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Helen Keller (1880-1968)


American writer, who proved how language could liberate the blind and the deaf. In An Intimate History of Humanity (1994) Theodore Zeldin wrote that "no history of the world can be complete which does not mention Mary Helen Keller . . . whose overcoming of her blindness and deafness were arguably victories more important than those of Alexander the Great, because they have implications still for every living person."

"Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare." (from The Story of My Life, 1903)

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, the daughter of Captain Arthur Henley Keller, a cotton plantation owner and the editor of a local newspaper. Helen's mother, Kate Adams Keller, was a Memphis belle who was twenty years younger than her husband. Helen lost her hearing and sight at 19 months of age, but she had learned the meaning of the word "water," and her vision had been excellent. As she grew up, she managed to learn to do tiny errands, but also realized that she was missing something. Afterward she described herself a "wild, unruly child". Keller was sent to a state school for the blind, but failed first grade because she could not read braille. At the age of fourteen, she was physically more developed than most of the girls of her age; she had large breasts, small hips, her hair was the color of chestnut. For medical and cosmetic reasons, her eyes were removed and replaced with glass ones. Her prosthetic eyes were blue, the color of the sky.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, adviced the Kellers to ask the director of the Perkins Institution about obtaining a teacher for Helen. In 1887 Anne Sullivan (1866-1936), originally Joanna Mansfield Sullivan, became Helen's tutor. Sullivan was born in Feeding Hills, MA. She was nearly blind from childhood fever. Sullivan was educated at the Perkins Institution in Waltham, MA. There she taught the seven-year-old Helen Keller, and managed to broke through her isolation by spelling out words on her hand. "The most important day I remember in all my life us the one on which my teacher came to me," Keller later said. Under her tutelage, Keller discovered that words were related to things. At the well-house Sullivan place her hand under the spout, under cool stream of water, and spelled into the other hand the word water. "That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free." For the rest of her life she remained Keller's companion. She called her always "Teacher". Sullivan also established her own reputation as an author, lecturer, and advocate for the deaf.

However, before Keller a deaf-blind girl named Laura Bridgman was taught by Dr. Samuel Grindley Howe to communicate in English and to be a sewing teacher, but when she died in 1889 at the age of 59, her example was mostly forgotten (see The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl by Elisabeth Gitter, 2001; The Education of Laura Bridgman by Ernest Freeberg, 2001).  Keller was taught to speak by Sarah Fuller of the Horace Mann School in 1890. Eventually she learned to use sign language, to read braille, to type  and to dance and ride on horseback. She attended the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York (1894-96), the Cambridge school for Young Ladies (1896-1900), and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1904 with honors in German and English.

In her books Midstrem (1930) and The Story of My Life  (1903), Keller depicted how she was hungry for the words, confessing "Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. The things I have learned and the things I have been taught seem of ridiculously little importance compared with their "large loves and heavenly charities."' The Story of My Life, Keller's famous account of her triumph over deafness and blindness, appeared when she was twenty-two. It was first oublished serially in The Ladies Home Journal, and in 1902 as a book. Keller wrote the text with her braille machine to make corrections, but she also used typewriter. Her manuscripts seldom contained typographical errors. From 1914 her secretary was Miss Polly Thomson. She died in 1960. Since then her companion was Mrs. Winifred Corbally.

In 1909 Keller joined the Socialist party in Massachusetts. She had read Marx and Engels in German braille, and welcomed the Revolution in Russia in 1917. At the age of 36 she fell in love with Peter Fagan, a journalist, who worked as her temporary secretary. "His love was a bright sun that shone upon my helplessness and isolation," Keller said. They applied for a marriage licence but the romance was ended by Mrs. Keller, who disliked Fagan and ordered him out of the house.

Keller's life was not free from financial problems. In 1919 she began a four-year stretch appearing with Sullivan in vaudeville shows. On her tour, she met such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Enrico Caruso, and Harpo Marx. In the 1920s Keller moved from Wrentham, Mass, to Forest Hills, Queens. She made lecture tours to promote interest in the handicapped, wrote several books, and appeared on the Orpheum Circuit for two years to support herself. After WW II, she visited American veteran's hospitals and made many tours in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In Italy she studied sculptures under the tutelage of Jo Davidson.

Keller was an activist for racial and sexual equality, and as an avowed socialist she had such left-leaning opinions that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover kept a file on her. In 1964 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, in Westport. The Miracle Worker, which was based on Keller's life, was aired on television in 1959, and it was later adapted for the stage and film, directed by Arthur Penn. The film was awarded with two Oscar's. Anne Bancroft was in the role of Annie Sullivan, repeating her stage success. She was voted best actress. Patty Duke as Helen Keller won the Best Supporting Actress award. The screenplay was written by William Gibson from his play.

