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Reviews in American History 32.2 (2004) 282-292

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Disability History:

No Longer Hidden

Paul Longmore.Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003. 288 pp. Index. $22.95.

In 1985, Reviews in American History published a book review by Paul Longmore of a new Randolph Bourne biography. Longmore began by praising the book for its perceptive accounts of Bourne's advocacy of socialism and cultural pluralism and of the important work he accomplished even as his opposition to the Great War isolated him among American intellectuals. Following this conventional opening, however, Longmore commenced a sustained and pointed critique on grounds never before seen in a scholarly review: the biographer, like others before him, had utterly failed to understand the significance of Bourne's disability and had therefore gotten Bourne all wrong.

This groundbreaking review is included in a new collection of Longmore's essays, Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, published as part of Temple University's "American Subjects" series. Probably more than anyone, Longmore has been responsible for bringing disability studies to the field of history, and in this respect he has several important firsts to his name. His review essays in RAH were the first to bring a disability studies critique to journals of history; he was the first to have an article published on disability history in the Journal of American History; and he was co-editor, with Laurie Umansky, of the first collection in the field, The New Disability History: American Perspectives (2001).1 Since the publication of his first book—The Invention of George Washington (1988)—a biography of George Washington's early years that Edmund Morgan called "probably the best account of Washington's character in the making," Longmore has worked primarily, and skillfully, in the essay form.2 The most important of the many essays that Longmore has written on disability over the years are collected here. Consistently accessible, the book as a whole would serve as a fine introduction to the contemporary study of disability, yet still offers much that is original and provocative to specialists in the field as well.

In the Bourne review, Longmore argues that Bourne's life and work were fundamentally shaped by beliefs about disability in early-twentieth-century [End Page 282] America. "Bourne lived in an era," Longmore writes, "when prejudice and discrimination against disabled people seem to have been intensifying sharply" (pp. 36-7). It was a time of increasing assaults on the liberties of disabled people, including widespread institutionalization and exclusion from American economic and social life. Disabled people were being stigmatized as defective and degenerate, threats to the genetic health of the nation and burdens on the economy. Congress was establishing increasingly restrictive immigration laws to prevent disabled people from entering the country, while public health officials and superintendents of institutions sterilized thousands. Widespread discrimination prevented many disabled people from earning a wage, at the same time that so called "unsightly beggar" ordinances in cities such as Chicago prohibited those who were "diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed" from begging (p. 20).

Bourne lived during the rise of the international eugenics movement that would culminate in what Longmore termed the "handicapped Holocaust" in Nazi Germany, in which hundreds of thousands of disabled people would be killed, yet historians writing about Bourne have largely discounted the significance of that context. Christopher Lasch, for example, wrote in 1965 that perhaps all of his "'disappointments and frustrations were the inevitable result of Bourne's deformity . . . and that they tell us nothing, therefore, about the society in which Bourne lived'" (p. 37). But then only recently have histories of the eugenics movement and the Holocaust given serious attention to disability.3 As Bourne himself made clear in his essay, "The Handicapped," it was grappling with his experiences as a disabled person in such a cultural climate that brought him to question "'inherited platitudes,'" as he put it, and to reflect on "'the reasons for the crass inequalities and injustices of the world.'" Longmore...


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