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Author and activist Helen Keller was America’s most famous deaf and blind citizen, and the first to graduate from college. Her 1903 autobiography The Story of My Life and her lifelong work advocating on behalf of people with disabilities earned her the gratitude and admiration of people around the world.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Debilitated by Illness at Nineteen Months
Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, a small town on the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. Her father, Arthur Henley Keller, was editor of a weekly local newspaper, the North Alabamian, and had been a captain in the Confederate Army. Kate Adams Keller, Helen’s mother, was from a socially prominent Memphis family. Helen Keller was born with normal faculties of sight and hearing. At nineteen months she developed an illness—believed at the time to be scarlet fever, although it may have been meningitis—which, having run its course, left her completely blind and deaf. Keller was a terror in the household, as no one, least of all Captain Keller, had the heart to discipline her and she ran more or less wild.
An Inseparable Companion
In 1886, the Kellers visited a distinguished eye doctor in Baltimore who advised them to consult with scientist and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who had devoted considerable time to exploring education options for the deaf. He later became one of Keller’s closest friends and mentors. Bell referred the family to Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. The following year, Anagnos sent Anne Sullivan to Tuscumbia. Sullivan became Keller’s teacher. The two became inseparable companions and intimate friends until Sullivan’s death in 1936. The daughter of illiterate Irish immigrants, she had been orphaned at age ten and had herself spent time at the Perkins Institute until an operation partially restored her vision.
Emergence from Darkness at Age Seven
At age seven, Keller began to emerge from her severely limited world. She learned the manual alphabet, a system of sign language also expressed into the palm, and she became adept at reading lips. She also learned to speak, though imperfectly. Much of the time she was forced to have books read to her by having them spelled into her hand by someone familiar with the manual alphabet. This indispensable labor on the part of her friends and Sullivan, who for many years received no salary from the heavily indebted Captain Keller, left Keller with a deep understanding of sacrifice. ”My education,” she writes in Midstream: My Later Life (1929), ”was accomplished in the tragedy of my teacher’s life.”
Reputation Fueled by Stories of Genius
Keller’s acquisition of language was described in the first of her nine autobiographical books, The Story of My Life (1903), in nearly miraculous terms. In Midstream she amends this unrealistic representation of the daily, painstaking labor required of teacher and pupil. Keller and ”Teacher,” as she referred to Sullivan, soon began to spend their winters in Boston, where they could utilize the resources of the Perkins Institute. By age ten, Keller was a public figure in her own right, as Americans and people around the world were fascinated by reports of her education. Sullivan’s role in her development was acknowledged to Keller’s satisfaction in 1931, when Temple University awarded Sullivan an honorary doctorate.
Keller’s reputation as a phenomenon continued to grow, fueled in part by highly sensational stories of her genius and the telepathy by which she supposedly communicated with her teacher. Much of Keller’s teen years was spent in New York City attending a new school for the deaf, riding horses in Central Park, and making the acquaintance of many influential and well-connected persons, including author Mark Twain, who became her defender against critics and those who doubted her cognitive abilities.
Preparing for Radcliffe
Keller attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies to prepare for Radcliffe College, and while in Boston, received instruction from the Episcopal bishop Phillips Brooks, who impressed upon her his view of religion as universal love, a perspective that left a deep imprint on Keller’s religious and political convictions. Another important early mentor was John Hitz, Bell’s secretary, who introduced her to the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century theologian. Keller’s long meditation on Swedenborg influenced her in profound ways.
In 1896, Captain Keller died, heavily in debt, and Keller was forced to rely increasingly on affluent patrons, such as Andrew Carnegie, for support. In 1900, Keller entered Radcliffe as a regular student, where she studied languages, history, and literature, graduating cum laude in 1904. Keller was the first deaf-blind person to attend college, and her difficulties at Radcliffe were considerable. All of the lectures and most of the reading had to be spelled into Keller’s hand by Sullivan. Sullivan’s already weak eyesight was increasingly strained by the Radcliffe experience, and Keller’s health was regularly in danger of breaking down. One lasting consequence of this struggle was their introduction to a Harvard instructor, John Macy, who learned the manual alphabet and began to assist Keller with her reading.
