Helen Keller 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.)

Helen Keller Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, the daughter of Captain Arthur Keller, a former Confederate officer, and...

(The entire section is 1190 words.)

Helen Keller Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Mark Twain characterized Helen Adams Keller as “the greatest woman since Joan of Arc,” a description still fitting more than a hundred years after her remarkable accomplishments began to be publicized throughout the world. She became one of the best-known humanitarians of the twentieth century. The daughter of newspaper editor Arthur H. and Kate (Adams) Keller, Helen developed a fever that left her deaf and blind at nineteen months of age. She lived in a frustrating world of dark silence until 1887, when twenty-year-old Anne Mansfield Sullivan came from the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston to be her teacher. Sullivan had been taught by her blind-deaf roommate, Laura Bridgman, to communicate using the manual alphabet,...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Helen Keller Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Helen Keller was born in 1880 in Alabama, the daughter of Arthur Keller, a former captain in the Confederate Army. At the age of nineteen months, Keller was stricken with a disease which has never been clearly identified. It left her blind and deaf. Her education began when Anne Sullivan became her teacher in 1887, after young Helen’s situation had come to the attention of many celebrities of the time.

Keller was a rapid learner, and her earliest letters and school assignments proclaimed her love for literature and her desire to become a professional writer. Her first book, The Story of My Life, was written while she was a student at Radcliffe College, from which she was graduated, with honors, in 1904. The...

(The entire section is 382 words.)

Helen Keller Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

At the age of eighteen months, Helen Keller suffered a severe illness that left her blind and deaf. She could not communicate with other people. When Helen was eight years old, her parents hired a teacher, Anne Sullivan, from the Perkins Institution for the Blind. Ms. Sullivan taught Helen a manual alphabet and finger-spelled the names of various objects. Within two years, Helen learned to read and write in Braille. At age ten, Helen learned to speak by feeling the vibrations of Ms. Sullivan’s vocal cords. In 1990, Anne Sullivan accompanied Helen Keller to Radcliffe College. Four years later, Helen graduated cum laude and began writing essays on the rights of the handicapped. Her published...

(The entire section is 393 words.)

Helen Keller Biography

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. She suffered a serious illness at the age of nineteen months that left her...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Helen Keller Biography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Author Profile

Although scarlet fever left Helen Keller blind and deaf at the age of nineteen months, with the help of her mentor, Anne Sullivan, Keller learned to read braille and to lip-read by placing her thumb and forefingers on the speaker’s face. She graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College, specializing in languages and philosophy. Keller was an early advocate for the American Foundation for the Blind and wrote several influential books, including The Story of My Life (1902), The World I Live In (1908), Helen Keller’s Journal (1938), and Teacher (1955).


Blatt, Burton. “Friendly Letters.” Exceptional...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Helen Keller Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Blatt, Burton. “Friendly Letters.” Exceptional Children 51 (February, 1985). A notable article on Keller’s personal growth.

Brooks, Van Wyck. Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait. New York: Dutton, 1956. Worthwhile.

Einhorn, Lois J. Helen Keller, Public Speaker: Sightless but Seen, Deaf but Heard. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. From the series Great American Orators.

Harrity, Richard, and Ralph G. Martin. The Three Lives of Helen Keller. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. Contains scores of photographs.

Herrmann, Dorothy....

(The entire section is 212 words.)