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Reading Laura Bridgman: Literacy and Disability in Dickens's American Notes

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Laura Bridgman, billed as the first deaf and blind girl to learn to read and write, was one of the most popular tourist attractions in Boston in the 1840s. Dickens paid a visit to her in January of 1842, and subsequently wrote about and excerpted the widely reprinted annual reports about her in American Notes. I read this narrative as the story of Bridgman's entrance into literacy, arguing that Dickens's account of the staged spectacle of the young girl with diary in hand, surrounded by her schoolbooks, mobilizes sentiment in his audience by emphasizing both her proximity to able-bodied young white women and her distance from them. On the one hand, she is a paragon of the artless innocence of girlhood because her blindness and deafness supposedly preserve her from more dangerous forms of knowledge. On the other hand, the capacity to learn, especially English, is needed to prove her humanity. Bridgman thus crystallizes Dickens's radical ambivalence about the value of knowledge: he sees learning to read as both a humanizing and a threatening endeavor. Situated among the Lowell factory girls, whose literary pursuits prove their gentility for Dickens, and debates on slave and working-class literacy, Bridgman's story raises questions about literacy, consciousness and self-consciousness, and the boundaries of the human.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2009-06-01

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