Sunday, September 20, 2015

Make a Joyful Sound by Helen Elmira Waite

Alexander Graham Bell is obviously known for his invention of the telephone. He started his career teaching the deaf to speak using a set of tools developed by his father. This career lead the Scotch-Canadian teacher (Bell became an American citizen in 1882) to meet an American girl, Mabel Hubbard, who he would marry. Helen Elmira Waite tells the story of their life together in Make a Joyful Noise.

Mabel Hubbard lost her hearing at the age of five after being ill with scarlet fever. Her parents were determined that she would continue to speak and understand speech. They were encouraged by news from Germany that schools there were teaching the deaf to speak, but there was little support for it in the United States. Even so, they arranged for a teacher who had the courage to try and Mabel learned to speak and read lips.

Gardiner Hubbard, Mabel’s father, was a businessman and politician in Massachusetts. He became an advocate for the education of the deaf, especially oral education (speech and lip reading). As a child, Mabel testified to a committee of the Massachusetts legislature to demonstrate what a deaf child could learn.

Bell set us a school for the deaf in Boston. Here he was introduced to Mabel, whose family hoped his techniques could help her achieve a more natural speech. He began experimenting with the idea of pushing more signals down telegraph wires, which lead to his invention of the telephone. Gardiner Hubbard became one of Bells backers in these efforts. Even though Bell grew to spend more time developing his telephone, and later testing designs for aviation, he always remained active in education for the deaf.

The Bell family authorized Waite’s biography. The advantage of this is that she had access to family records and the recollections of the Bells’ children and grandchildren. The possible downside is that Waite may have been inclined to present the Bells in the best light. Waite may have been inclined to do this anyway. In his preface, Bell’s son-in-law, Gilbert Grosvenor, mentioned that he and his wife Elsie, Bell’s oldest daughter, had read Waits biography of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan (the Bells knew these ladies and Bell himself encouraged Keller’s parents that she could be educated and connect to the wider world).

Waite does admit to Bell’s stubbornness and sometimes-excessive sense of propriety. If the Hubbards, particularly Mabel, had not pushed, persuaded, coerced, and even tricked Bell into promoting, protecting, and commercializing his invention, he may have tinkered in his shop making a better telephone that no one would use.

Waite’s style is almost conversational; she’s telling a story. I think Make a Joyful Noise is accessible to many younger readers. It is also interesting in that the book is as much about Bell’s private life, particularly his romance and marriage with Mabel, as it is about his invention. In addition, she demonstrates that Mabel was a remarkable and capable person on her own.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Waite, Helen Elmira. Make a Joyful Sound: The Romance of Mabel Hubbard and Alexander Graham Bell. Philadelphia: MacRae Smith Company, 1961.