January 4, 2014

Birth of Nack: dawn of another New-Year

James M. Nack was born into a poor New York City family on January 4, 1809. With little money for education, he was taught at home and was an able reader and writer at age 4 and began writing crude poems by age 8. In that year, however, 1817, he also experienced a major change in his life. He fell down a staircase and hit his head hard, knocking him unconscious for weeks. When he awoke, he was deaf.

It was then that Nack's family enrolled him in school for the first time: the newly-opened New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. His interest in writing grew and he wrote a full-length play by age 12. As a teenager, he found a job with an attorney, and devoured the books in his boss's ample library, further inspiring his writing. He published his first book The Legend of the Rocks and Other Poems in 1827. Critics called him an "intellectual wonder." Some scholars today acknowledge the book as the first one written by an American who was deaf. He was 18.

Nack continued writing, supplementing his income as a legal clerk and translator from at least three languages. Advocates for early special education used Nack as an example of the potential in people who were deaf. After all, he not only lived an ordinary life (marrying, having children, working successfully in a job), but he also lived in an extraordinary life as the author of at least four books and as a linguist. His writings often reflected on life and death, on love and faith, and range from very short lyrics to long epics. From his first book, "Ode to the New Year, 1826":

How many are now in the cold grave reposing
   Who welcom'd the dawn of the year that has fled!
How little, alas! did they think that its closing
   Should find them enshrin'd in the urn of the dead!
How many a bosom, now bounding as lightly,
   Shall yield its last throb, and be motionless laid;
The spark of existence, now beaming so brightly,
   Extinguished forever in sepulchral shade:
How many this year to the grave's dark dominions
   Shall hasten, who welcome its rising career,
Ere time once again on his air-feather'd pinions
   Shall usher the dawn of another New-Year!

And I, who now muse on the thousands departed,
   May follow them ere the return of this day,
Bedew'd with the tears of some friend brokenhearted,
   Who now smiles upon me unthinking and gay;
And better than I should survive to deplore them,
   The few that to share my affections remain,
O better by far I should perish before them,
   Nor hail the return of a New-Year again.
The hearts that now love me, will they not regret me,
   Shall ever my memory cease to be dear?
The friends of my bosom,—O can they forget me,
   If swept from their sight by the close of the year?

If all I have lov'd have repaid my affections
   With ardour unbounded, unfeigned as mine own,
My name, in the hearts of my friends and connexions,
   Shall ever be cherish'd on memory's throne;
But little it then will avail to me, whether
   Remember'd by those I have lov'd, or forgot;
In mansions of bliss when united together,
   On earth if they valued my friendship or not,
Love breathing around in the zephyrs of heaven
   Shall each to the other forever endear,
Whom there our Redeemer a mansion has given
   To live and to love through Eternity's Year.

*For much of the information in this post, I am indebted to A Mighty Change: An Anthology of Deaf American Writing, 1816-1864 (Gallaudet University Press, 2000), edited by Christopher Krentz. The section on Nack includes the image of the poet seen above.

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