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John Thelwall: Critical Reassessments

Disability and Dissent: Thelwall’s Elocutionary Project

Emily B. Stanback
CUNY Graduate Center


1.        Recent scholarship has demonstrated the rich possibilities of Romantic science and the political, philosophical, and social significance of its diverse lines of inquiry. In the early 1790s John Thelwall participated in the ideologically charged conversations of science, medicine, and materialism while attending lectures at St. Thomas’s and Guy’s hospitals and as a member of the Physical Society. [1]  After his 1794 treason trial and the government repression that followed, Thelwall turned to elocutionary science, “the New Profession, to which I have devoted my maturer years” (Cline 2). This “New Profession” has been understood as ideologically neutral in comparison to Thelwall’s earlier involvement in radical politics and materialist science—yet the political and humanistic implications of his elocutionary project are significant, and reveal an enduring dedication to democratic ideals. [2]  Thelwall came into professional contact with “idiots,” “mutes,” and “stutterers” at a key moment in the development of modern medicine and modern attitudes towards “disability,” and in these contexts we may more fully appreciate the importance of his therapeutic endeavor. [3]  Ultimately, Thelwall’s approach to his practice and his patients may be understood as deeply—and provocatively—egalitarian, and his major elocutionary texts—A Letter to Henry Cline (1810), The Vestibule of Eloquence (1810), and Results of Experience in the Treatment of Cases of Defective Utterance (1814)—may be read as actively resisting the normative views of disability that were beginning to consolidate during the era.

The Practitioner and his Practice

2.        As Roy Porter and other medical historians have detailed, the practice of medicine became increasingly effective, standardized, regulated, and scientific over the course of the nineteenth century. [4]  During the eighteenth century, however, and extending into Thelwall’s time practicing elocutionary science, there was little regularity to medicine, and doctors had relatively little to offer in the way of effective treatments for most illnesses and impairments. Quack doctors and alternative healers—folk, religious, magical—flourished alongside those striving for institutional authority, regulation, and professionalization. The diversity of Romantic medicine particularly calls to mind Porter’s phrase “histories of the medicines,” appropriate because “there has never been a single, homogenous body of theory and practice answering to the name ‘medicine’” (Popularization 1). [5]  Because of the openness of the age, Thelwall was in a position to carve out his own distinct place in the medical landscape, and he situates his elocutionary project in a careful—but often uneasy—relationship with his diverse medical contemporaries.

3.        Determined to establish the legitimacy of “the Science of Curing Impediments” and to appeal to his professional peers (Results 74), Thelwall addresses two lengthy elocutionary texts to a medical professor (Henry Cline), describes his early exposure to medical education, and admits that he is “desirous of calling the attention of the professional and scientific world” to the “researches and experimental exertions of ten successive years” (Cline 1, 5). Thelwall asserts, however, that the treatment of speech impediments “is not, and, it is obvious, cannot be, the province of the surgeon or the physician” (Cline 60). He also criticizes dental prosthetics and oral surgery for causing greater “difficulties” and “mischiefs” than impairments themselves do, and for even causing “serious accidents” and “irreparable injury” in some cases (Results 4-5, Cline 50-51). Such critiques may be partly accounted for by the economic realities of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medicine. Mary E. Fissell describes the “profusion of health-care providers eager for [each patient’s] custom” (37), which would have put acute pressure on Thelwall to actively market his product, just as his competitors did. [6] 

4.        Thelwall’s textual positioning is no less vexed in relation to those medical contemporaries whose practices reflected the ideals of democracy and dissent. By conspicuously withholding details of his therapeutic methods from otherwise comprehensive elocutionary texts—“the key to his system is missing” (Rockey, “Origins” 156)—Thelwall distinguishes them from self-help manuals, a primary medium for the dissemination of medical information in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Popular and influential publications including John Wesley’s Primitive Physick and William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine promised to allow patients to become their own physicians. Primitive Physick, for example, “set down cheap, and safe, and easy Medicines; easy to be known, easy to be procured, and easy to be applied by plain, unlettered men,” in contrast to expensive and esoteric medical texts. Wesley’s manual provides simple remedies for conditions ranging from breast cancer (“Use the Cold Bath”) to vertigo (“Take a Vomit or two”) (xxiv, xiv, 40, 110). [7] 

