Shining Inward: The Blind Seer, Fanny Crosby, and Education for the Blind in the Nineteenth Century

This article explores how nineteenth-century poet and hymn writer Fanny J. Crosby conceived of herself as a blind bard similar to John Milton. The blind seer originated in Greek tragedy as a figure associated with both guilt and prophecy. As one of the earliest pupils at the New York Institution for the Blind, Crosby followed Milton’s example by writing poetry. Her life not only reveals the lasting power of the trope of the blind seer, but also marks a crucial transition in representations of blindness. In Crosby’s life and poetry older associations among blindness, prophecy, and ignorance coalesce with emerging nineteenth-century conceptions of blind people as deficient economic agents. Whereas Milton portrayed his blindness as an avenue to divine revelation, the founders of the New York Institution for the Blind construed education as the inner light that would illuminate blind students’ minds. The school, therefore, functioned both as a fertile environment in which Crosby grew as a poet and a disciplinary arena that framed her blindness as a pitiable condition.