Kimberly Elkins’s first novel What Is Visible resurrects a once-famous but largely forgotten person: Laura Bridgman. Like Helen Keller, Bridgman was a deaf-blind woman who achieved international fame both for the severity of her disabilities and for her extraordinary achievements.
What Is Visible is a provocative, profoundly beautiful book, one that takes on the difficult task of representing deaf-blind experience without being either sensationalist or sentimental.
Bridgman was born in Hanover, N.H., in 1829. At the age of two, she lost four of five senses to a serious illness. Obliged to rely exclusively on touch for her knowledge of the world, Bridgman attended the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, where she became a star pupil.
Her success was a boon to the school, which remains one of the world’s foremost schools for blind students. Thousands visited to watch carefully staged demonstrations in which Bridgman solved math problems and read embossed books by touch, translating what she read into sign language or transcribing it onto a slate. Dolls were sold with a ribbon around their eyes in imitation of her. Handwritten notes and needlework produced by Bridgman were highly sought-after souvenirs.
Prominent among the culturally influential people who visited the school was Charles Dickens, who met Bridgman in Boston in 1842. Dickens was one of many authors who wrote about Bridgman and speculated about her sensory experiences and mental life. Whereas Helen Keller, who attended Perkins a generation later, authored and published a series of memoirs, little is known about the desires, beliefs and ambitions that shaped Bridgman’s life.
Elkins tackles these unknowns, and it is necessarily risky business. Imagining the inner life of a person whose life circumstances conspired against self-expression, Elkins imagines and articulates the thoughts of a silent, if not silenced, woman. Readers familiar with the facts of Laura Bridgman’s life are consequently likely to take up this novel with some trepidation. So much was written about Bridgman’s mysterious mental life during her lifetime that a novelist’s speculation about her inner life could seem, at best, unnecessary.
A fictional first-person account of deaf-blindness might raise red flags with readers concerned about the cultural depiction of people with disabilities. Books about disabled people can challenge stereotypical views of disability, but they can also perpetuate them. Readers might worry that a novel about a deaf-blind woman might be little more than a freak show, a sensationalist exhibition of difference designed to entertain and titillate.
Representing Bridgman as an intelligent, observant, and sexual woman, Elkins manages to avoid these snares. Elkins does not perpetuate the notion that a deaf-blind person’s existence is necessarily tragic, nor does she view her deaf-blind protagonist as a hero or an angel. While Elkins examines challenges posed by Bridgman’s inability to see, hear, taste and smell, she pays equal attention to the limits that Bridgman’s companions placed on her.
Elkins also recognizes the immense potential in the stories of Bridgman’s real-life companions, people who led lives complicated enough to rival Bridgman for our attention. They include the principal of Perkins School, Samuel Gridley Howe, a revered educator and minor player in Civil War politics, and his wife, Julia Ward Howe, an accomplished poet, best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Elkins uses the marriage of this ambitious pair to explore infidelity, the role of work in women’s lives and the experience of parenting in an era of high child mortality.
To be frank, it is all gold in Elkins’ hands. Her research is impressively thorough, her prose precise. Her portrait of an inquisitive, sensual and witty Bridgman is compelling, her handling of her minor characters equally strong.
A careful respondent of history and a gifted writer, Elkins is eminently qualified to fictionalize the important and too-little-known life of Laura Bridgman. Readers will reap the rewards of the risks she has run in doing so.
Vanessa Warne teaches and researches the cultural history of disability at the University of Manitoba.