like Isabel Adams’ 1928 Heart of the Woods, characters stoically overcome their “disability,” usually by displaying miraculous proficiency with lip-reading and the ability to assimilate into hearing society. Other texts portray deaf people as grotesques, as in Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1919 “God’s fool,” or as the butts of jokes, as in Anatole France’s 1926 The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, a Comedy in Two Acts. Constructed as pathetic and disgusting, deaf characters were used thematically to invoke a sense of revulsion at the unknowable other, at those perceived as languageless and therefore cut off from full access to humanity.
Literature was not the only medium in which representations of deaf people were appearing with greater frequency. Early filmmakers also demonstrated a fascination with the idea of deafness. But as John S. Schuchman points out in Hollywood Speaks, as in literature, these portrayals were nearly always one-dimensional. Depicted as mutes, fakers, comically clueless, and deeply unhappy individuals, with few exceptions these characters created a very negative image of deafness. In Siege (1925), for example, a deaf character is driven to suicide by cruel mockery. In The Silent Voice (1915), another deaf character contemplates suicide. In the 1932 version of The Man Who Played God, a deaf character falls into a deep depression, sends away his fiancé, and declares “I am not a man. I am just an empty shell…I am only an animal now” (qtd. in Schuchman 48). Without the solidarity of Deaf culture, community, or pride, these characters become morbidly depressed and alienated; they experience their hearing loss as a subject of shame, and it was this image of deafness that was presented to the public.
Despite these unpromising literal references to deafness, however, the early twentieth century does in fact offer intriguing and productive ideas about how we might understand deafness today. In the years separating the beginning of the last century from this one, public perceptions of deafness have undergone a significant shift. Buoyed by developments in American Sign Language research and the political activism of the Deaf President Now movement (1988), Deaf people are increasingly viewed as a linguistic minority with a distinct and valuable cultural identity and history, whose communicative differences have much to teach us about how we all interact with language. Deafness (the capital D signaling the distinction between Deafness as a culture and deafness as an audiological condition) is now understood in many circles as a linguistic difference, rather than as a deficiency. And hearing modernist writers had very interesting things to say about the value of linguistic and communicative difference.
Modernists’ interest in communication emerged in large part because the same cultural movement toward linguistic homogenisation that led to the denigration of sign language and the exclusive focus on speech and lip-reading in American deaf education also sought to draw a line around the kinds of language considered acceptable for usage in writing. Many of modernism’s formal innovations developed as responses to the push for conformity that we see evidenced in the thinking behind the Oxford English Dictionary, which was completed between the 1880s and the 1920s—notably the period during which most modernist writers were born and began publishing.
The 1858 proposal for the dictionary was, in fact, one of the first instances in which the term “standard language” was used (North 12). A desire to establish “standard language” usage was also the goal of the American Academy of Arts, established in 1916 and dedicated to maintaining the integrity of English. Such projects strove to consolidate American national identity around the standardised use of the English language, thereby eliminating spaces for linguistic and communicative diversity within the national body politic.
Within literary circles, many rebelled against both the political and aesthetic underpinnings of this movement by experimenting in increasingly dramatic ways with how written language could represent the fragmentation many associated with modern life. As part of their experimentation, some of these writers attempted to develop the idea of embodied language. While they were ignorant of the actual manual languages used by the deaf, the ways they were thinking outside the box in relation to communication can give us both a new perspective on manual languages and new insights into their relevance to mainstream society today.
One writer whose poems engaged such themes was the poet Hart Crane. Though he worked during the period we think of as high modernist, publishing major volumes of verse in 1926 and 1930, his work challenges our definitions of modernist poetry. Unlike the sparse language and cynicism of his contemporaries, Crane’s poems were decadent and lush. As Eliza New has noted, “Hart Crane is the American poet of Awe” (184); his work reflected his belief in the power of the written word to change the world. Crane viewed poets as inheritors of an ecstatic tradition of prophesy, to which he hoped his own poems would contribute.
It is because of this overflowing of sentiment that Crane frequently found both himself and his work mocked. He was accused of overreaching and falling short of his goals, of being nothing more than what Edward Brunner termed a “splendid failure” in the title of his 1985 book. Critics and ordinary readers alike were frustrated with Crane’s arcane language and convoluted syntax, as well as the fact that each word, each image, in his poems was packed with multiple meanings that made the works impossible to summarise. Far from constituting a failure, however, this tangled web of language was Crane’s way of experimenting with a new form of communication, one that would allow him to access the transformative power of poetry.
