A stimulating intellectual biography of Laura Bridgman, a blind and deaf girl whose triumph over her own adversities made her as famous in the 1840s as Helen Keller was to be many years later.
Gitter (History/CUNY) excels at describing the fluid and dynamic intellectual currents of the Victorian era, especially in Boston (where Laura lived after her early childhood on a New Hampshire farm). The 1830s were the heyday of the New England Renaissance, which placed great stock in the doctrine of human perfectibility. The great humanitarian Samuel Gridley Howe tried to translate this belief into action at the Perkins Institution of the Blind, which he took charge of in 1832. He set about to show that the deaf and the blind could be educated and trained just like anyone else. Bridgman, who was born in 1829 and lost her sight and hearing at two, became the perfect test case for him. She arrived at Perkins in 1837, and the rest of her life—she died in 1889—was shaped by her association with Howe. Intelligent, with a quick and curious mind, Bridgman soon learned to read, write, and (using a manual alphabet) communicate. Realizing her value, Howe encouraged public displays of her abilities, and there were visits by such luminaries as Charles Dickens (who described her in his American Notes). Although Bridgman was said once to have been as famous as Queen Victoria, the public lost interest as she grew from a beautiful child into a gawky adult woman—and (though cared for at Perkins until her death) toward the end of her life she was described as solitary, lonely, and frustrated, sustained only by her deep religious feelings.
A challenging mix of American history and a unique biography that at times can wring the heart but that can’t escape the melancholy of its end. For another biography of Bridgman, see Ernest Freeberg’s The Education of Laura Bridgman, above.)