The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, The Original Deaf-Blind Girl

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9780312420291: The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, The Original Deaf-Blind Girl

In 1837, Samuel Gridley Howe, the ambitious director of Boston's Perkins Institution for the Blind, heard about Laura Bridgman, a bright deaf-blind seven-year-old, the daughter of New Hampshire farmers. He resolved to dazzle the world by rescuing her from the "darkness and silence of the tomb." And indeed, thanks to Howe and an extraordinary group of female teachers, Laura 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—Carlyle, Dickens, and Hawthorne among them—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 Helen Keller.

The Imprisoned Guest recovers 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 her achievements to his own fame but could not cope with the intense, demanding adult she became, sheds light on the contradictory attitudes of a reform era in which we can find some precursors to our own.

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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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Imprisoned Guest
CHAPTER ONE The Chevalier LIFE 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."4 The 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.5 Howe, 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."6 From 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."10 Answering 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.11 Like most other philhellenes who fought in Greece, including Byron, Howe soon becam...

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