5.        Although Thelwall’s elocutionary texts could never serve as such manuals, he was not opposed to the transparency Wesley endorsed. Thelwall remarks of The Vestibule of Eloquence that its price and limited print run may restrict its circulation, but “it is the wish of the professor that every thing relating to the exercises of his pupils should be open to public inspection” (iv). Indeed, Denyse Rockey speculates that practical concerns—first a lack of time and later a lack of money—may partly account for the gaps in Thelwall’s elocutionary texts (“Origins” 174). They may also be partly explained by proprietary concerns in the competitive medical market—or perhaps, like Thomas Beddoes, Thelwall feared the misapplication of medical treatments. [8]  Because of the interactive—and, judging by his case studies, individualized—nature of his elocutionary therapy, moreover, Thelwall’s methods may have been impossible to generalize and describe at all, much less effectively. [9] 

6.        By remaining silent as to his specific therapeutic techniques, Thelwall draws attention to the philosophy underlying his practice, which is more clearly aligned with populist medicine like Wesley’s. In striking contrast to doctors who use diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy to “establish, exercise, and perpetuate their power” (Couser 19), Thelwall demonstrates his devotion to transparency and communication, as well as his resistance to pathologizing his “pupils.” He asserts,

Impress the perceptive faculty, clearly and strongly; demonstrate, step by step, your theory to the understanding; and interest, at the same time, the imagination; leave nothing obscure or unaccounted for, that the capacity of the pupil can comprehend, or that, from the nature and structure of his frame and faculties, is capable of illustration; give him a system on which he can see and feel that he may depend . . . . (Cline 58-59)
Thelwall’s commitment to meaningful discourse is similarly evident in his reflection that “the successful practitioner must have looked with scrutinizing eye into the motions of the heart, and of the understanding” (Results 74). [10] 

7.        Likewise, Thelwall underscores the importance of the patient’s contributions to the therapeutic process even as he stresses the therapist’s authority. In this he echoes William Buchan, who claims, “It is always in the power of the patient, or of those about him, to do as much towards his recovery as can be effected by the physician” (x). According to Thelwall, “it is desirable that the elocutionary tutor should have the entire direction and superintendance of the pupil—even to the extent of absolute domestication” (Results 10)—yet much depends on “the susceptibility, diligence, previous attainments, and dispositions of the Pupil” (Vestibule 7), and “where determined effort and enthusiastic diligence are not wanting, the blemishes of physical nature effectively disappear” (Cline 33). Tellingly, Thelwall remarks that “mental and moral causes step in to the explanation” of what he calls his most successful elocutionary case: “I have never met with so devoted an attention, and so entire a confidence” (Cline 64). [11]  Michael Scrivener reads evidence of Jacobin values in Thelwall’s faith in the collaborative therapeutic process: “each successful case” may become an “allegorical illustration of self-improvement and the rational application of knowledge” (197).

8.        By courting and simultaneously challenging his medical contemporaries, Thelwall defended his principles and economic concerns, participated in medical discourse, and framed his elocutionary techniques as safe, effective, professional, and rigorously scientific alternative therapies. In illuminating his therapeutic philosophy, Thelwall made his democratic tendencies clear; like his populist contemporaries, Thelwall pursued partnership rather than absolute authority, and clarity of communication rather than esoteric discourse. We may then say of Thelwall what George C. Grinnell says of Thomas Beddoes: he “model[s] . . . a reorganization of medical practice in Georgian England” (224). The consequence of Thelwall’s distinct therapeutic approach is in the intersection of democracy and disability.

Lispers, Stutterers, Stammerers, and the Blind: Citizens, Patients

9.        In nineteenth-century medicine, an increase in institutional authority, professionalization, and standardized practices led to ever more ideologically consistent approaches to disability. If eighteenth-century medicine largely depended on relative and individualized notions of health and illness, “medical men” of the following century “were developing a language (which we still use) for situating all people in relation to each other, for measuring their deviation from the normal, and, increasingly, for managing their deviations from that norm” (Lawrence 45). As Lennard J. Davis has demonstrated, the concept of the “norm” became a fully realized and socially defining construct in the 1840s and 1850s, after which those with various impairments were increasingly seen as abnormal “deviants,” and biological differences were increasingly regarded as indelible identity markers.

10.        Paul Youngquist has shown, however, that “by the late eighteenth century medical science was consolidating its authority over deviant flesh,” and “[t]he last decades of the eighteenth century witness the installation of this turn from contingency to norm” (9, xxv). The forces of normativity were therefore ones that Thelwall would have confronted as an elocutionary scientist, and in several important ways Thelwall stands in conflict with contemporary trends. His early life helps to explain his direction: Thelwall was a lisper “from the imperfection and irregular position of my teeth,” and he benefited from the techniques he promoted as a speech therapist (Cline 19); he also experienced voicelessness of a different kind as the subject of violent government repression. Having experienced impairment and the inability to communicate freely, Thelwall broke with many of his peers by developing an inclusive therapeutic approach that addresses the social and functional consequences of “disability” while humanizing the disabled.

