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Ahead of her time.

The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, The Original Deaf-Blind Girl by Elisabeth Gitter. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001, 325 pp., $25.00 hardcover.

Elisabeth Gitter knowledgeably resurrects the absorbing story of Helen Keller's precursor. Indeed, Laura Bridgman is the nineteenth-century deaf-blind woman of the year, for this is not the only major study of her life to appear in 2001. Ernest Freeberg's The Education of Laura Bridgman: First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language (Harvard University Press) is another examination, clinical and pedagogical, of the life and times of the woman who was once reputed to be as famous as Queen Victoria. But it is Gitter, a Victorian Studies scholar, who brings the two major players to life on the nineteenth-century New England stage.

Our fallible hero is Samuel Howe. Desirous of admission to the reigning intellectual and scientific circles of the day, he used Bridgman to demonstrate widely debatable ideas about human nature: how the mind works, how language is acquired and how best to nurture moral and mental development. Wisely, but disappointingly from the point of view of deaf and deaf-blind readers, Gitter traces the triumph and miracle of Bridgman's rescue but does not speculate about how much further she could have progressed if her rescuer had continued in his endeavor. For Bridgman was not just the "living refutation of Lockean materialism and Calvinist determinism" but also a human being with needs and aspirations. Hers is a cautionary tale about how humanitarian and scientific zeal can do only so much and go only so far.

Gitter's title comes from the second line of an 1850 poem by W Holmes, "To Laura Bridgman":

Be thine the task, O! Generous

How[e], to guide

The imprisoned guest, through

Nature's ample fields.... (p. 126)

The book's cover recalls those of the various sentimental novels of the day, a ribbon melodramatically draped over Bridgman's eyes.

Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman in "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gitter astutely reveals how a woman was subject to the patriarchal, middle-class structure of New England despite its reformers' progressivism. To Howe, Bridgman was primarily the long-sought-for ideal subject; as a curious, appealing little girl, she admirably fit the bill. However, once the child, characterized by Gitter as the perfect "victim-heroine" of the period's sentimental novels, grew into a dowdy, intellectually demanding and uningratiating woman, she received short shrift. Once she matured under the guidance of a female instructor admonished for not toeing the line, and once Howe got married to another demanding woman, the experiment was doomed. The reformer, whom Gitter describes as good with children but impatient with adults, especially demanding women, had no desire to deal with a little girl who had become "impossible as an adult" and who undoubtedly became a drain upon his financial resources.

The experiment soon came to an end, but the Imprisoned Guest remained at the Perkins Institution for the Blind for the rest of her life. Gitter writes that when Bridgman reached the age of fifteen, a critical adolescent age, Howe traveled to Europe on his honeymoon and tarried overseas for almost a year and a half. Soon after he returned, he wrote off the still developing and curious teenager and began weaning her from a dedicated teacher-companion. Dissatisfied with her intellectual and social capacity, he concluded that his subject could advance no further. Indeed, one can go only so far with one teacher-companion, some finger-spelling, little companionship--the blind students were not always willing to communicate with Bridgman--and a few books with raised print.

It is at this point that those familiar with deafness and deaf-blindness snap their fingers--Alas! If only Howe had taken one more enlightened step and introduced his subject into a community of signers as soon as she developed language! Bridgman was still only sixteen and half when Howe returned from Europe; it was not too late to place the teenager with the deaf students at the American School for the Deaf and Blind, where she might have continued to develop emotionally, intellectually and socially.

However, Howe's enlightened humanism only went so far. "To him, Sign was little better than primitive pantomime, a barbaric 'low' language that had the pernicious added effect of encouraging the deaf to remain isolated from general society in their own signing communities." Over the past two hundred years, however, many profoundly deaf and deaf-blind children who attended residential schools and later Gallaudet University--so-called isolating signing communities--have been able in this way to develop emotionally, intellectually and socially into self-supporting, contributing members of society. Yet according to Gitter,

Howe's contempt for Sign not only contributed to the breaking up of successful signing schools and communities later in the century, but also prevented him from experimenting with sign language in educating Laura Bridgman. Whether such an experiment would have been useful to science or beneficial to Laura we can never know; the principle that the disabled should be taught to conform to the ways of the world was, for Howe, always paramount, and so Laura learned to communicate with others only in English.

