19th CENTURY'S SECOND MOST
A Life of Laura BridgmanDisabled Pioneer in Education
In 1837, the founder of the first
American school for the blind, Samuel Howe, heard of a young
deaf and blind girl in a New England farming family named
Laura Bridgman. He resolved, in the tradition of Bernard Shaw's
Professor Henry Higgins, to rescue her from her life of deprivation,
and in the process not only commenced the field of education
for the multiply disabled but also created a media sensation.
In her recent book The Imprisoned Guest (Farrar, Straus
& Giroux), John Jay College professor of English Elisabeth
Gitter records the life of Bridgman (1829-1889) and "her
troubling, tumultuous relationship with Howe, who rode Laura's
achievements to his own fame." Gitter, who has taught at John
Jay since 1972 and is the current chair of the CUNY-BA Committee,
was initially inspired to learn more about Bridgman from the
moving essay Charles Dickens wrote after meeting her on a
trip to the U.S. in 1842 (it is in his American Notes). A
stop, on impulse, at Howe's school in Boston led to her discovery
of a trove of hitherto unexplored documents in its basement
illuminating Bridgman's life, including her letters and journals.
Following here is an excerpt from Gitter's prologue and another
comparing Bridgman with Helen Keller, whose fame eventually
eclipsed that of her pioneering predecessor.
Imagine Laura Bridgman, deaf, dumb, and blind. Picture her in
1837, just before Samuel Gidley Howe, the director of the Perkins
Institution for the Blind, found her in a New Hampshire farmhouse
and brought her to Boston to be educated. She is seven years
old, a pretty, delicate, sprightly child, appealing in looks
and manner. Five years have passed since scarlet fever raged
through her family, killing her two older sisters and leaving
her without sight, hearing, or speech, and with only a faint
sense of smell or taste. Only touch remains to her now.
seven, Laura can no longer recall her mother's face or voice,
and if she ever saw the image of herself in a mirror, she
has forgotten it. Deprived of stimulating sights, sounds,
and odors, she inhabits a world of deadening monotony. All
conscious memory of verbal language is gone. She lives in
exile not only from sounds and words, but from the human community
of exchanged smiles and glances, the mirroring of face-to-face
communion. Her parents pat her head to show approval and tap
her back to reprimand her, but there is no other way to let
her know that she is a beinga personto whom others
Because she had two developmentally normal years before her
devastating illness, Laura has perhaps maintained an awareness
of a core self that silently experiences and records the muffled
impact of external events. No doubt she experiences her own
body as something that feels pain, hunger, thirst, or satisfaction
and that moves at her bidding.
She can make a few rudimentary signs to communicate her needs.
But cut off from the sights and sounds of the outside world,
deficient in language, and lacking an image of her own face,
she can have little sense of an active, conscious self, a self
that can share in the world of other people, a self that can
tell its own tale. She does not know her name.
Five years later, this pitiful little girl had become the
most celebrated child in America. Although today she is virtually
unknown, the Boston Evening Transcript of June 14,
1851, ventured that, with the exception only of Queen Victoria,
Laura Bridgman was the most famous female in the entire world.
The first deaf-blind person ever to be educated, she became
not only the subject of scientific and pedagogical research,
but a universal darling.
Before Laura Bridgman proved otherwise, deaf-blind people had
been classified with idiots; according to the influential British
jurist William Blackstone, they were "incapable of any understanding,
as wanting all those senses which furnish the human mind with
ideas." By learning to read raised print, to write intelligibly,
and to "talk" using the finger alphabet, Laura established that
even the most sensorially deprived person could gain access
to language and, through language, to the world of human culture.
Because she had been almost completely isolated
from sense data, Laura was the ideal subject for investigation
of the nature and origin of language and ideas. Scientists of
the period imagined her as a living laboratory for experiments
into the nature of the human mind, a psychological blank slate,
John Locke's tabula rasa come to life.
To Laura Bridgman
Be thine the task, O! Generous
Howe, to guide The imprisoned guest, through Nature's
ample fields To draw the curtain of her wealth aside,
And show the pleasure that true science yields; To tread
the path by learning seldom trod, That leads "from nature
up to nature's God."
W. Holmes, circa 1850
But Laura was more than an ideal subject for research and investigation;
she was also the perfect Victorian victim- heroine: small, pleasing
to look at, innocent, and frail, a paragon of cheerful suffering.
Scores of articles and poems in religious tracts and women's
magazines glorified her as a redemptive angel whose plight would
touch the most hardened hearts, whose instinctive innocence
and purity were exemplary, and whose rescue from spiritual imprisonment
movingly reenacted the Christian drama. Born and educated 50
years before Helen Keller, Laura was the valiant little victim
of her own day. And, like Keller, she was an intellectual phenomenon,
a kind of genius.
From the beginning, the world judged Bridgman and Keller as
if they were contestants in a deaf-blind Miss America pageant.
Laura was the out-dated prototype, inferior in beauty and accomplishments
and deficient in congeniality; Keller was the almost normal
winner, talented, charming, altruistic, good-looking, even sexy.
Laura was quaint and old-fashioned, a relic of the 19th century;
Keller was the latest improvement, a talking, sociable, active
Such comparisons do justice to neither woman. Keller became
the success she was because at her side she had Anne Sullivan,
the selfless, smart, loving teacher- companion that Laura always
thought she wanted. Her teacher's devotion made Keller's life
as a beloved public figure possible, but also exacted a price.
Even if she rebelled inwardly at Sullivan's "merciless" expectation,
Keller had to appear to embrace them. Except in her angry dreams,
she suppressed the pain and rage she must at times have felt.
"I demand that the world be good,"she wrote, "and
lo, it obeys. I proclaim the world good, and facts range themselves
to prove my proclamation overwhelmingly true."
Compared to Keller, Laura led a dull, dependent existence. She
was born too soon to benefit from Braille. Her sharp, inquisitive
mind probably did not develop to its full potential. Although
she longed for intimacy, she never again found it after her
early teacher-companion Sarah Wight left the Perkins Institute
in 1850, when Laura was 21.
Yet Laura achieved a kind of freedom. Because she felt no compulsion
to please, she could choose her own friends and make demands
upon them. Malleable only up to a point, she stubbornly asserted
her right to make her disconcerting "deaf" noises. She was no
more generous, noble, or altruistic than the rest of us, and
she never pretended to suffer fools gladly. Defying Howe, she
converted to the religion that suited her. And through all her
sorrows and disappointments, Laura managed to remain her unalterable
self: witty, irritable, curious, demanding, and, in her way,