11.        Thelwall demonstrates a particular interest in those whose marginalized status was largely due to their misunderstood speech impediments; for Thelwall these cases were treatable, although they were “universally” thought to be beyond “remedy” or “relief” (Results 2, 28). Thelwall “reject[s], altogether, as far as the organization of the mouth is concerned, all distinction of curable and incurable impediments” (Cline 145), emphasizing and illustrating that what may appear to be biological and inherent—and thus untreatable—may be at least partly accounted for by conditional factors such as education, the influence of family members, fear, habit, and trauma. He asserts that speech impediments are, “Most assuredly . . . with very few exceptions,” “complicated with Moral and Intellectual causes” (Cline 61); “Impediments are, in a great degree, contagious” (Vestibule 9); and “very many” cases are “purely mental and moral” (Cline 61). The word “apparent” appears frequently throughout his elocutionary texts—e.g. “apparent deficiencies of mind,” “apparently defective faculties,” “apparent ineptitude”—signaling both the diagnostic failure of his medical contemporaries and his pupils’ unrecognized potential (Cline 44, 5, 59). Accordingly, Thelwall’s prognosis for nearly all speech impediments is uniform, regardless of context and cause: “a correct and impressive elocution is attainable by all” (Vestibule 8). [12] 

12.        In practice, Thelwall’s insistence on the universal curability of speech impediments imposes an obligation on impaired individuals to seek treatment. This sense is underscored by his frequent references to disabilities as “evils” and, less frequently, “calamities.” Although it may be professionally and economically understandable, Thelwall’s emphasis on treatment is potentially problematical. Disability scholars suggest that the imperative to treat or cure impairments often goes hand in hand with the profound social exclusion of the disabled, [13]  and that therapies and cures themselves can be understood as “efforts to control or eradicate” undesirable “human attribute[s]” (Freidson 212).

13.        The framing of Thelwall’s elocutionary project, however, establishes his professional services and techniques as ones that do not promote normative assumptions or adhere to standard social hierarchies. “[N]ormative notions of health produce a healthy bourgeois subject primarily by forcefully producing others as infirm” (Grinnell 225); in contrast, Thelwall’s elocutionary principles are not only therapies for the impaired, but techniques for improving the speech of the able-bodied. They may “loose the tongue of the stammerer, and enable the literary student to command, and the critic to comprehend, with certainty, the genuine sources of grace and mellifluence” (Cline 4). Here Thelwall not only resists pathologizing and marginalizing his impaired patients, but goes so far as to suggest that their difference from the respected—and presumably able-bodied—student and critic is a matter of degree, not kind. Likewise, by treating politicians and clergymen alongside the congenitally impaired, Thelwall relieves the stigma that often accompanies medical treatment, creating in his London institution an alternate medico-educational system—one might even say an alternate microcosmic democracy—in which the disabled and able-bodied are part of a common project of self-improvement. [14] 

14.        It also seems that the “evils” and “calamities” Thelwall seeks to address are not his patients’ physical differences but rather the cultural and political implications of their impairments. Throughout his elocutionary texts Thelwall asserts that biological differences are separate from—and often less disabling than—the social responses to those differences (e.g. indulgent parents, inadequate education, personal fears). Thelwall resists surgery and dental prosthetics, mainstream medical techniques that sought to replicate structural “normalcy” but could hinder or altogether prevent a patient’s elocutionary progress. Instead he emphasizes natural compensation, accommodation, and functional improvement—and thus often leaves his patients’ physical variations unaffected. [15]  Thelwall’s conception of therapeutic success is clear when he notes, not without satisfaction, that despite the limits of a teenaged pupil’s progress “he has already done that which, with a little care and attention, will enable him to pass through life with extended means of comfort, utility and social enjoyment” (Results 24).

15.        Andrew McCann rightly identifies Thelwall’s elocutionary project as “equip[ping] hitherto marginalized and disempowered subjects for active public life” (223), and it is important that Thelwall did so not by forcing his patients to achieve “a norm of embodiment—call it ‘the proper body’” (Youngquist xiv). Rather, he sought to help his pupils participate in society by attaining “[g]eneral intelligibility” (Results 15). By insisting that physical differences need not lead to speechlessness, and that impairments need not amount to permanent social exclusion, Thelwall challenged the limits of mainstream medicine. He also challenged normative beliefs, and thereby sought to change the constitution of the public world. [16] 

