The Story of My Life Summary
The Story of My Life is an autobiography by activist Helen Keller in which she recounts her early experiences and education.
- An illness left Keller deaf and blind at nineteen months, and she was unable to communicate until her first teacher, Anne Sullivan, showed her how to use the manual alphabet.
- Keller took a number of trips in her young life. In Boston, she met other blind children at the Perkins Institute, and in Chicago, she went to the 1893 World’s Fair.
- Keller enrolled at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in preparation for her entrance exams at Radcliffe College.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Helen Keller begins her autobiography by pointing out the difficulties of writing autobiography and the unreliability of memory. She says that this book will contain sketches of “the most interesting and important episodes” of her childhood and youth. She then gives a brief account of her family background. Her ancestors were Swiss, and her grandfather settled in Alabama, where Keller was born in the small town of Tuscumbia in 1880. In the second year of her life, she became seriously ill and was not expected to survive. When she did recover, she was both blind and deaf.
When she was about six, Keller’s parents took her to see an eminent oculist, Dr. Chisholm of Baltimore. He could do nothing to restore her sight but pointed out that a blind and deaf girl could still be educated, and he referred the family to Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Dr. Bell told Keller’s father about the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, where a teacher was found to begin Keller’s instruction the following year.
The author describes the date of March 3, 1887, as the most important of her life. Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan arrived in Tuscumbia to be her teacher. Sullivan began her instruction by giving Keller a doll and spelling out the letters “d-o-l-l” into her hand. Keller enjoyed this game and imitated the letters Sullivan spelled, but did not connect them with the objects they identified. One day, however, after she had failed to differentiate between “water” and the “mug” that contained it, Sullivan took her out into the garden and put her hand under running water. She then spelled out “w-a-t-e-r” on her other hand. Keller connected the word with the cool, fresh sensation of the water on her hand and realized that the words she had learned to spell described the objects around her.
After this breakthrough, Keller spent the summer of 1887 learning the names of the objects that surrounded her. She reached another milestone when she understood that the word “think” applied not to an object but to what was happening inside her head, while the word “love” applied not to the scent of flowers or the warmth of the sun, but was similarly abstract. When she realized this, she felt “that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.”
Although her progress was slow and difficult, Keller says that Sullivan always tried to bring her as close as possible to the experiences of a child who could see and hear, telling her what those around her were saying in order to include her in conversations. She gave Keller pieces of cardboard with words printed on them in raised lettering, and Keller arranged the objects in question to reflect the sentences she made, placing her doll on the bed before grouping together the words “doll,” “is,” “on,” and “bed.”
In May 1888, Keller went to study at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. For the first time, she was able to meet and make friends with other blind children, and she was delighted to find that she could communicate with them using the manual alphabet. Her interest in history was stimulated by a visit to Bunker Hill and a boat trip to Plymouth Rock. When the Institution closed for the summer, she spent the vacation with a friend named Mrs. Hopkins, who lived on Cape Cod. After a frightening initial encounter with the ocean, in which she was tossed about by the waves and emerged demanding to know who had put salt into the sea, Keller came to love the...
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smells and sensations of the ocean and to be fascinated by the creatures she found there. She returned home with joyous memories and spent the fall at Fern Quarry, her family’s cottage, about fourteen miles from Tuscumbia. After this first trip to Boston, Keller generally spent winters in the North, where she was particularly enchanted by the snow. After a long snowstorm, the brightness of the light in the pure white landscape was so dazzling that, she wrote, “it penetrated even the darkness that veils my eyes.”
In 1890, Keller began to learn the elements of speech under the tuition of Miss Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Mann School. Learning to speak was slow, difficult work. When she did produce sounds, her teachers could understand her, but at first “most people would not have understood one word in a hundred.” She was sustained by the thought that she would be able to speak to her family, and Keller was overjoyed when, arriving home in Tuscumbia, she found that she could do so.
In the autumn after she learned to speak, Keller stayed at Fern Quarry, where she wrote a story called “The Frost King.” After she sent this story to the director of the Perkins Institution, who had it published in one of the Institution reports, she was horrified to discover that it closely resembled a story called “The Frost Fairies” by Margaret T. Canby, which had been published before Keller was born. A plagiarism investigation at the Perkins Institution was inconclusive, but the mystery was finally solved by Sullivan, with help from Alexander Graham Bell. They discovered that Mrs. Hopkins had read the story to Keller during her summer on Cape Cod. Keller must have remembered the plot, as well as many of the phrases, and unintentionally reproduced them. Despite support from many people, including the author, Margaret T. Canby, who wrote a kind letter to her, Keller was deeply concerned for a long time afterward that the thoughts she expressed in writing and even in conversation might not be her own. To restore her confidence, Sullivan persuaded her to write a brief story about her own life for the Youth’s Companion. Keller struggled with this, but persevered and later wrote that she must have had “a prophetic vision of the good that would come of the undertaking.”
In 1893, Keller spent three weeks at the World’s Fair with Sullivan and Alexander Graham Bell. She had special permission to touch the exhibits and was thrilled by the chance to experience a myriad of cultures about which she had only read before. Keller says that this is the point in her life when she moved from a childish love of toys and fairy tales to an adult appreciation of the world. After this, she began to study in earnest, keeping to a regular schedule and attending first the Wright-Humason School in New York, then the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, where she was prepared for Radcliffe.
Keller matriculated at Radcliffe in 1900. She quickly found that her romantic ideas about college as an intellectual paradise were not realized. Paradoxically, she found, one was too busy studying to have time to think. Nonetheless, she enjoyed the experience, apart from the examinations.
The final three chapters of the book deal with three of the most important influences on Keller’s life: her reading, her love of the countryside, and her friends. She devotes one chapter to each, beginning with the books she has loved since she was a child and how reading has allowed her to forget her disability. Literature, she says, is her utopia. She then stipulates that, however much she has loved books, they have not been her only pleasure. She loves being outdoors in the countryside, swimming, rowing, canoeing, or sailing. Finally, she has been fortunate to have wonderful friends and to have conversed with many men of genius, such as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, Mark Twain, and Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, whom she first met when she was six. It is these people who have made the story of her life and “turned my limitations into beautiful privileges.”