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.
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.
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...
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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 and, because Keller’s voice was still very difficult for strangers to understand, Sullivan would interpret. Their lectures served to increase public comprehension of the life of the perceptually impaired.
As Keller gained experience, moving through the world on Sullivan’s arm, her scope of interest enlarged from human limitations caused by visual and auditory impairment to include human limitations caused by gender, by class, and by nationalism. She began to see the welfare of all people as being interdependent. She worked for woman suffrage. A pacifist to the core, she spoke against the vast amount of money her country poured into military expenditures. She read Marx and Engels, and in 1909 she joined the Socialist Party, of which John Macy was also a member. At the advent of World War I, she became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. She wrote and lectured in defense of socialism, supported the union movement, and opposed the United States’ entry into World War I. She remained sympathetic toward socialist causes all of her life, but in 1921 she decided to focus her energies on raising money for the American Foundation for the Blind.
Around the time of World War I, the advent of modernism in literature caused Keller’s sentimental, rather flowery prose to seem less fashionable. An assertive and political single woman in her middle years, Keller was less comprehensible to the American public than she had been as a child. Her income from her writing diminished, and, after years of refusing it, she finally accepted a yearly stipend from the great archcapitalist Andrew Carnegie. Financial issues became more and more important as Sullivan’s health deteriorated and Macy descended into alcoholism.
Financial pressure prompted Keller and Sullivan to venture into vaudeville. Between 1920 and 1924, their lectures were a great success on Harry and Herman Weber’s variety circuit. Besides further deepening public understanding of blindness and deafness, their years of vaudeville gave them the opportunity to meet and develop friendships with many of the famous people of the day, including Sophie Tucker, Enrico Caruso, Jascha Heifetz, and Harpo Marx. Throughout her life, Keller’s extensive acquaintance with influential people was part of the power she wielded in the world. (She was received in the White House by every American president from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy.)
During the 1920’s, Keller and Sullivan also traveled frequently on fund-raising tours for the American Foundation for the Blind, an agency that Keller supported until her death. She also continued to write. In 1927, she published My Religion, an explanation of her understanding of the alternative reality described by the eighteenth century visionary Emanuel Swedenborg. In 1930, Midstream: My Later Life appeared as well.
The 1930’s saw more of Keller’s books produced: Peace at Eventide was brought out in 1932, and Helen Keller’s Journal was published in 1938. Keller deplored the rise of the Nazis and supported John L. Lewis’ union strikes. Anne Sullivan died in 1936. After the death of her primary life-partner, Keller relied mainly on Polly Thompson, a Scots immigrant who had been assisting her since 1915. They remained together until Thompson’s death in 1960.
In 1955, Keller published Teacher, a biography of Anne Sullivan Macy. She continued to be active on behalf of the blind and deaf until around 1962. In 1964, Keller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. She died quietly in her sleep at the age of eighty-seven.
Keller’s life was filled with activity: writing, lecturing, studying, and traveling. Her significance was not simply based on her untiring work on behalf of the constituency that a childhood misfortune and her own choice selected for her. By all accounts, she was a woman of great spiritual authority. Religious faith, the self-mastery needed to overcome tragedy, and a powerful and loving teacher produced in Keller one of the spiritually radiant figures of her time, whose power was not simply based on what she did or who she knew, but also on who she was and the direct effect of her presence on those whose lives she touched.
Helen Keller worked her entire life for the betterment of the disabled. She wrote. She lectured. She exerted her considerable influence over public institutions and powerful people. She raised funds for a number of agencies serving the disabled. She acted as a catalyst for the organization of state commissions for the blind. She helped to educate the American public about the prevention of gonorrheal blindness in newborn babies. The work that she did earned for her numerous humanitarian awards and citations.
The fruits of Keller’s work were important, but what is even more important is that she did that work at all. She came into a world that had extremely limiting ideas about what was possible for a deaf and blind woman to accomplish. The disabled were seen as less than fully human; deaf and blind people were still being locked away in mental asylums in the world into which Helen Keller was born. In that world, the mere existence of a powerful, educated, assertive figure such as Keller was profoundly significant. Each lecture she gave, each article she wrote defied stereotypes and served to change the attitudes and expectations of her society. Her public life as an active deaf and blind woman truly altered the intellectual horizons around her. When she died, she left a world that had been radically changed by her life.
Gibson, William. The Miracle Worker. New York: Bantam, 1965. The original play that examined the early years of the relationship between Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.
Houston, Jean. Public Like a Frog: Entering the Lives of Three Great Americans. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing, 1993. Concise biographical sketches of Emily Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, and Helen Keller, highlighting their spirituality. This work is unique in that the biographies are interspersed with personal growth exercises that invite the reader’s imaginative participation in crucial moments of the subjects’ lives.
Keller, Helen. Midstream: My Later Life. New York: Greenwood, 1968. The story of Keller’s life from around 1904 until 1927. Describes her work for the blind, her lecturing and writing career, her experiences in Hollywood, and her relationships with some well-known public figures, including Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Carnegie family.
Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. New York: Collier Macmillan International, 1972. The best-known of Keller’s autobiographical works, this book tells the story of her first two decades and includes a selection of letters that illustrate the development of her language skills from the age of seven to adulthood. Contains a useful short introduction by Lou Ann Walker.
Keller, Helen. Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955. Keller’s respectful and loving account of Anne Sullivan’s life. Seeks to redress what Keller saw as an imbalance between excessive public attention on herself and neglect of Sullivan’s accomplishments.
Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. Radcliffe Biography Series. New York: Delacorte, 1980. This long dual biography acknowledges the long, fruitful relationship between Keller and Anne Sullivan.