16.        Thelwall most strikingly deviates from normative beliefs by suggesting that incurable impairments may, in fact, prove personally and communally beneficial. He does so by describing the capacities and impact of two blind men: John Milton and John Gough. Of course, it was not unusual to view blindness ambivalently, or even positively, in Thelwall’s time. William R. Paulson argues that “The romantics rediscover, or at least revive, the ancient topos of the blind poet or seer, a visionary whose sight, having lost this world’s presence, is directed entirely beyond to the spiritual” (14). Ossian, Milton, and Homer are obvious templates for the trope, and Edward Larissy underscores the sense of nostalgia and “inward vision” common to Romantic depictions of blindness (1). But for Thelwall, unlike many of his contemporaries, Milton is very much of this world, and Thelwall’s praise, unlike others’, is based on the impact of sensory compensation on the poet’s literary technique: “is it not unlikely that [Milton’s] blindness . . . might have given an increased portion of that strength, that natural and copious melody, and that variety, to the rhythms and numbers of his divine poem” (Cline 8).

17.        Thelwall also describes the blindness of John Gough, whom he had met years before in Kendal. Gough was a scientist, not a poet—a researcher depending on empirical principles, not visionary powers—and Thelwall focuses on Gough’s profession and his everyday life:

Cut off, in his earliest infancy, from all intercourse with the world of knowledge and observation, through the customary inlet, the organ of sight, Mr. Gough has been induced . . . to cultivate, with extreme diligence, the supplementary faculties of hearing and of touch. The acute perfection to which the latter of these has been improved and expanded, has been sufficiently demonstrated by the extent to which he has carried his practical researches into the minutiae of the science of botany; and the exquisiteness of his perceptions in the other kind—the promptitude with which he discovers the stature of the merest stranger by the first resoundings of his voice (of which I have myself been witness), and the facility with which he recognizes the presence, and discriminates the identity of his acquaintance, by merely listening to their respective breathings, equally illustrate the unprecedented degree of improvement to which he has expanded his hearing faculties: so that Mr. Gough is, in reality, one of those demonstrative instances of the omnipotency of mental energy . . . . (Cline 32-33)
Here Gough becomes a figure of Jacobin self-improvement, effort, and perseverance. It seems, too, that Gough has succeeded not in spite of his blindness, but in some measure because of it. Indeed, Thelwall treats Gough’s compensatory senses as singular—“unprecedented”—but also with a kind of reverence, referring to “the exquisiteness of his perceptions in the other kind.”

18.         Thelwall’s progressive attitude toward Milton’s and Gough’s blindness recalls Susan Wendell’s assertion that disability may be seen as a “difference” with “intrinsic value” and “sometimes extrinsic advantages” (67). Biological differences themselves are not inherently negative characteristics for Thelwall. He critiques and seeks to rectify the social conditions of “disability” and emphasizes natural compensation rather than the elimination of physical variations—and thus stands in opposition to those who cast impairments as permanent, and even socially dangerous, defects. Thelwall’s elocutionary project promotes the vision of a democracy in which all individuals may enjoy full citizenship and all may have access to, may participate in, and may contribute to society—with adequate support and to the best of their diverse abilities.

Idiocy and the Bounds of Human Improvement

19.        Thelwall’s acceptance of biological difference is challenged when he turns his attention to the cognitively impaired, whose place in society had long been marginal. From the fourteenth century on, the “natural fool,” later called the “idiot,” was known as an individual who permanently lacked any semblance of “reason.” This definition remained surprisingly static, as did the list of things that could earn an individual the title of “idiot,” first legally and later medically. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, idiots were typically cared for by their families and communities, and it was only at the close of the eighteenth century that efforts to educate the cognitively impaired gained popularity. [18] 

20.        Dominant cultural views about idiots largely determined their treatment. Without “reason,” the idiot was without what John Locke defined as “That Faculty, whereby Man is supposed to be distinguished from Beasts, and wherein it is evident he much surpasses them” (434), providing an Enlightenment rationale for the common belief that the idiot was more akin to animals than to man. Closer to Thelwall’s time, Adam Smith theorized that the rational subject cannot sympathize with the unreasoning man, “the poor wretch . . . who laughs and sings . . . and is altogether insensible of his own misery” (15). [19]  In “The Idiot” (1798), Robert Southey adopted the phrase “poor wretch” to describe Ned, the poem’s title character, whose macabre actions and lack of understanding cannot but alienate the reader: unable to comprehend death, he unearths his mother’s corpse and brings it home. Yet Ned’s abiding love for his mother preserves for him some place in the human community, and the poem consequently evinces a deep ambivalence towards the idiot that was typical of the time.

