The resurrected story of a deaf-blind girl and the man who brought her out of silence.
In 1837, Samuel Gridley Howe, director of Boston's Perkins Institution for the Blind, heard about a bright, deaf-blind seven-year-old, the daughter of New Hampshire farmers. At once he resolved to rescue her from the "darkness and silence of the tomb." And indeed, thanks to Howe and an extraordinary group of female teachers, Laura Bridgman learned to finger spell, to read raised letters, and to write legibly and even eloquently.
Philosophers, poets, educators, theologians, and early psychologists hailed Laura as a moral inspiration and a living laboratory for the most controversial ideas of the day. She quickly became a major tourist attraction, and many influential writers and reformers visited her or wrote about her. But as the Civil War loomed and her girlish appeal faded, the public began to lose interest. By the time Laura died in 1889, she had been wholly eclipsed by the prettier, more ingratiating Helen Keller.
The Imprisoned Guest retrieves Laura Bridgman's forgotten life, placing it in the context of nineteenth-century American social, intellectual, and cultural history. Her troubling, tumultuous relationship with Howe, who rode Laura's achievements to his own fame but could not cope with the intense, demanding adult she became, sheds light on the contradictory attitudes of a "progressive" era in which we can find some precursors of our own.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Elisabeth Gitter is a professor of English at the City University of New York's John Jay College who specializes in the Victorian era.
Elisabeth Gitter is a professor of English at the City University of New York's John Jay College who specializes in the Victorian era.
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CHAPTER ONEThe ChevalierLIFE STORIES USUALLY begin with mothers and fathers. From the dynamics of the family--the parents' ancestry, marriage, and economic and social fortunes--biographers trace the origins of their adult subject's character. In Laura Bridgman's case, her biological parents matter less. After her second year, she could not see or hear Daniel and Harmony Bridgman; they had neither the time nor the skills to communicate with her; and once she had moved from the family farm in Hanover, New Hampshire, to the Perkins Institution in Boston, they appeared in her life only intermittently.The biographies published by Howe's daughters--Maud Elliott and Florence Hall in 1903, and Laura Richards in 1928--paint a Currier and Ives picture of the Bridgman home. The Howe daughters depict Daniel and Harmony Bridgman as hardy, independent farmers of "good old New England stock."1 Certainly the Bridgmans were hardworking: through trying years of fluctuating agricultural prices and poor crops, they persevered, raising Laura's five surviving siblings and even managing to send their two sons to college.The youngest of nine children, Laura's mother, Harmony Downer Bridgman, was born in 1804 on a farm just a few miles north of Hanover, in Thetford, Vermont, a tiny town that her Downer grandparents hadhelped settle forty years earlier. Her parents or an older brother may have taught her to read and write at home, but Harmony Downer more likely attended a one-room town school for a few years, as almost all rural New England children of the period did. Despite her rudimentary education, Harmony Bridgman had a way with words. Her thoughtful, often touching letters to Howe not only record her family's financial struggles, but also reveal her concern for her stricken daughter. Although Mrs. Bridgman never learned to communicate effectively with Laura when they were together, she worried about her daughter's wellbeing, wrote to her from time to time, and remained a distinct, if often distant, presence in her life.Laura's father is more of a cipher. The Bridgmans were an old, if not especially distinguished or prosperous, Hanover family. Daniel Bridgman's fellow townsmen thought enough of him to elect him twice to public office: he served as a selectman in 1836 and as a representative to the New Hampshire Legislature from 1856 to 1857, but does not otherwise figure in Hanover history.2 If he ever wrote any letters to Howe or Laura, none has survived. In any case, neither Howe nor Laura had much use for Daniel Bridgman, who suffered, Howe believed, from the effects of a nervous temper and a small brain.3 In her letters home from Perkins, Laura neither inquired after her father nor ever sent him her regards. After a rare visit from her parents in 1843, she wrote--tellingly--in her journal: "My mother and my father ... came at ten o'clock i was very much pleased to see my mother."4The father who mattered for Laura was not Daniel Bridgman, but her psychological and spiritual father, Howe. He brought her back into the world, gave her language, arranged for her material support, organized her time, and provided her a home. In his will he left her a small legacy; Daniel Bridgman bequeathed her nothing. Howe's past, far more than her parents', formed Laura's identity; his vision, far more than theirs, shaped the course of her life.