While at Radcliffe, Keller was encouraged by an instructor to publish her themes, which were first serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal, then expanded into book form as The Story of My Life. Keller’s first attempt at authorship sold well, further strengthening her standing as a public person who could command an audience. The Story of My Life—edited by Macy, who provides a substantial introduction—includes an account of Keller’s life through her sophomore year at Radcliffe. In later years she expressed conflicting attitudes toward the Radcliffe experience.
Graduation and Life in Wrentham
Keller left Radcliffe with her degree in 1904, and she and Sullivan purchased a home in Wrentham, Massachusetts, with the help of a wealthy benefactor, J. P. Spaulding. They lived in Wrentham until 1916, when finances forced them to sell and relocate to a more modest home in Forest Hills, New York. At Wrentham, Keller had leisure to begin her study of the conditions of the blind, and her notoriety made her an obvious spokesperson for the handicapped. In 1905, Sullivan married Macy, who was already a significant member of their household, periodically relieving Sullivan from the exhausting work of reading to her pupil, and an important intellectual and literary influence on Keller. At Wrentham, Keller engaged in the only serious romance of her life, with the socialist editor Peter Fagan. Fearing to lose control over their charge, however, Sullivan and Kate Keller managed to stop the planned elopement, and the remainder of Keller’s life was by default thrown into her activism and public service.
The World I Live In (1908) is Keller’s answer to the critics who suggested she wrote about things she had not seen and used a language of reference inappropriate and misleading for a deaf and blind person. Perhaps the most personal of her highly personal books, The World I Live In is a compelling attempt to re-create the daily reality of the deaf-blind, with special attention given to her ability to distinguish between objects by her sense of feel, sounds (and thus events) by their vibrations, and personalities by the clasp of a hand or the tread of a foot.
Joining the Socialist Party
From 1909, when Keller joined the Socialist Party, through the early 1920s, was her most intense period of activity as a socialist, after which she primarily worked as a spokesperson and fund-raiser for the American Foundation for the Blind. Keller was a radical and friend of prominent radicals such as Emma Goldman and John Reed, an outspoken party member, and a frequent contributor to the New York Call, the leading socialist daily. The FBI maintained a permanent file on her activities. Keller concurred with the revolutionary tenor of the labor movement, in particular the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and wrote vigorously in defense of their legal rights. With the exception of her opposition to Adolf Hitler during World War II, Keller was a lifelong pacifist and a courageous critic of war.
”The Modern Woman,” published in three installments in the Metropolitan Magazine in 1912 (eight years before women were granted the right to vote with the Nineteen Amendment to the Constitution) and collected in Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision (1913), is Keller’s masterpiece of social criticism.
Public Speaking Career and Profound Loss
Tapping into public curiosity about her condition, Keller began her career of public speaking in 1913, initially as a means of financial support. Following World War I, many suffered a loss of optimism and tastes in literature changed. In an attempt to relieve their ongoing financial difficulties, Keller agreed to appear in a movie version of her life, released as Deliverance in 1919. In 1920, Keller assisted Roger Baldwin with the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union. As a last resort to ease their financial difficulties, Keller and her teacher went on the vaudeville circuit from 1920 to 1924, sharing billing with other human “oddities.”
The death of Sullivan in 1936 was a severe blow to Keller. In 1939, having sold their home in Forest Hills, Keller and Polly Thompson—who had been hired to help Keller when Sullivan’s health declined—moved into a home in Westport, Connecticut, known as Arcan Ridge, built for them by a benefactor, where Keller spent the remainder of her life when not pursuing her considerable travels in the United States and abroad. In 1946, while Keller was traveling in Europe on behalf of the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind, her home at Arcan Ridge burned. Although funds were quietly raised to rebuild, the fire destroyed Keller’s possessions accumulated over a lifetime; countless papers and documents, including valuable correspondence; and the better portion of her original manuscript of her book on Sullivan.
Keller suffered a stroke in 1961 and passed the remainder of her life as an invalid at her home in Connecticut. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died on June 1, 1968. Family members disregarded her request for a Swedenborgian service, and a Presbyterian minister presided at the funeral in Westport. Following her cremation, a large nondenominational memorial service, led by U.S. chief justice Earl Warren, was held in Washington, and Keller’s ashes were interred in the columbarium of the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea at the National Cathedral.