For many persons, meeting her first time was like a religious experience. People who knew Keller underlined her good sense of humor and imagination. They also noted that she was not an ethereal, virginal figure from some Renaissance painting, but a tall, dark, beautiful woman, who had a great sense of humor. "I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad," she once remarked.  Keller was always photographed from her right side. O.O. McIntyre, a columnist of the period speculated that "when younger there was a question to have or not have a blemish on her cheek removed and it was finally decided ot might cause her mental anguish to tell her about it. The same counsil of friends persuaded her never to marry."

Mark Twain declared that the two most interesting characters of his century were Napoleon and Helen Keller. She made considerable progress in the study of arithmetic and her autobiography showed unusual literary talent. Some of the stories Sullivan read to her in her childhood later left traces to Keller's own writings. "The young writer, as Stevenson had said, instinctively tries to copy whatever seems most admirable, and he shifts his admiration with astonishing versatility. It is only after years if this sort of practice that even great men have learned to marshall the legion of words which come thronging through every byway of the mind." (from The Story of My Life) Among others Margaret T. Canby's fairy tale 'The Frost Fairies' was read to her in the summer of 1888, when she was eight years old and she had been under instruction only from March 1887. Keller forgot completely it but four years later she produced her own interpretation, 'The Frost King.' The style of her version was in some respects better than in the original work.

'The Frost Fairies' by Margaret T. Canby 'The Frost King' by Helen Keller
King Frost, or Jack Fost as he is sometimes called, lived in a cold country far to the North; but every year he takes a journey over the world in a car of golden clouds drawn by a strong and rapid steed called "North Wind." (...) King Frost lives in a beautiful palace far to the North, in the land of perpetual snow. The palace, which is magnificent beyond description, was built centuries ago, in the reign of King Glacier. (...)

When Sullivan died in 1936, Keller sat beside the bed of her teacher. In 1946 she visited Greece, walked in Athens up to Acropolis, and wrote of Anne Sullivan in Teacher (1955): "Teacher, as I always called Anne Sullivan Macy, was with me, though unseen, and the Greek myths and poems which she had repeated to me as a child assumed a living reality." And she added: "The climb up the Acropolis symbolized the difficulties Teacher and I had overcome together and I was spiritually strengthened to ascend a metaphorical Acropolis in my work for the blind."

For further reading: Helen Keller: Her Life in Pictures by George Sullivan (2007); Helen Keller: A Photographic Story of a life by Leslie Garrett (2004); The World at Her Fingertips: The Story of Helen Keller by Joan Dash (2001); Helen Keller: Rebellious Spirit by Laurie Lawlor ( 2001); Helen Keller: From Tragedy to Triumph by Katharine E. Wilkie, et al. (1999); Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann (1998); Helen Keller by Carolyn Sloan (1991); Helen Keller: Crusader for the Blind and Deaf by Stewart Graff, et al. (l991); Helen Keller by Margaret Davidson and Wendy Watson (1989); Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy by Joseph P. Lash (1980); Helen Keller by Robert Hogrogian (1979); The Value of Determination: The Story of Helen Keller by Ann Donegan Johnson (1977) - Other writers who were blind or had difficulties with eyesight: Homer, John Milton, James Joyce

Selected works / Helen Keller:

  • The Story of My Life, 1903 (with her letters 1887-1901 and a supplementary account of her education, including passages from the reports and letters of her teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, by John Albert Macy)
    - Kertomus elämästäni (suom. Aug. Helin, 1905) / Elämäni tarina (suom. Martti Montonen, 1957)
  • Optimism: A Essay, 1903
    - Elämäni avain optimismi (suom. Aug. Helin, 1905)
  • The Heaviest Burden on the Blind, 1907
  • What Might Be Done for the Blind, 1907
  • John Hitz as I Knew Him, 1908
  • The World I Live in, 1908
  • The Song of the Stone Wall, 1910
  • Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision, 1913
  • The Practice of Optimism, 1915
  • My Religion, 1927 (later reissued as Light in My Darkness, rev. and ed. by Ray Silverman)
  • We Bereaved, 1929
  • Midstream; My Later Life, 1930
  • Our Great Responsibility, 1931
  • Peace at Eventide, 1932
  • Helen Keller in Scotland, 1933
  • Helen Keller's Journal, 1936-37, 1938 (with a foreword by Augustus Muir)
  • American Foundation for the Blind, 1923-1938, 1938
  • Let Us Have Faith, 1940
  • Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy; A Tribute by the Foster-Child of Her Mind, 1955 (introduction by Nella Braddy Henney)
  • The Open Door, 1957
  • The Faith of Helen Keller, 1967
  • Helen Keller, Her Socialist Years; Writings and Speeches, 1967 (edited, with an introduction by Philip S. Foner)
  • Light in My Darkness, 1994 (revised and edited by Ray Silverman; foreword by Norman Vincent Peale)
  • To Love This Life: Quotations, 2000
  • Helen Keller, 2003 (edited by John Davis)
  • Helen Keller: Selected Writings, 2005 (edited by Kim E. Nielsen, consulting editor, Harvey J. Kaye)
  • The World I Live in and Optimism: A Collection of Essays, 2009
  • How I Would Help the World, 2010 (introduction by Ray Silverman)

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