21.        Like many of his contemporaries, Thelwall hesitates when he turns his attention to the cognitively impaired. [20]  Although he accepted some idiots into treatment at his Institute, he notes that “Extreme cases . . . for obvious reasons, cannot be admitted under my roof,” adding that “the admission of disgusting objects” would detract from his own personal and professional experience (Results 35). Nonetheless, Thelwall maintains his goal of identifying patients whose impairments are not beyond amelioration. In A Letter to Henry Cline Thelwall seeks to conceptualize and describe “moral” as opposed to “physical” idiocy, in part by reprinting his correspondences with the blind scientist John Gough, who, like Thelwall, was in an ideal position to understand the consequences of “disability” and critique normative ideologies. Both men emphasize the intellectual potential of moral idiots; as Thelwall explains, “there is a power in educational folly and mistake, to distemper the brain, that might have been tranquillized to consistency” (71). Gough asks of the Selborne idiot and his obsessive interest in bees, “Was there not a time, when the activity and ingenuity of this young idiot might have been diverted to nobler designs?” (111). Thelwall’s descriptions of his educable idiots are supplemented by descriptions of his sophisticated approach to specialized instruction, which requires “modes of regulation, of stimulus, and restriction” carried out “by private superintendence and direction of the education of the party” (146-147). Thelwall and Gough were certainly not alone in their belief in the potential of idiots, nor in their argument that some cases of apparent idiocy were due to improper education or insufficient socialization. Although not a proponent of education for all idiots, Jean Itard gained fame by insisting that circumstance was the cause of imbecility for Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron, and that he was therefore educable. [21] 

22.        As with the earliest accounts of Victor, however, both Thelwall and Gough’s descriptions of “moral idiots” hardly suggest improvability. Gough writes of the “moral idiot” that “all his views [are] confined to his own person,” and illustrates “this worst of human evils” by recalling the case of the Selborne idiot, whose sole, solitary interest was in “hunting bees and wasps; which he caught with surprising address, disarmed them with his naked hands, and sucked their bodies” (Cline 122, 110-11). He also describes M. Barker, a “female idiot” from Kendal who would “cram” her “favourite food,” oat bread, into her mouth so eagerly that it often had to be removed “by force, to prevent suffocation” (Cline 119). Thelwall introduces the anti-social “unfortunate Augusta,” detailing “the calamities of this unhappy child” as she climbs over furniture and sits on the ground, swaying her head and “hum[ming], in a low and plaintive tone” in a “monotony of . . . action and . . . tone” that puzzles Thelwall (Cline 93-94).

23.        These moral idiots compellingly prefigure Leo Kanner’s groundbreaking 1943 descriptions of autism, suggesting Thelwall’s and Gough’s prescience and providing an important context in which we can better understand their views of the cognitively impaired. According to specialists, the Selborne idiot, M. Barker, and Augusta “fall within the scope of modern definitions of autism” (van Balkom), [22]  and are among the earliest such descriptions on record. [23]  Thelwall and Gough also may well provide the first “description of the key characteristics of autism in a group of children” (van Balkom). Moreover, by focusing on social disconnection, their category of “moral idiocy” significantly captures a central feature of autism. Because autism continues to pose unique and often acute challenges to doctors, teachers, and families, we may better understand the difficulties and frustrations that likely led Thelwall to remark that “no species of imbecility appears to us so hopeless as that which is complicated with vicious habits, and the absence of social sympathy” (Results 47).

24.        In the context of autism we may also more fully appreciate Thelwall’s and Gough’s determination to educate moral idiots and their faith in human improvement—even in the least hopeful of cases, which they depict in the starkest of terms. Gough, for example, describes a mute moral idiot who “had been reduced by injudicious tenderness, to the state of a parasitical being” (Cline 112-113); his emphasis, however, is on his sense that early intervention could have altered the course of the man’s life. And Thelwall, while admitting that he is “exceedingly doubtful” that Augusta, “this poor child,” will ever be capable of “intelligible speech,” nevertheless asserts that there is some small hope to be had in the “persevering assiduity of an intelligent superintendant” (Cline 94, 96). There is even perceptible hope and determination when Thelwall introduces two extreme cases of moral idiocy: “In one, those faculties, tho not actually extinct, were an inert and unvivified mass, that required the Promethean torch; in the other, they seemed to exist only in scattered particles; or, at best only in fragments, or disjointed parts, that needed the articulation of connective ligament” (Results 64). [25] 

25.        In his project to “rescue . . . my unhappy fellow beings from Idiocy,” Thelwall aspires, “even in cases the most unfavourable,” to appeal to the “general necessities, arising out of the mere animal appetites” which “may be made instrumental . . . to a considerable degree” (Cline 105, 124). Thus even the most organically impaired physical idiot or most withdrawn moral idiot may learn to communicate his hunger or his pain more effectively, potentially life-altering improvements, even if they do not guarantee full participation in public discourse. Particularly in Results of Experience, moreover, Thelwall’s language is deeply humanizing, as when he comments that in cases of idiocy, whenever “the moral and social sympathies . . . can be properly awakened, there is always hope: for the heart is the best rectifier of the head; as, in certain cases, the head is also of the heart” (Results 59-60).

