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 reformersCarlyle, Dickens, and Hawthorne among themvisited 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.
Elisabeth Gitter is a professor of English at the City University of New York's John Jay College who specializes in the Victorian era.