The BUZZ | Studies in American Fiction | “Exercises of Their Own Invention”: Reading Age and Disability in Nineteenth-Century Children’s Fiction
By Amanda Stuckey
Stuckey, Amanda. “’Exercises of Their Own Invention’: Reading Age and Disability in Nineteenth-Century Children’s Fiction.” Studies in American Fiction Vol. 46, No. 2 (2019), pp. 195-216.
In this article, I examine the literacy acquisition of sight-impaired children, both within and without formal schooling. Nineteenth-century childhood practices of “blind reading,” I find, called upon collaborative, interdependent, and embodied forms of literacy that challenge current understandings of what it meant to read during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Within the context of the special issue on Critical Approaches to Age in American Literature in which this essay appears, I argue that childhood “blind reading” shifts the developmental timelines that gave rise to institutions – like the age-graded classroom within the nineteenth-century common school – that seek to normalize social behaviors via chronological age.
Though it may seem a paradox, blind children – both in and out of fiction – found formal and informal methods of reading the printed word. Two understudied texts – Jacob Abbot’s Elfred; or, The Blind Boy and His Pictures (1856) and Eliza Osborn’s George, The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy: A Sketch for Young Children (1864) – represent just that: children whose chronological age (5-6 years old) locates them at a key moment in emerging timelines for literacy acquisition, as determined by age-graded schooling. Yet the onset of blindness thwarts these timelines, and thus delays the normative progression of childhood development and literacy acquisition. The titular characters nonetheless devise strategies of reading with their peers that transform independent literacy into something much more: processes of reading that involve multisensory, collaborative imagination and expansive morality, and that blur the boundaries between “disability” and “ability” thanks to scenes of shared, interdependent reading among groups of children of various ages and impairments.
This is an article that raises questions about the visible, and it is also susceptible to a larger invisibility. “Child” and “children” exist in this piece in a position of unqualified whiteness, both in terms of fictional representation and historical experience. In the same special issue, Laura Soderberg draws on a genealogy of scholarship that shows how “children of color were denied the conventional protections of childhood” in the US.[i] My article – in its unspoken yet obvious treatment of white standards of white childhood – raises questions of whether even the unconventional “protections of childhood” – like the spaces in which Elfred, George, and their friends are able to nurture a relationship with the page – were also denied to children of color. The rise of schooling and printing for blind readers during the first half of the nineteenth century contrasts with restrictions against black literacy before, during, and after the same time period. As much as individuals strove to make the book visible to blind eyes, an equally strong if not stronger effort was being made to prevent enslaved eyes from reading books. While literacy itself is a problematic metric by which to assess experience, I increasingly think of blind reading as more complex than the “successes” that my article traces. Blindness is an uneven category of exclusion in the nineteenth century; Elfred and George’s literacy that undermines age-graded norms may seem less a result of childhood ingenuity and more a result of a specifically white version of blindness.
Indeed, many questions remain unaddressed. “Exercises of their own invention” speaks to broader concerns that guide my research into experiences and representations of sight-impairment in the nineteenth century. A key question that I continue to pursue follows recent critical shifts away from examining representations of disability within literature in order to examine non-identitarian and historicized locations of disability in literary pasts.[ii] While my article reads Elfred’s experiences as fictional, I present archival evidence from the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Bind (PIIB), founded in 1834, to show the connection between Osborne’s George and an “actual” student at the PIIB. Fictional and actual scenes of multisensory reading – in particular, the tactile or haptic reading that students performed with embossed books at schools like the PIIB – merge the “representation” and the “reality” of disability experience. More than blending representation and reality, I wonder here and in current projects, do acts of “blind reading” shift the nature of representation itself? Rather than jettison representation altogether, we may consider how blindness restructures American literature and the critical approaches we bring to it.
[i] Laura Soderberg, “Prodigious Births: Black Infancy, Antebellum Medicine, and the Racialization of Heredity,” Studies in American Fiction Vol. 46, No. 2 (2019): 218.
[ii] Rachel Sanchez, Deafening Modernism: Embodied Language and Visual Poetics in American Literature (New York: NYU Press, 2015) and Sari Altschuler, “Touching The Scarlet Letter: What Disability History Can Teach Us about Literature,” American Literature Vol. 92, No. 1 (2020): 91-122.
Amanda Stuckey is an assistant professor of English at Central Penn College, where she teaches literature and interdisciplinary courses. Her research for this article was supported by the Library Company of Philadelphia.