LAURA'S RESCUER WAS a complex and contradictory figure, vain, pugnacious, rigid, and arrogant, yet passionately committed to doing good.Until he died, Howe devoted himself to educating the ignorant, liberating the enslaved, raising up the downtrodden, and empowering the weak. Practical and resourceful, he had a knack for solving problems. He disdained wealth and luxury, worked tirelessly, and genuinely loved children. Still, Howe was sometimes a hard man to like. An abiding sense of intellectual and social inferiority made him susceptible to flattery and greedy for public acclaim. Compromise seemed to him a sign of weakness. Despite his well-deserved reputation as one of the century's great humanitarians, he had trouble getting along with individual people, including those closest to him. An enthusiastic quarreler, he could be vindictive toward anyone who opposed or criticized him.Howe began life on the margins of Boston society. Although his mother and father both came from old Boston families, neither the Howes nor the Gridleys could boast of intellectual distinction, significant wealth, or acceptance in Boston's rising Brahmin class. For the first years of Samuel Howe's life, from 1801, when he was born, until after the War of 1812, his father, Joseph Howe, prospered manufacturing rope and cordage, an important business in that time of sailing vessels. After the war, however, the business foundered, apparently because the federal government defaulted on payments for wartime materials. The servants and luxuries of Samuel Howe's early childhood vanished, and the family had to adjust to greatly reduced circumstances. Young Samuel never experienced real poverty, but the Howes always had to worry about money.During Howe's youth, his family remained both financially embarrassed and, at a time when partisan passions ran high, politically out of step. Like most of the Boston elite, the Howes practiced Unitarianism, the "Boston religion," but they did not subscribe to the conservative politics of their Unitarian neighbors. In a militantly Federalist city, the Howes were among a small minority of Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans. At the Boston Latin School, where Howe was an indifferent student, the other boys tormented him for his political noncomformity. To avoid neighboring Harvard, a bastion of Boston Federalism, Howe in 1817 enrolled instead at Brown, in those days a small, tolerant, but nominally Baptist college that offered the additional advantage of chargingconsiderably less. Since tuition, room, and board rarely exceeded $100 a year, Brown attracted young men whose families were in straitened circumstances--young men like Samuel Howe and Horace Mann, a farmer's son who graduated two years ahead of Howe.5Howe, restless and without direction, did not make a success of his college years. The monotonous, highly regimented routine of life at Brown in those days tried his limited patience: he performed poorly academically, was suspended several times for pranks and rowdy behavior, and graduated without distinction in 1821. Eulogizing Howe after his death in 1876, Alexis Caswell, a former president of Brown, recalled (rather tactlessly, under the funereal circumstances) that Howe's college life "was not altogether a happy one, and was not as productive in the line of good learning as it might have been." Howe had not been "deficient in logical power," Caswell assured the assembled mourners, "but the severer studies did not seem congenial to him."6From Brown, Howe went on to Harvard Medical School, from which he took a degree in 1824, notwithstanding his distaste for the practice of medicine. His lackluster performance at both Brown and Harvard left him with an uncomfortable feeling of directionlessness and intellectual inadequacy. Not only had his education been "imperfect," but, he complained, he had never had a mentor, a "direct personal influence" leading him "to the best use of his powers."7 In an undated letter to Mann, who had done brilliantly at Brown, Howe confided, "My schooling was very poor: very. My father an uneducated man, only wished, without knowing how to make me a scholar."8 To the phrenologist George Combe, whom he admired greatly, Howe explained that he had always had "high aspirations for extensive usefulness, and a desire for intellectual attainments of a high order." These aspirations were undermined, however, by "a sad conviction" that his intellectual capacity would never allow him to rise above "mediocrity."9 He knew that he did not want to drag out his days "in the dull, monotonous round of a professional life," but he did not have the money, social status, or intellectual distinction to achieve the fame and stature that he craved.For a restless, unmoneyed, adventurous young man in Howe's position,the Greek revolution of the 1820s was a godsend. Here was an outlet for both ambition and idealism. Here was a chance to be heroic; to liberate an ancient and noble race--the descendants of Homer and Socrates--from tyranny; to escape the mundane, moneygrubbing life of Boston. The philhellenes, partisans of Greek independence, had waged an extraordinarily effective propaganda campaign in Christian Europe and America, whipping up an international campaign against Turkish oppression. Lord Byron, Howe's favorite poet, had set a gallant example, sailing for Missolonghi in 1823 to join the fight. In Boston philhellenism became the cause du jour in 1823, when the charismatic Edward Everett, at the time the Eliot Professor of Greek at Harvard, exhorted readers of The North American Review to aid the Greek revolutionaries, in "a war of the crescent against the cross."10Answering Everett's call to arms, Howe sailed for Greece in 1824, not long after Byron died there of fever. For Howe, war against the "unspeakable Turk" promised not only adventure and fame, but also an opportunity to aid the weak against the strong: Howe always saw himself as a defender of the underdog. In Greece, as a guerrilla fighter and a military surgeon, he found the excitement, power, and praise that he had sought. In 1825, he wrote enthusiastically to his father:It astonishes me much that young men of fortune do not come to Greece; that they do not enlist heart and soul in this most sacred of all causes and gain for themselves the gratitude of a nation and a place in history; more particularly, too, when they have such a scene before their eyes as is presented by the treatment of Lafayette in our happy and flourishing country.11Like most other philhellenes who fought in Greece, including Byron, Howe soon became