26.        The ideological significance of Thelwall’s and Gough’s view of idiocy becomes apparent when considered in light of nineteenth-century developments in the care of idiots. In keeping with Jean Itard’s principles, five voluntary institutions for the care, education, and training of idiot children were created in Britain between the late 1840s and late 1860s. According to David Gladstone, these charitable institutions “were established within a climate of optimistic expectations of improvement” (139), though their admissions process—they considered only those young idiots who were thought to be the most highly educable—suggests more modest optimism and determination than Thelwall and Gough displayed.

27.        In the decades that followed, the normative views that Thelwall and Gough resisted gave rise to increasingly exclusionary attitudes towards idiots—attitudes with widespread social, medical, and political consequences. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, individuals and eugenics groups began to advocate publicly for the permanent institutional confinement of idiots, insisting on their unimprovability and even danger. One such advocate, Mary Dendy, declared feeble-mindedness an “evil which will, if unchecked, bring ruin upon our nation, and that before very long” (758). Such ideas were discussed in mainstream medical journals including The Lancet and The British Medical Journal, and helped to secure the successful passage of the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, whereby state funding for facilities replaced charitable funding, institutional residence for idiots became lifelong, and the government took control over admissions. [26]  Thus institutions for idiots “became essentially segregative, isolating ‘defectives’ to stop them from breeding” (Porter, Benefit 507), and by the 1930s there were campaigns in Britain for the voluntary sterilization of those with cognitive impairments. [27] 

“Disability” and Thelwall’s Democratic Legacy

28.        Key aspects of twenty-first century medicine took shape in the decades after John Thelwall’s death, and we are still all too familiar with the legacy left us by the Victorian medical establishment. Disability theorists contend that we still live under the assumption that impairments are always deficits, that the impaired are a drain to society, and that a cure is always preferable to living with an impairment. In this context the Romantics require another look for their diverse figurations of the impaired body and impaired mind, and few matched Thelwall in his progressive treatment of medicalized individuals. Thelwall articulates a humane and humanizing method of interacting with his pupils, one that is characterized by a democratic sense of respect and the pursuit of common goals. In seeking to identify cases in which improvement is possible, Thelwall brought the impaired in from the margins—and along the way seems to have anticipated what we now know of as autism. Finally, he recognizes the benefits of certain impairments, prefiguring current approaches to disability as a potentially valuable, enriching human variation. It is almost certain that Thelwall’s elocutionary career was meant to keep him at a safe distance from politics. Yet in this, “the New Profession, to which [he] devoted [his] maturer years,” Thelwall lent his voice to an ideological struggle, one that, like the political struggles of the 1790s, came to shape the treatment of whole classes of Western society for the next two centuries.

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[1] Notably, Thelwall lent his voice to the debate surrounding the vital principle, which was often cast as a conflict between traditional values and the radical, Jacobin ideals represented by materialism. Nicholas Roe convincingly ventures that Thelwall’s materialist An Essay Towards a Definition of Animal Vitality (1793), as well as an essay on sensation, may have been key contributing factors to his 1794 treason charge (188). BACK

[2] Michael Scrivener, Andrew McCann, Nicholas Roe, and J. R. Allard have all argued for some sense of political continuity across Thelwall’s diverse career. For Scrivener, however, Thelwall’s elocutionary writings “are largely apolitical—or political in an allegorical way” (285); similarly, for McCann, “As an elocutionist . . . Thelwall had cast off politics” (223). It was a sense that Thelwall himself certainly strove to cultivate, and in A Letter to Henry Cline he distances himself from “the excentric fire of youth,” which had interrupted his early study of science and medicine and “hurried me away to other topics” (2). BACK

[3] In keeping with contemporary disability theory, I use the term “disability” to invoke the complex social position of those with medicalized biological differences—as opposed to the biological differences, or “impairments,” themselves. As Susan Wendell has argued, “the biological and the social are interactive in creating disability” insofar as “the social response to and treatment of biological difference . . . determin[es] both the nature and the severity of disability” (35, 42). BACK

