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  • John Sullivan Dwight, Blindness, and Music Education
  • Michael Accinno (bio)

In the fall of 1852, John Sullivan Dwight received a letter in Boston from an eager subscriber to his Journal of Music. Writing from Louisville, Kentucky, Joseph B. Smith complained that his copy of the periodical had been lost in the mail:

Friend Dwight[:]

By some mischance, number 25 of your excellent journal has not reached me and I have anathematized the post office department until my patience is exhausted. … The fact is I can no more do without every number of your paper than a country schoolmaster can without his … pipe. It comes to me vibrating with all the good music heard in our country. In brief though a weekly it is mighty strong. … [C]offee and buckwheat cakes on a cold winter morning are nothing to it. If after this you do not send another copy of the aforesaid number 25, for those post office _______________ have abstracted the copy you did send, what shall I do.

Yours in the condition of an unresolved diminished 7, A-natural, first space, F-sharp immediately above it, E-flat first line treble, and C above that. The desperate perpetrator of the above.1 [End Page 89] A blind musician, Smith was a well-regarded alumnus of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, opened in Boston in 1832. He later became the first blind graduate of Harvard, leveraging his education and social connections to secure an appointment as a music teacher at the Kentucky Institution for the Education of the Blind.2

On the surface, Dwight's acquaintance with a blind music teacher appears unremarkable. I mean to suggest, however, that the missive betrays a broader pattern of personal and intellectual engagement with blindness by Dwight—an interest that he shared with Bostonians writ large. At the nexus of this activity stood the city's school for the blind, named in honor of a wealthy merchant and benefactor, Thomas Handasyd Perkins.3 Led by a charismatic director, Samuel Gridley Howe, the Perkins Institution (hereafter referred to by the eponym Perkins) sought to challenge and redefine the social meanings of blindness. Together with schools for the blind in New York City and Philadelphia, Perkins inaugurated efforts to educate blind Americans, a project that had expanded in scope by the mid-nineteenth century, with fifteen residential schools established in all areas of the country.4 Through education, it was hoped, blind students could contribute productively to society and no longer be confined to lives of mendicancy. As historian Justin Clark puts it, blind Americans were "transformed from suffering beggars into symbols of bourgeois moral purity."5

Clark argues that Bostonians' interest in blindness grew in tandem with the city's burgeoning visual culture: "Assigning reason to the blind and demonstrating their desire to learn and improve themselves, sympathetic liberal Protestants began to reconceive of blindness as a state not of economic disability, but of intellectual, sentimental, and aesthetic deprivation" that could be "partly, yet never fully, relieved."6 Much of this relief stemmed from education emphasizing sound and music. Over the years, Howe had hired some of Boston's leading musicians to teach at his school, including Lowell Mason and George Webb, professors of the Boston Academy of Music, and cellist and music critic H. Theodor Hach.7 In the 1850s, Perkins reached a new period of development, as a series of successful music teachers led Howe to reevaluate the role of music. As a prominent music critic, Dwight was well-positioned to document the changes taking place there. In the years that followed, reports about blind education began to appear regularly on the pages of the Journal of Music.

In fact, Dwight supported music education at Perkins for decades. A close friend of the Howe family, Dwight served as a Perkins trustee from 1875 to 1893, helping to write annual reports, procure student tickets to chamber recitals and orchestral concerts, and edit a braille edition of Bach chorales. In this study, I trace Dwight's prolonged involvement with Perkins with two goals in mind: first, in exploring Perkins's institutional [End Page 90] history, I illuminate intersections between music and disability, which...


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pp. 89-118
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