disillusioned with his unglamorous comrades-in-arms, who failed to resemble the heroes he had read about in Homer. The righteous campaign against foreign oppression repeatedly deteriorated into civil war among competing factions, and Howe, never slow to pass judgment, complained that the modern Greeks were deceitful,corrupt, ignorant, and selfish.12 Nonetheless, he relished the drama of the war, the opportunity to command, the variety and scope of his work, the constant travel, and the gratification of serving a noble cause.Howe devoted the next six years to Greek independence, immersing himself in the kind of frenetic activity that he would always thrive on. In addition to battling the Turks and treating wounded Greek soldiers, between 1824 and 1827 he was also busy organizing a hospital at Nauplia and, on behalf of the American-Greek relief committees, traveling around the countryside to distribute emergency supplies of food and clothing to the suffering Greek women and children. In February 1828, at the behest of the Greek government, he returned for several months to the United States, where he embarked on a speaking tour to raise money for the Greek cause and published his hastily written but moderately successful Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution, a florid and melodramatic work, even by the standards of the day.With the American-Greek relief committees paying his passage and expenses, he returned to Greece in November to begin a series of ambitious relief projects. His work on these projects demonstrated the administrative efficiency, organizational skill, and ingenuity that would later serve him well as founding director of an asylum for the blind. Acting on his lifelong conviction that doling out charity promoted idleness, he employed hundreds of destitute refugees in hauling and setting stones to build a harbor wall to restore the port at Aegina. When that task was completed, he persuaded the Greek government to grant him land at Hexamilia to establish an agricultural colony, which he named "Washingtonia." Supported by the American relief committees, Howe chose twenty-six refugee families to be his colonists, provided them with seed and cattle, and established a school based on the innovative system of the English educator of the poor Joseph Lancaster.During most of 1829--the year Laura Bridgman was born--Howe reigned over his very own utopian colony, a benevolent Mr. Kurtz. Not until he ran his own asylum in Boston would he again enjoy such a satisfying combination of power and social usefulness. Thirty years later, herecalled his days as ruler of Washingtonia as among the happiest of his life:I was alone among my colonists, who were all Greeks. They knew I wanted to help them, and they let me have my own way ... . I labored here day and night, in season and out, and was governor, legislator, clerk, constable, and everything but patriarch. 13This idyll, of course, could not last. Inevitably, Howe had a bitter falling-out with the president of Greece, who after years of Turkish domination may have objected to ceding a portion of Corinth to an American. Resentful that his well-intentioned efforts to bring good government to a chaotic nation had not been appreciated by its leaders, Howe left the country in January 1830, carrying with him Byron's helmet, which he had picked up at auction.Howe spent the next year touring Europe, and then set sail for home. He was almost thirty years old, a seasoned veteran of bloody combat and a world traveler, but he remained essentially the same man he had been when he first set out for Greece. The boyish characteristics of his adolescent letters--expressions of longing for "reputation" and heroic distinction; boasting masked by self-denigration--persisted in the letters he wrote to friends long after his return. As idealistic and vaguely ambitious as ever, he continued to dream of following "a path as yet untrodden in this country by the multitude, and ... to do something in it."14 Neither his exposure to terrible human suffering in Greece nor the many personal hardships he had undergone had altered him: he was, as John Jay Chapman observed, "one of those singular men in whom we can trace no course of development."15Howe returned to Boston at an opportune moment. In 1831, an intellectual, spiritual, and literary awakening--"the New England Renaissance" --was dawning. A new, idealistic generation of "men of letters" had just begun to announce itself: Howe's contemporaries, George Ticknor, George Bancroft, William H. Prescott, Theodore Parker, RalphWaldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others, were joining together in the "community of aspiration" that would soon take shape in antebellum Boston, Cambridge, and Concord.16In this period of rapid, sometimes alarming, social and economic change, an intense humanitarianism was in the New England air, and reform movements abounded. Seeing their city as a center of progress, Bostonians of diverse religious and political opinions organized to do battle against ignorance, intemperance, corruption, heathenism, libertinism, and slavery. While conservative evangelicals, fired by the preachings of Lyman Beecher and the revival meetings of Charles Finney, established Bible, tract, and missionary societies, and called for a revival of personal piety and morality, liberal Bostonians looked for ways to eliminate social evils by fostering individual perfection.17For Boston's progressive Unitarians in this period, rejecting the Calvinism of their forebears increasingly meant opposing the old idea that suffering was inevitable, irremediable, and providential. Along with an Enlightenment belief in scientific progress and human perfectibility came optimism that social problems could be solved through reason and love. The high priest of this liberal humanitarianism, the great Unitarian Awakener, William Ellery Channing, inspired and shaped Boston's social reform movement. Throughout the 1830s, Channing exhorted his Federal Street Church congregants to confront the scourges of poverty, illness, ignorance, and slavery. Aging but still impassioned, Channing had come to believe that it was no longer enough for individuals to eschew materialism and cultivate inner goodness. While little Laura Bridgman was learning to grope her way around her New Hampshire farmhouse, Channing urgently called upon the Unitarians of Boston to recognize the essential beauty and perfectibility of every human being, however degraded or deprived, and, in emulation of a loving, impartial God, to lift up the poor, the disabled, and the suffering.
