In 1841 Julia Ward visited the Perkins Institution for the Blind and was swept away by "a noble rider on a noble steed" whose arrival claimed her attention (Howe, Reminiscences 82). Ward had not journeyed to the Perkins to see that man, Samuel Gridley Howe, whom she would go on to marry in 1843. Instead, she was there to see Laura Bridgman, his protégée. Under Howe's tutelage, Bridgman had become the first blind and deaf person to be able to communicate. She was a miracle, a beacon of hope, and a symbol of the potential of science to heal humanity's ills and unlock the soul's greatest potential.1 But she was also, as various observers described her, an "almost peculiar case," a "most remarkable being," a "wonderful child" (Stevens 273; "Laura Bridgman" 1 Feb. 1841, 33; "Laura Bridgman" 15 May 1843, 145). She was not a thing, perhaps, but not a whole person—a subject or an agent—either. Ironically, Bridgman's objectification resulted from Howe's attempts to counter public understandings of disabled individuals as less than human (Klages 118, 144-45). To that end, he publicized her achievements in public exhibitions and through his published records. Bridgman's status "as a major tourist attraction" in Boston's guidebooks attests to the popularity of her public appearances (Gitter 5). Nearly as popular as Bridgman herself were Howe's widely circulated annual reports of her "physical, intellectual and moral" progress, which contained information on everything from her head measurements to her growing vocabulary to her manipulative relationships ("Laura Bridgman" 1 Feb. 1841, 41).2 Rather than fully humanizing Bridgman, Howe's narrative control rendered her "a symbol to be described and interpreted by others, an image to be manipulated," much like, Elisabeth Gitter observes, the freaks in P. T. Barnum's freak shows (Klages 144; Gitter 106). And if Bridgman was the "freak," Howe was her manager, who, "[n]o less than Barnum . . . mastered the art of manipulating [End Page 40] the public's interest in her story, capitalizing on their concern in order to advance both his career and his institution" (Freeberg 3).3
As Samuel Gridley Howe's wife, Julia Ward Howe also benefited from an anomalous body, albeit in more personal and psychological ways. In approximately 1846 she began crafting what was in 2004 published as The Hermaphrodite but what she called "the history of a strange being" (Scrap-book 30).4 It is worth remarking that her protagonist, Laurence, the intersexual "extraordinary case of anomalous humanity," has much in common with Laura, the blind and deaf "anomalously conditioned human spirit" who made Samuel Gridley Howe famous (Howe, Hermaphrodite 194; Stevens 273). Both Laura and Laurence are individuals ensnared in a web of popular and scientific discourses that converged in the concurrent production of normal and so-called deviant bodies; both of their stories are infused with the language of otherness; and both are objectified and spoken of but rarely spoken to.
However, at least one key difference separates Laura Bridgman and Laurence, and it is this: Laurence has a voice. Samuel Gridley Howe's control of Bridgman's story follows a long tradition of denying disabled people's ability to speak for themselves.5 By contrast, Julia Ward Howe's Laurence self-narrates, telling his story in first person. In giving Laurence a voice, Howe offers a kind of counternarrative to those stories that had muted, or entirely silenced, the disabled. Her use of the first person provides an intimate glimpse into the emotional and relational consequences of the othering process deployed in the categorization of bodies.
Scholars from a number of theoretical backgrounds have unpacked the ways that popular entertainments such as freak shows and elite professions such as medicine and comparative anatomy converged in their attempts to determine and stabilize physical and behavioral norms for the body.6 These and other discourses focused both on interior biological differences that "render[ed] the invisible visible" and on the exterior ambiguities that freak shows—with their displays of hermaphrodites, dwarves, giants...