Synopses & Reviews
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.
“Gitter provides the most satisfying portrayal of Bridgman. With beautiful and engaging prose, she illustrates Howes conscious efforts to use Bridgman to make his fame and Bridgmans efforts to live her life as she wished . . . The book substantiates the claims of other scholars that disability, as a tool of analysis, can uncover the hegemonic and constructed nature of mental and physical ‘normalacy . . . Gitters coupling of an analysis of Bridgmans fame and Howes interest in her with an analysis of the ‘poor blind girl literary motif popular in the nineteenth century is effective . . . [Her] prose is such that undergraduates will be easily engaged.”—Kim Nielsen, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, The Journal of American History
"This is an exciting, profound, highly readable narrative of the lives of a once-famous disabled child and her physician-mentor. Gitter's account illuminates the drama and tragedy of their relationship while brilliantly mirroring the social history of their times—and providing cautionary insights for our own."—Albert J. Solnit, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine, and former Director of the Yale Child Study Center
"This compelling study of the relationship between Samuel Howe, founder of the first American school for the blind, and Laura Bridgman, his star pupil, provides a fascinating tour of reform-minded New England before and after the Civil War. An important book for readers interested in that era or in the history of disability generally."—Kathryn Kish Sklar, author of Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity
"Elisabeth Gitter's The Imprisoned Guest is powerful and important. Vivid and dramatic, it is a brilliant biography of Laura Bridgman. Evocative and timeless, her struggle reminds us of the possibilities for excellence even under the meanest emotional, physical and political circumstances."—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt, volumes I and II
"[An] affecting narrative . . . from Gitter we get a poignant version of the
Pygmalion story, in which the master cannot quite cope with the emergence of his disciple."—Andrew Delbanco, The New York Review of Books
"Gitter provides nuanced portraits of Laura Bridgman and Samuel Howe, and the relationship between them as well as between Laura and the teachers who did the actual work of teaching and rearing her."—Deborah Tannen, The Washington Post Book World
"Brings the two major players to life on the nineteenth-century New England stage . . . Gitter is to be commended for reintroducing Laura Bridgman and her benefactor to the attention of the twenty-first-century reader."—The Women's Review of Books
"This is a study of women and disability that illuminates efforts of private individuals to educate and 'reform' disabled females in 19th-century America . . . Beautifully written, Gitter's narrative is skillfully interwoven with the details of daily life . . . This is a very good book that will interest a wide range of scholars, from women's history and the history of disability."—Febe Pamonag, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, JOW
"Discriminating without being anachronistically judgmental . . . not only informative but affecting."—Louis Menand, The New Yorker
"Gitter makes Laura come to life as a fully rounded person."—Roger Shattuck,
The New Republic
"Elisabeth Gitter has unearthed an extraordinary sliver of history. In The Imprisoned Guest, she masterfully spins out a narrative which is so intimate and riveting it had me up nights. The story of the tangled relationship between Laura Bridgman, who is without sight or hearing, and Samuel Howe, whose benevolence and brilliance are ultimately upended by his hubris, is a tale that prefigures our own times."—Alex Kotlowitz, author of The Other Side of the River and There Are No Children Here
"Compelling . . . an important contribution to historical understanding as well as a paean to human triumph over adversity."—Choice
"Learned and sensitive."—Richard Bernstein, The New York Times
"Stimulating . . . Gitter excels at describing the fluid and dynamic intellectual currents of the Victorian era . . . A challenging mix of American history and a unique biography that at times can wring the heart."—Kirkus Reviews
"Skillfully evokes the social, intellectual and cultural context in which Howe and Bridgman transformed public perception of people with multiple disabilities . . . highly absorbing and entertaining."—s20Publishers Weekly
"Inspiring and fascinating."—Booklist
In 1837, Samuel Gridley Howe set about rescuing Laura Bridgman, a deaf-blind seven-year-old, from the "darkness and silence of the tomb." Bridgman learned to finger-spell, to read raised letters, to write legibly and even eloquently, and became a living exhibit for contemporary theological and psychological debates, with influential writers and reformers -- Carlyle, Dickens, and Hawthorne among them -- visiting or writing about her. But by her death in 1889, she had been wholly eclipsed by the prettier, more ingratiating Helen Keller. The Imprisoned Guest is an absorbing, inspiring account of an extraordinary life.
About the Author
is a professor of English at the City University of New York's John Jay College who specializes in the Victorian era.