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  • The Blind Authoress of New York: Helen De Kroyft and the Uses of Disability in Antebellum America
  • James Emmett Ryan* (bio)

That extraordinary efforts and great expenses have been lavished upon one class of unfortunate persons, while others more deserving and afflicted have been left neglected, is apparent in the case of the blind, who have been almost entirely overlooked in the general and eager search after new objects of philanthropy.

—Samuel G. Howe, North American Review (1833)

Their manner is not without that timid grace that is the principal charm of adolescence in women; their movements don’t have the stiffness of the young [blind] men. In society, sometimes nothing will set apart the young blind girl whose eye has not undergone a disagreeable obliteration at the dazzling and joyous ball, she will be able not to remain always silent and inactive.

—André Dufaus, Des aveugles (1850) 1

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Figure 1.

Helen De Kroyft (frontispiece to A Place in thy Memory). “Instead of their eyes, the blind pick up the gems of thought with their fingers.”

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Figure 2.

The New York Institution for the Blind, 34th Street and 9th Avenue, New York City, ca. 1847 (frontispiece to A Place in Thy Memory.)

For twentieth-century American readers, the figure of a blind woman entering the world of literacy and making remarkable use of print culture has been a familiar one. Since the publication of Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life in 1903, the blind female writer of extraordinary sensitivity has formed a distinctive element of the American mythos, drawing as it does upon Emersonian self-reliance wed to nineteenth-century liberal benevolence and feminism. The product of the Keller myth, of course, can be found in her own [End Page 385] participation in the literary marketplace, as well as in her now-canonical biographical play, The Miracle Worker, which has become a staple of introductory literary anthologies. So central has the mythic Keller become in defining an idealized life and character for disabled persons (especially women), however, that blindness as a source of celebrity, as a linchpin of reform-minded feminism, and as the motivation for literary production has become her nearly-exclusive domain among general readers in the American twentieth century. It is probably safe to assert that the blind and deaf Keller figures as one of the preeminent examples of a person whose very efforts at reading and [End Page 386] writing—her struggles at achieving the ability and the resources to obtain a certain intellectual status while working toward social reform—made her a compelling writer in America. But Keller was not the first American writer who gained celebrity for her blindness and insights; she is antedated in this distinctive cultural role by Helen De Kroyft (1818–1915), an antebellum resident of the New York Institution for the Blind (NYIB), who was marketed by her publishers as “The Blind Authoress.” 2 Helen De Kroyft’s first book appeared as A Place in Thy Memory (1849), 3 a gilt-embossed duodecimo volume containing forty letters written to friends and family between 1847 and 1849, the concluding years of her residency at the fledgling New York Institution for the Blind, 4 one of the earliest institutional settings for disabled persons in the United States. A steady-selling book for over fifty years, the revised sixty-seventh edition of De Kroyft’s A Place in Thy Memory (1905 edition) went on sale only a short time after Helen Keller’s autobiography made her the most famous blind authoress of the twentieth century.

At the outset of A Place in Thy Memory, De Kroyft takes pains to defend her literary project as a justifiable publishing venture for a woman:

Three short summers ago, I had perfect sight. I was in one short month a bride, a widow, and blind; yet Providence has made it needful for me to do [End Page 387] something to provide for myself food and raiment. Upon the loss of my sight, I was through the influence of Senator Backus, of Rochester, allowed to spend one year at the New-York...

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pp. 385-418
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