What makes Crane instructive for our purposes is that he repeatedly linked this new conception of language with embodiment. Driven in part by his sense of feeling, as a gay man, a cultural outsider, he attempted to find at the intersection of words and bodies a new site for both personal and cultural expression, one in which he could play a central role. In “General Aim and Theories,” Crane explains his desire to imagine a new kind of language in response to the conditions of modernity. “It is a terrific problem that faces the poet today—a world that is so in transition from a decayed culture toward a reorganization of human evaluations that there are few common terms, general denominators of speech that are solid enough or that ring with any vibration or spiritual conviction” (218).
Later in the same essay, Crane stresses that these new common terms could not be expressed in conventional ways, but would need to constitute “a new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate” (221). For Crane, such words were “impossible to enunciate” because they were not actually spoken through the mouth, but rather expressed in other ways through the body. In “Voyages,” a six-part poem that appeared in his first book, The White Building, Crane explores the potential of these embodied words. Drawing in the influence of Walt Whitman, the work is an extended meditation on the intersection of languages, bodies, and love. The poem was inspired by his relationship with the merchant seaman Emil Oppfer. In it, embodied language appears as a privileged site of connection between individuals and the world.
The first section of “Voyages,” which Crane had originally titled “Poster,” predated the composition of the rest of the poem by several years. It opens with a scene on a beach, “bright striped urchins” (I. 2) playing in the sand with their dog, “flay[ing] each other with sand” (I. 2). The speaker observes them on the border between land and sea. He attempts to communicate to them his sense of the sea’s danger, but is unsuccessful.
And in answer to their treble interjections
The sun beats lightning on the waves,
The waves fold thunder on the sand;
And could they hear me I would tell them:
O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
By time and the elements; but there is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
The bottom of the sea is cruel. (I. 6-16)
The speaker’s warning is incomprehensible to the children, not because they cannot literally hear him, but because he is unable to present his previous experience with the sea in a way that makes sense to the them.
As Evelyn J. Hintz notes, “the child’s mode of communication is alogical and nonsyntactical—‘treble interjections.’ To tell them one would have to speak their language” (323). In the first section of the poem, the speaker is unable to do this, unable to get beyond linear verbal speech or to conceive of alternative modes of conveying his message. This frustrated communication in the first section gives rise to the need for the remaining five, as the poet explores what such alternatives might look like. In sections II through VI, the language becomes more difficult to follow as Crane breaks away from linearity in an attempt to present his newly conceived language on the page.
The shift is apparent in the stanza immediately following the first section.
–And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love; (II. 1-5).
It is not only that Crane’s diction has become more difficult and archaic, which it has, but also that he creates words that exist between two known meanings. “Wrapt,” for example, both visually and aurally calls to mind ‘wrapped’ as well as ‘rapt.’ “Leewardings” points both toward ships and something positioned away from the wind. What it means to be unrestrained or “unfettered” in this position, Crane leaves unclear.
Throughout the remainder of the poem, he repeatedly employs these counterintuitive word pairings. Words are often connected not through logic, but through a kind of intuitive leap. As Brian Reed describes it, “the verse can…be said to progress ‘madly…logically,’ satisfying a reader’s intuition, perhaps, but rarely satisfying her or his rage for order” (115). The lines move according to what Crane called a “logic of metaphor” (General 63). Like his curving syntax, which draws the reader into the beautiful melody before pulling back, withholding definitive meaning like the sea’s waves lapping and teasing, Crane’s metaphoric associations endlessly defer definitive meaning.
In “Voyages,” Crane associates this proliferation of meaning and lack of linear progression with physicality, with a language more corporeal and visceral that transcends the restrictions of everyday speech. In a letter to Waldo Frank describing the romantic relationship that inspired the poem, Crane declared “I have seen the Word made Flesh. I mean nothing less, and I know now that there is such a thing as indestructibility” (O 186). Throughout “Voyages,” Crane highlights such words made flesh. The sea with whom the speaker seeks to communicate is embodied, given “eyes and lips” (III.12), a “vast belly” (II. 4-5), “shoulders” (II. 16), and “veins” (II. 15). What’s more, it is precisely through the body that communication occurs.
“Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal, / Complete the dark confessions her veins spell” (II. 14-15, emphasis mine), the poet entreats. He describes the sea’s “Portending eyes and lips” IV. 12), her “dialogue with eyes” (VI. 23), and declares that “In signature of the incarnate word / The harbor shoulders to resign in mingling / Mutual blood, transpiring as foreknown” (IV. 17-19, emphasis mine). It is only through this wordless communication that the kind of sublime meaning Crane seeks can be transmitted. For him, this “imaged Word” (VI.29) permits access to knowledge that conventional language obscures, knowledge that can only be transmitted through manual connection, as the speaker asks the sea to “Permit me voyage, love, into your hands…” (III.19).