Works in Literary Context
Keller’s writing was influenced by the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, H. G. Wells, and her lifelong teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan, among others. Sullivan taught Keller to use language as if she were a sighted person, so that in her early books in particular, she writes about visual and auditory features of the external world that she could not herself witness. This “verbalism,” as it was called, provoked strong criticism of Keller’s published work over the course of her career.
Throughout her published work, Keller makes effective rhetorical use of the connections between her personal experience and her social vision. Given her unusual situation, she had to rely exclusively on her hands as point of access to the world. In ”The Hand of the World” (1912), she juxtaposes her hand of knowledge with the hand of labor that was kept in chains by industrial oppression. Keller made a similar connection using the metaphor of blindness to compare her physical condition with the negligence and the dangerous indifference of big industry, which she characterized as a form of social blindness.
Keller frequently turned her attention to issues particular to women, first speaking at a women’s suffrage march in 1913. Women’s suffrage was a key component to Keller’s social vision, as she believed that public policies pertaining to the family, the production of food, the role of children in labor, and national policies of war required women’s voices for the collective good of the nation. Keller spoke out against the legal harassment of birth-control advocates, arguing that industrial capitalism encouraged high birth rates in order to exploit child labor, and that consequently it was in the interest of the race to ”hold back the power of propagation.”
Keller is credited with bringing attention to the needs of people with disabilities, fighting for women’s suffrage, and advancing the socialist agenda. She continues to inspire readers through her writings, many of which are still in print. The numerous depictions of Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan—adapted for both theater and film—continue to bring Keller’s story to audiences worldwide. Perhaps the most famous of these was The Miracle Worker, by Willliam Gibson, first a Broadway play in 1959 and then an Academy Award-winning film in 1962.
Works in Critical Context
Just when Keller was starting to draw public attention as a child prodigy, she was accused of plagiarism, prompting critics to denounce her as a fraud. The matter was resolved when it was revealed that the story she had published was one she had forgotten she had been read. Helen Keller was a celebrity long before her works were widely read, so when she published an autobiography, it was immediately read by many. Inspired by the content of her autobiography, The Story of My Life, many critics praised the work and Keller’s perseverance. She was only twenty-two years old when the work came to print. The book’s editor, John Albert Macy, writes, ”What is remarkable in her career is already accomplished, and whatever she may do in the future will be but a relatively slight addition to the success which distinguishes her now.” And he was correct in his assessment. Even her debut on the vaudeville circuit was a success. A review published in the New York Times reads, ”Helen Keller has conquered again, and the Monday afternoon audience at the Palace, one of the most critical and cynical in the world, was hers.” Keller’s social views provoked considerable resistance—Andrew Carnegie said that she needed a spanking—from an admiring public that saw in her a cathartic mixture of vulnerable womanhood and Victorian purity. Of her lifetime accomplishments, Alden Whitman, writing for the New York Times, states that ”she became an artful and subtle writer; she led a vigorous life; she developed into a crusading humanitarian who espoused Socialism; and she energized movements that revolutionized help for the blind and the deaf.”
- Braddy, Nella. Anne Sullivan Macy: The Story behind Helen Keller. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1933.
- Brooks, Van Wyck. Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait. New York: Dutton, 1956.
- Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Delacorte, 1980.
- Golden, Kristen and Barbara Findlen, eds. Remarkable Women of the Twentieth Century: 100 Portraits of Achievement. New York: Friedman/Fairfax, 1998.
- Hermann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998.
- Shnookal, Deborah. Helen Keller. Melbourne: Ocean Press / London: Global Press, 2002.
- Longmore, Paul K. and Lauri Umansky, eds. The New Disability History: American Perspectives. New York and London: New York University Press, 2001.
- Miller, John and Anjelica Huston, eds. Legends: Women Who Have Changed the World: Through the Eyes of Great Women Writers. Novato, Calif.: New World, 2001.
- Nielsen, Kim E. The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
- Giffn, Frederick C. ”The Radical Vision of Helen Keller.” International Social Science Review 4 (1984): 27-32.
- Wolf, Kathi. ”Helen Keller, Radical: What They Never Taught You about an American Heroine.” Utne Reader 76 (July/August 1996): 16.
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