A well-crafted study of the treatment of the disabled in early American society.
At an international exhibition in London in 1851, writes Freeberg (Humanities/Colby-Sawyer Coll.), the American exhibit consisted of “a model of Niagara Falls, some false teeth, and a large collection of pasteboard eagles.” A disappointed American editor remarked that the nation should have sent Laura Bridgman there, for everyone in Europe had heard by then of this now-forgotten marvel of American culture. A deaf and blind farm girl from New Hampshire, Bridgman had been placed (at seven) in Boston’s Perkins Institution for the Blind. There, under the tutelage of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, she had learned how to read, write, and even talk by means of a “manual alphabet.” Howe’s triumph in teaching these skills to Bridgman, writes Freeberg, had bearing not only on the treatment of the supposedly unimprovable handicapped, but also on contemporary philosophy and theology—for it demonstrated that nurture could overcome nature. Howe, a Unitarian, was also interested to learn whether religious inclinations were innate, reasoning that if Bridgman showed any spiritual sensibilities this would prove, against Calvinist doctrine, that humans were not “deeply alienated from God.” His widely published reports on his findings throughout the course of Bridgman’s education made her an international cause célèbre, and Charles Dickens himself made it a point to visit Bridgman while on his famed American tour. No one ever thought to ask Bridgman of her own views of her experiences, however, on the assumption that “she could never understand the issues involved and would only be shocked and confused to learn that so many people were scrutinizing her every word and deed”; although the omission seems paternalistic, the author points out that Bridgman, in fact, seems to have developed no ability to think deeply or abstractly—a matter that fueled still further debates. Still, Howe’s humane treatment afforded her at least some measure of happiness, and his ideas influenced the education of others with disabilities—notably, Helen Keller, whose teacher (Annie Sullivan) read all of Howe’s reports and interviewed Bridgman herself. (For a competing biography of the subject, see Elisabeth Gitter’s The Imprisoned Guest, below.)
A thoughtful and fascinating account.