[4] The 1815 Apothecaries Act, for example, required the certification of all apothecaries and outlined a required course of academic and clinical training. Diagnostic criteria and practices would become ever more standardized, in large part because of increased anatomical, laboratorial, and clinical expertise, and in large part because of technological innovations including René Laennec’s 1816 invention of the stethoscope. BACK

[5] For longer accounts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medicine, see Porter, Benefit, Lawrence, and Bynum. For an account of speech therapy at Thelwall’s time, see Rockey, “Origins.” BACK

[6] Similarly, Dorothy and Roy Porter have demonstrated that “Wherever money was to be made out of medicine, the opportunity was seized,” and Thelwall’s professional success testifies to the “genuine alternatives” presented to patients by the diversity of early nineteenth-century medical practitioners (24, 26). For a detailed account of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical market, see Digby. BACK

[7] Multiple editions were published of Wesley’s and Buchan’s texts—originally of 1747 and 1769, respectively—and new editions of the latter were available well into the nineteenth century. Ginny Smith notes that “[f]or a large number of people [medical self-help manuals] could well have been a far more familiar source of information than the personal advice of the trained physician” (250). Thelwall’s French contemporaries are also worth noting here as their careers were shaped by the democratic ideals of the Revolution. British medicine as a whole imported—and many would say benefited from—the medical developments of Revolutionary and Imperial France. For more on Thelwall’s French contemporaries, see Weiner. BACK

[8] See Grinnell on Beddoes’s complex relationship with self-help medical texts and his distrust of the practices they encouraged. BACK

[9] It also bears mention that self-help manuals did not necessarily live up to their democratic goals: “they could reinforce the authority of the medical elite or they might encourage independence of judgment, breeding that ‘health protestantism’ which fired nineteenth-century alternative medicine” (Porter, Benefit 283). BACK

[10] As G. Thomas Couser underscores, “discourse between patient and doctor occurs in a way that may be at odds with the root meaning of communication, the making common of information”—because of specialized discourse and because of the medical imperative to maintain authority (20-21). Also see Freidson on power and authority in medicine. BACK

[11] This is a point to which Thelwall devotes a conspicuous amount of space and emphasis, and marks a departure from many of his peers including Thomas Beddoes, who stresses the authority of the physician and “describes the role of the patient as preventing rather than curing complaints” (Grinnell 235). BACK

[12] Rockey indicates that when compared to Victorian elocutionists, whose professional attention seemed to be focused on “stuttering, lisping, and provincialisms” (“Logopaedic” 89), Thelwall’s interests were remarkably broad, suggesting his optimism and willingness to include a wide range of patients in his therapeutic project. BACK

[13] See Garland-Thomson and Wendell on the broad social implications of an emphasis on treating and curing disabilities. In discussing “[t]he widespread message that they [the disabled] are not good enough until they are ‘cured,’” Wendell argues that “the drive to find ‘cures’ for disabilities can be seen, by those who appreciate disabilities as differences, to be as much an attempt to wipe out difference as an effort to relieve suffering” (83). BACK

[14] Thelwall reveals his continuing sense of sympathy and even allegiance with the impaired when he asserts that they will rightly understand the value of his techniques even if “senators, barristers, and divines may be content to whine, and croak, and scream, in feeble and exhausting discord” (Cline 27). BACK

[15] Indeed, Thelwall asserts that “more serious and irremediable mischiefs [are] produced . . . by giving the tongue too much liberty” by medical intervention “than ever resulted from its too great restriction” (Cline 50-51). BACK

[16] The importance of social participation should not be underestimated. As Susan Wendell underscores, there is a fundamental connection between the exclusion of the disabled from the public world and their lack of access to—and a lack of social and governmental recognition of—their political and human rights (40-41). This is one of many insights that leads Wendell to conclude that the devastating social consequences of “disability” may warrant an individual’s desire for a cure, even when the immutable realities of an impairment itself may not. It is on all of these grounds that I do not wholly agree with McCann’s contention that Thelwall’s gentlemen pupils and their professional ambitions suggest that “assimilation into the institutions of bourgeois public life was the goal . . . indicating an urge to bring students into the ambit of official political and cultural authority, rather than an attempt to subvert its institutions” (225). BACK

[17] According to Larissy, “The age . . . understood that phenomenon as an historical one. Such visions were appropriate to an earlier age” (1). BACK

[18] For an account of the “consistency down the centuries in basic terminology and definitions of mental disability,” see Rushton 47. For an excellent discussion of neuroscience and Romanticism—and of idiocy in particular—see Richardson. For an overview of special education, see Winzer. BACK