Crane saw the proliferation of meanings that he believed accompanied such embodied language as a response against the movement toward a standardisation of language that threatened to edit out modes of communication and identities that did not fit within its confines. As Thomas Yingling notes, “meaning, such as it occurs in Crane, is a process of indeterminacy, is constituted precisely in the abrupt disfigurements and dislocations, in the sudden clarities and semantic possibilities” (30). It was in large part these “semantic possibilities,” these indeterminate and multiple meanings that refused to line up, which led critics to characterise Crane’s work as a “poetics of failure” (Riddel). As later research into sign languages has revealed, however, far from representing a failure of poetic vision, Crane was actually incredibly forward thinking in associating embodied languages with a non-linear construction.
Conventional spoken and written languages, those Crane was attempting to complicate, are necessarily linear. Letters and sounds must proceed one after another in order for an utterance to make sense. Manual languages, however, are not bound by this linearity. As Margalit Fox explained nearly a century later in Talking Hands,
Because the human visual system is better than the auditory system at processing simultaneous information, a language in the visual mode can exploit this potential and encode its signals simultaneously. This is exactly what all signed languages do. Whereas words are linear strings, signs are compact bundles of data, in which multiple unites of code—handshapes, location and movement—are conveyed in virtually the same moment. (101)
Such accounts of actual embodied languages help to explain the frustrating density that attends Crane’s words. Morphologically rich physical languages like the kind Crane was trying to imagine possess the ability for an increased layering of meaning. While limited by the page on which he writes, Crane attempted to create this layered affect through convoluted syntax and deliberately difficult vocabulary which led readers away from both a sense of fixed meaning and from normative standards usually applied to written words.
Understanding this rebellion against standardisation is key to the turn in “Voyages.” It is when the speaker figures the sea’s language in conventional terms, when he returns to the more straightforward communication that failed in the first section, that the spell is broken. “What words / Can strangle this deaf moonlight?” (V. 8-9), he asks, and is almost instantly answered when the sea’s language switches for the first time into dialogue. Rather than the passionate and revelatory interaction it had been before, the language becomes banal, an imitation of tired words exchanged by lovers throughout history: “‘There’s // Nothing like this in the world,’ you say” (V. 13-14). “ ‘—And never to quite understand!’” (V. 18). There is “Nothing so flagless as this piracy” (V.20), this loss of meaningful communication, and the speaker bemoans the “Slow tyranny of moonlight, moonlight loved / And changed…” (V. 12-13). With the reversion to conventional language comes the loss of any intimate knowledge of both the sea and the lover. The speaker’s projection of verbal speech onto the sea causes it to “Draw in your head… / Your eyes already in the slant of drifting foam; / Your breath sealed by the ghosts I do not know” (V. 22-24). The imposition of normative language marks the end of the speaker’s experiment with new communicative modes.
As he demonstrates by situating it in opposition to the enforced standardisation of language, for Crane embodied language—with its non-linear syntax and layered meanings—represented the future in terms of linguistic development. He saw such non-normative languages as having the potential to drastically change the ways human relationality was structured, specifically by creating a new level of intimacy through a merging of the semantic and the physical. In this way, he offers us productive new ways to think about the potential of manual languages, or any other non-normative means of human expression, to fundamentally impact society by challenging our assumptions about how we all relate to one another through language.
When asked to define deafness, most people’s first response is to think of levels of hearing loss, of deficiency, or disability. By contrast, Crane’s approach presents a more constructive understanding of what communicative difference can mean. His poem provides an intense mediation on the possibilities of communication through the body, one that subsequent research into signed languages allows us to push even further. Crane believed that communicative diversity was necessary to move language into the next century. From this perspective, embodied language becomes not “merely” the concern of a “disabled” minority but, rather, integral to our understanding of language itself.
Batson, Trent, and Eugene Bergman, eds. Angels and Outcasts: An Anthology of Deaf Characters in Literature. 3rd ed. Washington DC: Gallaudet UP, 1985.
Brunner, Edward J. Splendid Failure: Hart Crane and the Making of The Bridge. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1985.
Crane, Hart. “Voyages.” The Complete Poems of Hart Crane: The Centennial Edition. New York: Liveright, 2001.
———. “General Aims and Theories.” Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters. Ed. Langdon Hammer. New York: The Library of America, 2006. 160-164.
———. O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane. Eds. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997.
Fox, Margalit. Talking Hands. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.
Hinz, Evelyn J. “Hart Crane’s ‘Voyages’ Reconsidered.” Contemporary Literature 13.3 (1972): 315-333.
New, Elisa. “Hand of Fire: Crane.” The Regenerate Lyric: Theology and Innovation in American Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 182-263.
North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.
Reed, Brian M. Hart Crane: After His Lights. Tuscaloosa, AL: U of Alabama P, 2006.
Riddel, Joseph. “Hart Crane’s Poetics of Failure.” ELH 33.4 (1966): 473-496.
Schuchman, John S. Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988.
Yingling, Thomas. Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.