IN AN 1832 ORATION, Josiah Quincy, the president of Harvard, attributed the proliferation of the city's charitable institutions--hospitals, asylums,public libraries, almshouses, and benevolent associations--to the "silent and secret outswellings of grateful hearts, desirous unostentatiously to acknowledge the bounty of Heaven in their prosperity and abundance." 18 But altruism, even in Boston, is seldom unalloyed. The grateful, swelling hearts of midcentury Bostonians also felt the flutterings of ambition and the pangs of fear.By the late '20s, the upper class had good, earthly reasons for supporting Boston's charitable institutions. The old merchant families, newly enriched and invigorated by intermarriage and business partnership with self-made textile manufacturers, had consolidated their economic, cultural, and political power. Despite changes in the city's commercial structure, Brahmins still firmly controlled industry, trade, and finance. (In midcentury Massachusetts, the top one percent of the adult population, mostly Bostonians, owned approximately half the state's total wealth.)19 Scions of Brahmin families occupied most of the faculty chairs at Harvard, preached from many Unitarian pulpits, and ruled the statehouse and city hall.20 Nevertheless, the Whig patricians felt uneasy. Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828 seemed to them to threaten the coming of mob rule--and the end of political propriety, social order, and the sanctity of property. At the same time, their once tranquil Yankee town was changing before their eyes, transformed by urbanization and industrialization into a chaotic city, plagued with social problems and populated by strangers.Revolution and anarchy in Europe had taught Boston's patriciate a moral lesson: neglecting the poor, helpless, and ignorant can have bloody consequences.21 Spurred by anxiety about civil disorder--riots, crime, and drunkenness--and also inspired by noblesse oblige and a religious ethic of benevolence, Boston's richest families enthusiastically supported progressive legislation and subscribed to private philanthropies. 22 For the Brahmins, enlightened reform--relieving the poor, healing the sick, educating the ignorant, rehabilitating the criminal, and employing the idle--was at once the safest way to avoid class conflict and the highest moral duty.Philanthropy was also, not insignificantly, a pleasure. Membershipon an exclusive charitable board--tike membership in an exclusive club--affirmed patrician identity. Participating in philanthropic activities in the company of friends, business associates, and relatives induced a sense of upper-class solidarity; it defined Boston's elite families, brought them together on charitable projects, and justified their wealth and power.23By 1840, Bostonians could boast supporting thirty charitable institutions through private contributions and public funds. (Of the estimated $2,938,020 donated to Boston charities between 1830 and 1845, more than half went to organizations controlled by upper-class boards: the Lowell Institute, the American Board of Foreign Missions, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Bunker Hill Monument, Harvard, and the Perkins Institution for the Blind.)24 The state legislature, responding both to the philanthropic mood of the electorate and to underlying anxieties about public order, also played an increasingly active role in the charitable and reform activities of the period. In the socially fluid and (until the crash of 1837) economically expansive 1830s, the legislature frequently appropriated public money to investigate social problems, forestall dependency, and ameliorate human suffering.25 For Channing, this period of philanthopic flowering proved that human progress was not an illusion. In 1841, near the end of his life, he rejoiced that "benevolence now gathers together her armies ... . There is hardly a form of evil which has not awakened some antagonist effort."26Visitors agreed, praising Boston as America's City on a Hill, an example to all the world of civic enlightenment and benevolence. Even Harriet Martineau, an English writer who despised most of what she saw in the United States, admitted that she knew of no other large city in the world "where there is so much mutual helpfulness, so little neglect and ignorance of the concerns of other classes."27 When Charles Dickens first visited in 1842, he was even more effusive:I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can makethem. I never in my life was more affected by the contemplation of happiness, under circumstances of privation and bereavement, than in my visits to these establishments.28Coming home after six years, Howe discovered not only that his city was changing, but also that his own position was considerably stronger than it had been before. The publication of his philhellenic speeches, his letters from Greece, and his Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution had made him known in intellectual and