In 1842, Charles Dickens and his wife, Kate, visited America. The inevitable travel book that ensued, American Notes, is infrequently read today but contains an inspiring passage that profoundly affected the life of a little deaf and blind girl named Helen Keller.
For when Dickens was in Boston, he and Kate visited the Perkins School for the Blind and met twelve-year-old Laura Bridgman, another deaf-blind girl. Laura had been admitted to Perkins four years earlier by the school's first director, Samuel Howe. Howe was a man of great vision and almost inexhaustible patience. Instead of expanding on the simple sign language that Laura already used, Howe decided to teach her English.
First Laura learned to associate objects with labels printed in raised block letters. Howe then cut up the labels into individual letters and had Laura reassemble the letters to form the words she had learned. According to Howe, it was at this point that Laura finally grasped the idea of language and communication. Laura then quickly learned the manual alphabet and was able to discard the clumsy blocks. After that she attended classes with the other students, accompanied by a teacher to fingerspell for her.
Dickens's account of Laura in American Notes is a combination of excerpts from Dr. Howe's journal along with his own charmed bemusement at meeting such a remarkable girl. Howe's own enthusiasm for his star pupil is manifest: “her countenance lighted up with a human expression: it was no longer a dog, or parrot: it was an immortal spirit, eagerly seizing upon a new link of union with other spirits!”
This is the account that Helen Keller's parents read in 1886 and that first gave them hope that Helen could be educated. They contacted the Perkins School, which dispatched Anne Sullivan to become Helen's instructor. The rest, as they say, is history. Helen went on to graduate from Radcliffe and become one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. She succeeded on her own merits, but was helped along, no doubt, by the path that was previously blazed by Laura Bridgman and made known to the world by Charles Dickens.
The New Yorker recently ran a major piece on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. In a sidebar feature, they consulted the opinion of one Mr. Charles Dickens:
I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.