By AUDREY FISCHER
More than 30 years after her death, Helen Keller (1880-1968) remains one of the most admired figures in American history. But few are aware of her predecessor, Laura Bridgman (1829-1889), the first deaf-blind child to learn language. Born a half-century before Keller, Bridgman was once regarded as the most well-known woman alive, with the exception of Queen Victoria. Two new books about Bridgman shed new light on this phenomenon who slipped into obscurity by the end of the 19th century. The books were the subject of a Sept. 14 program sponsored jointly by the Library's National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.
Due to the tragic events of Sept. 11, neither author was able to participate in the program as originally planned, but the decision was made to proceed with the panel discussion on the life and times of Laura Bridgman.
"It is important that we gather together to find inspiration in these difficult times," said Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, who opened the program. "We are inspired by the triumph of Laura Bridgman over incomparable limitations and her impact on the deaf-blind community."
According to Mr. Pachter, the National Portrait Gallery "is a place to remember great American lives." The collection includes 18,500 works, ranging from paintings and sculpture to photographs and drawings. Its treasures include portraits of each of the U.S. presidents and portraits of Americans who have made outstanding contributions to American life and culture in their chosen professions.
"The portraitist and the biographer are co-conspirators in an attempt to cheat death," he said.
By way of example, he displayed a bookmark, available at the National Portrait Gallery, that immortalizes Laura Bridgman in a silhouette by French artist Auguste Edouart (1788-1861). The image can be explored by the sense of touch as well as sight.
Floyd Matson, professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii, discussed the life and education of Laura Bridgman as told by biographers Ernest Freeberg and Elisabeth Gitter. According to recent book reviews, Mr. Freeberg's work, The Education of Laura Bridgman: First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language (Harvard University Press), emphasizes the ideas of Bridgman's teacher, Samuel Gridley Howe, while Ms. Gitter's The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is closer to a biography of the pupil.
"In the tradition of works such as The Education of Henry Adams," said Mr. Matson, "Mr. Freeberg's book focuses on Bridgman's instruction." According to Matson, the early 19th century was an era of institutionalization for those whose abilities were outside the realm of normal. Those without language were illiterate and thereby considered to be "without reason, outside of the loop of civilization."
Mr. Freeberg, associate professor of the humanities at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire, provides the historical context in which Howe worked and lived. Howe, a doctor, social reformer and the founder of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, was said to be looking for a "poster child" in his effort to reform the education of blind children in the United States. Left deaf and blind by scarlet fever at the age of 2, Bridgman fit the bill.
Beginning with a set of raised-letter metal types that he fashioned for his pupil, Howe then moved to a manual alphabet to spell out objects into Bridgman's palm (a technique that Bridgman later taught Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher). Before long, Bridgman acquired language. In turn, Howe believed he had succeeded in unlocking the organ of language from Bridgman's brain, thereby disproving the teachings of philosopher John Locke who believed that humans were born with a blank slate (tabula rasa). Howe took his pupil on the road, waging a publicity campaign in the age of side-show freak promoter P.T. Barnum. Her fame was further fueled by written accounts by Charles Dickens.
It was Dickens's account in his 1842 travel narrative, American Notes, that piqued the interest of Elisabeth Gitter more than 150 years later. An English professor at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a specialist in Victorian literature and women's studies, Ms. Gitter brings a feminist perspective to the relationship between Bridgman and Howe. While Mr. Freeberg argues that Howe's sudden loss of interest in his pupil was intellectual, Ms. Gitter notes that it coincided with his marriage 1843 to the spirited Julia Ward Howe (author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"). According to Ms. Gitter, the adolescent Bridgman posed more of a problem for Howe than the child he had taken under his wing. Both authors discuss Howe's failed attempt at Bridgman's religious instruction, as Howe was unable to substantiate his views on the nature of good and evil.
Following Mr. Matson's remarks, Judith Dixon, NLS consumer relations specialist, spoke about technological developments in the area of Web braille. The system currently offers 4,000 titles to some 1,600 users. Ms. Dixon read a thank-you note from a user who is now able "to carry all of the books I need for the day in one package."
"Imagine what Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman would have accomplished with this tool," speculated Ms. Dixon.
Rounding out the program was a presentation by Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind. Mr. Maurer, an advocate of braille labels on most products, thanked NLS for "its persistence in producing braille material." In addition to Bridgman, he spoke of Jacobus tenBroek, the distinguished blind scholar who became the founding father of the National Federation of the Blind.
"Their success comes out of the spirit of America," said Mr. Maurer. "Those who seek to damage our spirit with violence and force cannot kill it. Bridgman and tenBroek have left us with a legacy and we must follow suit."
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.