philanthropic circles. In the course of his Greek relief efforts, he had corresponded with many important humanitarians and had established a valuable relationship with Edward Everett, who was rapidly becoming one of the most powerful men in Massachusetts politics. Howe himself was now politically in the mainstream, having joined most of elite Boston in despising the Democratic president, Andrew Jackson.As a returning war hero, Howe suddenly cut a glamorous figure. In her biography of her father, Laura Howe Richards claimed that "his presence was like the flash of a sword. There was a power in his look, an aspect of unresting, untiring energy, which impressed all who looked upon him; they turned to look again."29 As evidence for this adoring depiction, Richards quoted "a lady of his own age," who testified that in the 1830s Howe was the handsomest man she ever saw: "When he rode down Beacon Street on his black horse, with the embroidered crimson saddle-cloth, all the girls ran to their windows to look after him."30 Portraits confirm that Howe was indeed a tall, imposing-looking man, and that his daughter was not altogether fanciful in describing him as "slender, erect, with the soldierly bearing which marked him through life; with regular features, jet black hair, clear color glowing through the tan, and eyes of piercing blue."31 At the peak of the classic revival, when churches and banks on every Main Street were built to evoke Athens, even the more staid Bostonians confessed that they were dazzled by this veteran of the Greek revolution, this Byronic figure galloping through town on his black stallion, this embodiment of the Ciceronian ideal of the active, virtuous man. He seemed, as Whittier would later rhapsodizein "The Hero," his poem about Howe's Grecian exploits, "a knight like Bayard."32Despite his improved social and political status and heroic reputation, Howe floundered during his first months home. Impecunious and directionless, he knew that he could never settle into the conventional life of a practicing physician, that money did not matter to him, and that he wanted to do something extraordinary. He thought about managing a new daily newspaper in Philadelphia or of taking charge of the "Negro colony" of Liberia, but neither prospect materialized.It was only a matter of time, however, until a man of Howe's reputation, energy, and idealism found his vocation. In a city stirring with philanthropic projects, there were opportunities for someone like him--someone who hoped to do socially useful work and to avoid the humdrum business of plying a trade. Such a person could now hope to earn a modest, middle-class living as a salaried, full-time humanitarian.The days of ignorant, venal wardens like Mr. Bumble, the unscrupulous parish beadle in Oliver Twist, were over. Wealthy Bostonians wanted educated, professional managers to run their philanthropic institutions according to the most up-to-date scientific principles. By the summer of 1831, Howe seemed perfect for this new role. With his presentable Boston Latin and Brown education, medical training, travel abroad, past success as a fund-raiser, organizational abilities, and heroic credentials, he was the very model of a modern asylum manager. When the trustees sought an energetic director to launch the New England Asylum for the Education of the Blind (later to become famous as the Perkins Institution and the home of Laura Bridgman), Howe was a natural choice.Copyright © 2001 by Elisabeth Gitter
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 1837, Samuel Gridley Howe, director of Boston's Perkins Institution for the Blind set about rescued Laura Bridgman, a deaf-blind seven years old, and the daughter of New Hampshire farmers becomes famous for learning how to finger-spell, to read raised letters, and to write legibly. Samuel Howe was influenced by the 1830s and 1840s, a period where a lot of people became characterized as humanitarian and had more scientific ideas. Howe and other people help Bridgman and transformed the public's perception of people with multiple “disabilities” could do. Many coming to visit her and see how she has adjusted to a hearing world. A biography of Bridgman, about 50 years before Helen Keller was discovered, is suddenly forgotten. The author, Elizabeth Gitter speaks out of the women that were once one of the most famous females in the world, her actions were celebrated in newspapers, the writings of Charles Dickens, and was forgotten. When I finished reading the book I was shocked that they were a woman before Helen Keller. I was always amazed at what Keller did in her life when 50 years before there was already someone who accomplished what she did. By the time she died in 1889, which was near the Civil War, at the age of 59, Gitter writes, ''she had been almost totally forgotten, eclipsed by the 9-year-old prodigy Helen Keller.'' People had moved on to someone new and totally forgot what was, Laura Bridgeman, who could communicate in the hearing world.