Helen Keller Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Blind and deaf since early childhood, Keller exemplified by her life of activism the full empowerment potential of disabled persons who receive appropriate adaptive education. She served as a spokesperson and fund-raiser for the benefit of deaf and blind people.

Early Life

Helen Adams Keller was born in a small town in northern Alabama to Kate Adams Keller and Captain Arthur Keller, a Confederate Civil War veteran. At nineteen months, Helen suffered an illness that left her blind, deaf, and eventually mute. She remained locked in this lonely state of sensory deprivation until she reached the age of six, when her family employed Anne Sullivan, the twenty-year-old daughter of working-class Irish immigrants, as her tutor. Sullivan herself was visually impaired.

With Sullivan’s devoted, creative, and stubborn help, Helen soon rediscovered the concept that concrete things are associated with linguistic symbols—in her case, the letters of the manual alphabet spelled into her hand. Once that breakthrough was made and communication was reestablished, the young girl worked quickly to master manual lip-reading, handwriting, typewriting, Braille, and basic vocal speech. Helen’s recovery of communication was aided by the residue of language skills that had developed before she went deaf, by a stimulus-rich home environment, by the early age at which her adaptive education began, and by her own remarkable intelligence and perseverance. Accompanied and assisted by her tutor, Helen attended the Perkins Institution for the Blind (Boston), the Horace Mann School of the Deaf (New York), the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf (New York), and, eventually, Gilman’s preparatory Cambridge School for Young Ladies and Radcliffe College (both in Cambridge, Massachusetts), from which she was graduated with honors.

While she was still a schoolgirl, Keller began her lifelong career of philanthropic fund-raising, collecting contributions for the education of a destitute blind and deaf boy when she was eleven, giving a tea to benefit the kindergarten for the blind when she was twelve, and campaigning for money to start a public library in Tuscumbia when she was thirteen.

She also began her career as a writer early. In her childhood, she published several short pieces, but those early successes were also accompanied by what she later referred to as “the one cloud in my childhood’s bright sky.” In 1892, she wrote a short story called “The Frost King,” which she sent as a birthday present to Michael Anagnos at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, who published it in one of the Institution reports. The story was discovered to be remarkably similar to Margaret T. Canby’s “The Frost Fairies.” The twelve-year-old child was accused of willful plagiarism and was interrogated for many hours. The experience traumatized her so deeply that, although she loved stories, she never wrote fiction again, remaining anxious and uncertain about which were her own ideas and which were impressions she had gathered from other writers. Helen’s literary creativity turned toward autobiography.

When she was a sophomore at Radcliffe, she was asked by the editors of Ladies’ Home Journal to write her life story in monthly installments. With the help of John Macy, a Harvard English instructor, and Sullivan (who eventually married Macy), Keller completed the project, which was later published in 1902 as The Story of My Life.

Life’s Work

After her 1904 graduation from Radcliffe with honors in German and English, Helen Keller continued to write. The World I Live In was published in 1908; The Song of the Stone Wall, in 1910; and Out of the Dark, in 1913. She also wrote a number of magazine articles, primarily inspirational pieces. Some critics objected to the visual and auditory imagery in her work, criticizing it as mere “hearsay” or even offering it as evidence of outright fraud. As time went by, however, the disbelief with which some people greeted Keller’s accomplishments gradually faded. This widening public estimation of what was possible for the deaf and blind significantly enlarged the field of opportunities available to all disabled people after Keller.

Sullivan married Macy soon after Keller’s graduation, but the partnership between the two women continued into Keller’s adulthood. (Keller never married; her engagement at age thirty-six to Peter Fagan was thwarted by her family.) The two women began to lecture together. Keller would speak her lectures...

(The entire section is 1891 words.)