(p. 41)

Indeed, signing schools at the time were not quite in concert with middle-class mores. Signing--using the body to communicate--as a mode of physical behavior was nor considered decorous and civilized by the middle class. Gitter notes that the Perkins School curriculum took into consideration the fact that many of the blind are often not aware of--do not even care about--their physical behavior, because it is not something they can see. Accordingly, as Gitter makes clear, a part of their education was learning proper physical mannerisms. Similarly, many of the deaf make use of sign language, incorporating as it does much use of the hands, arms and torso, not to mention extensive use of facial expression. Such "barbaric" physical behavior, especially on the part of ladies, as Gitter points out, was not a desirable thing in the eyes of the nineteenth-century middle class.

The New England hierarchy of the day was also uncomfortable with highly intellectual women. Bridgman was never asked for her views because it was believed that she could not have any. But she was intellectually curious and very aware that she was being showcased. It makes one wonder what her letters might reveal.

Today, more and more deaf blind are acquiring a college education, and more and more biographies are appearing (for example, Catherine H. Fischer's story in Orchid of the Bayon, just published by Gallaudet University Press). Both the deaf and the deaf blind would benefit from an updated story of Bridgman in which she is the sole focus and the most important actor -- in which her view of events gets told.

Gitter's New England Renaissance is a dynamic and richly painted backdrop against which various Victorian personages strut their stuff. It is fascinating to read the details of Lord Byron's (as well as Howe's) involvement in the Greek liberation movement and of education reformer Horace Mann's very human fears and anxieties. Those in the field of deafness will be taken aback by the startling detail that Helen Keller sported blue glass eyes. Histdry buffs will shake their heads sadly at all the diseases rampant in the nineteenth century: tuberculosis, typhus, scarlet fever and trachoma struck widely and often, even in the homes of the upper classes. These same history buffs, who might otherwise have pooh-poohed phrenology, will learn how and why it was not such a moronic science after all.

There is no whitewashing of Samuel Howe, Laura Bridgman, Helen Keller and Julia Ward Howe, the author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"; they are depicted by Gitter as fallible, complex human beings. Howe is described as "vain, pugnacious, rigid, arrogant, but passionately committed to doing good" -- a quite unsaintly man who hotly "wrangled with the Ward family" at times and at others could "write plaintively" or come across as quite "vindictive." Howe was innovative and enlightened, yes, but Gitter makes clear that he had the invaluable help of female instructors who did most of the actual teaching and befriending.

Finally, Bridgman was no angel compared to Keller. We are reminded that the more popular Keller persisted in her studies because of work done earlier with Bridgman and because of advancements in assistive devices (such as Braille), education and social attitudes. Keller also benefited from having hearing and sight as a child for a longer period of time, higher family status, private tutoring at home and the assistance and companionship of Anne Sullivan for much of her life. Thanks in large part to Bridgman, who ended up an "odd, aging woman" dependent upon a small stipend from Howe, Keller is now known as the deaf-blind success.

Elisabeth Gitter is to be commended for reintroducing Laura Bridgman and her benefactor to the attention of the 21st-century reader. Perhaps in future editions, Samuel Howe's 1840 progress report, in which Laura Bridgman was first sprung upon the wide, wide world, can be included in its entirety.

CYNTHIA PETERS is the author of Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon (Gallaudet UP, 2000). She is on the English faculty at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC where she is the coordinator of Introductory English.
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Title Annotation:Review; The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, The Original Deaf-Blind Girl
Author:Peters, Cynthia
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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