[19] Elsewhere in this passage Smith refers specifically to the “madman,” that other class of humanity thought to lack reason—though not from birth, and not necessarily permanently. Although Smith registers particular horror at the idea of losing one’s reason, his discussion of sympathy here hinges on the state of unreason itself and its social implications—and not its etiology. BACK

[20] Though Southey published his poem anonymously shortly before Lyrical Ballads (1798), Mary Jacobus has convincingly argued that he had the means and motive to write his poem as a corrective response to the more progressive—and thus unusual—“The Idiot Boy” by William Wordsworth. BACK

[21] Itard ultimately achieved some level of success with his pupil, confirming the validity of his approach in the public—and medical—eye. There is the strong suggestion that Itard’s goal with Victor was largely intellectual, and his therapeutic approach implies a desire to verify his philosophical beliefs about human development. This may help to explain why Thelwall criticized his educational techniques (Rockey, “Origins” 164). For more on Victor and Itard, see McDonagh and Lane. BACK

[22] Retrospective diagnoses are necessarily speculative, largely because of the incomplete psychological profiles afforded by centuries-old documents. Nevertheless, having read A Letter to Henry Cline, Ingrid van Balkom, a specialist in autism spectrum disorders and community mental health professional in the Netherlands, came to her conclusions about the Selborne idiot, M. Barker, and Augusta based on a number of diagnostic criteria. Michaeline Bresnahan, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Columbia University, concurs. I am currently collaborating with van Balkom and Bresnahan on a manuscript that will detail the ways that Thelwall’s descriptions of “moral idiocy” anticipate twentieth century understandings of autism. It should be noted that Rockey, too, comments in passing that M. Barker may be autistic (“Logopaedic” 91), and that at the conference “The Art and the Act: John Thelwall in Practice” in October, 2009, Gordon Bottomley explored the possibility that Augusta may have been autistic. The 1938 descriptions of Hans Asperger also bear note here; they, along with Kanner’s descriptions, form the foundation of current understandings about autism spectrum disorders. BACK

[23] A number of historical figures have been recently associated with what we now call “autism,” as in the now-famous mid-eighteenth-century legal case of Hugh Blair, the son of a Scottish landowner. (See Houston and Frith’s analysis of the case.) Lorna Wing asserts of Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron—whom, crucially, Thelwall connects to Augusta—“There can be no doubt that [he] was autistic” (14), and another of Thelwall’s contemporaries, John Haslam, included a possible case of autism in Observations on Madness and Melancholy (1809). BACK

[24] It should be noted that Thelwall and Gough also describe cases of “moral idiocy” that deviate from modern definitions of “autism,” although they do possess key autistic features and behaviors. BACK

[25] In their desire to suggest the improvability of “moral idiots,” Gough and Thelwall also anticipated Leo Kanner’s unfortunate misunderstanding about the etiology of autism. Though Gough leaves open the possibility of natural antisocial inclinations, he also remarks on the “mischief” that “may be done to the faculties by an improper education” (Cline 110), and Thelwall more emphatically connects moral idiocy to educational failures, insisting “the parents are sometimes the disease” (Results 56). Kanner similarly “stress[ed] the contributory effects of parental lack of warmth on constitutionally predisposed children” (Wolff 204). Interestingly, Thelwall is much more forgiving of the parents of a nine-year-old moral idiot in Results of Experience: “If any thing had been wrong, it was that which almost inevitably resulted from the kind sympathies and best feelings of an amiable family” (67). It is unclear whether this represents a development in Thelwall’s attitudes or a fondness for those particular parents, though the text strongly suggests both. BACK

[26] In the wake of the act, idiots could be removed from their families under the charge of “neglect,” and family wishes—and even objections—were often ignored. For an excellent survey of the broad impact of the 1913 Act, see Thomson, who indicates that there are cases on record in which individuals attempted to help idiot family members escape from involuntary confinement in asylums. Also see Jackson. BACK

[27] Such attitudes were by no means confined to discussions of idiocy. As the nineteenth century progressed, Darwinian theories of evolution became increasingly important to attitudes about diverse medicalized classes and the progress of the human race; as Janet Browne notes, Origin of Species “provid[ed] a biological backing for human warfare and notions of racial superiority” (107). In the 1880s Francis Galton began to publish material on his theory of eugenics, and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed the institutional confinement, sterilization, and even death of countless individuals whose impairments were deemed dangerous to the present and future wellbeing of society. For an examination of disability and eugenics—and speculations as to why it remains a largely unacknowledged topic—see chapter three of Snyder and Mitchell. Also see Davis. BACK

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September 2011