Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522
The Story of My Life is an account of the early years of a woman who overcame incredible problems to become an accomplished, literate adult. The book does not give a complete account of the author’s life, as it was written when she was still a college student. It is,...
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The Story of My Life is an account of the early years of a woman who overcame incredible problems to become an accomplished, literate adult. The book does not give a complete account of the author’s life, as it was written when she was still a college student. It is, however, a unique account of one young woman’s passage from almost total despair to success in a world mostly populated by hearing and seeing people. This book is relatively short, but the modern editions also include letters written by and to Helen Keller and an analysis of her education from a later standpoint.
The Story of My Life begins with Keller’s vague memories of early childhood. She was born in 1880 in Alabama, an apparently normal child. According to her recollections, she began to speak before she was a year old. The early chapters recount the little girl’s love of the natural world, a theme that is repeated many times throughout the work, and her generally happy home life, with loving and nurturing parents.
At the age of nineteen months, however, Keller was stricken with an unexplained disease—certainly unexplained in the nineteenth century, with no suggestion in the book of any later diagnosis—which left her both blind and deaf. She became a domineering child, with behavior that was totally unacceptable. Keller mainly lays the blame for this behavior upon her frustration at the futility of trying to communicate her thoughts and feelings without any ability to speak, read, or write.
The breakthrough came when the Kellers visited noted inventor Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, D.C., who referred them to the Perkins Institution, a school for blind children in Boston. The school sent a woman named Anne Sullivan to teach young Helen to behave properly and, if possible, to teach her to be a “normal” child. Most of the book deals with Sullivan’s training of Keller, showing her how to behave decently, to use the manual alphabet to communicate her thoughts, and to read books in raised letters and later in braille. In the last chapters, there is much emphasis on Keller’s higher education.
According to her own recollections, young Helen Keller’s greatest love, apart from the natural world, was language. She learned to read not only English but also French, German, Latin, and Greek. She began writing in her early teens. There is also considerable discussion of her examinations and preparation for admission into Radcliffe College, the sister college to Harvard, and her eventual acceptance.
Keller writes about her attempts to use speech as a means of communication, but she largely considers these attempts to be failures: She never really learned to speak well. Keller demonstrates that the process of learning to speak is difficult for any person who is either blind or deaf and virtually impossible for someone who lacks both senses. Instead, Keller became a great lover of books, which became her only real way of relating to the world outside. The book ends on this note, with a list of favorite authors and a wish to be counted among them.
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When The Story of My Life was written in 1902, many female authors were still using male pseudonyms in an attempt to give their work some credence in a literary world dominated by men. It would be almost twenty years before women were given the right to vote and a much longer period before they made any real impact on the political and literary scenes.
Decades later, Helen Keller would be considered one of the great social leaders of the time, and her earlier works would be considered inspirational to women and to society in general. Keller’s social work was primarily aimed at helping people with assorted disabilities, but not necessarily physical ones. She took upon herself the task of improving society in general, regardless of sex, race, nationality, or social standing. The Story of My Life cannot be considered “feminist” in any real sense, as the author at that time of her life had problems considerably more difficult to overcome than merely being a woman in a male-dominated society. In a broader context, however, this book has been inspirational to people faced with difficulties that must be overcome—physical, emotional, or societal.
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At the beginning of The Story of My Life, Helen Keller acknowledges the difficulty of writing an autobiography because “fact and fancy now look alike across the years that link the past and present.” As a result, she has attempted to present only those episodes from her life that seem either especially interesting or important. Although Keller presents her life chronologically, she focuses more on her feelings than on factual details.
The book begins with Keller’s birth in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. Keller provides information about her parents and family and then describes her first nineteen months, when she could both see and hear. Chapters 2 and 3, while presenting the events of her childhood, do more than merely recount her frequent mischief by centering on Keller’s intense desire to communicate, as well as on her frustrations. The most famous event of Keller’s life, when Anne Sullivan taught her how to communicate, is presented rather briefly in chapter 4. The succeeding chapters, however, grow out of this important incident and focus on other moments that shaped her. She learned about the joys and dangers of nature, abstract concepts and words such as “love,” and the characteristics of winter. Eventually, she moved away from her sheltered home in Alabama, experiencing new places such as Boston, Niagara Falls, and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as important events such as the inauguration of President Grover Cleveland and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Along the way, Keller also discusses her continued efforts to become educated. At the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Keller studied Braille while Sarah Fuller, of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, taught her how to speak. Keller later entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, full of hope and determination but occasionally hampered by the fact that she could communicate with her teachers only through Sullivan. Keller does not, however, only describe her successes. She discusses at length an incident in which she was accused of plagiarizing a story she had once read but no longer remembered. This event caused a rift between her and Mr. Anagnos, the head of the Perkins Institute.
Eventually, Keller enrolled in Radcliffe College, after struggling to pass the admissions test. At this point in the book, Keller digresses to discuss the importance of reading in her life and the books that have influenced her, including Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), the Bible, William Shakespeare’s plays, and works by a variety of French, English, and German writers. In the next-to-last chapter, she describes some of the many things that have given her pleasure, such as sailing, spending time in nature, and going to the theater. In her final chapter, she mentions some of the many friends she made as she began to gain celebrity, particularly the literary figures of her day. Keller’s autobiography concludes while she is still a sophomore at Radcliffe.
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Role of Women
When Keller wrote The Story of My Life she was not yet active in social reform. Still, her attendance at a college was an impressive feat for any woman at the time, and especially for a woman in Keller’s special situation. Her determination to receive an education equal to that offered a man was set early in her life. She recalls in chapter eighteen, ‘‘When I was a little girl, I visited Wellesley and surprised my friends by the announcement, ‘Someday I shall go to college—but I shall go to Harvard!’ When asked why I would not go to Wellesley, I replied that there were only girls there.’’
Keller was deeply influenced by the intellectual and activist atmosphere of the progressive era in which she lived. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women were still limited in their ability to sign contracts, own land, vote, and work. At the turn of the century, women were demanding to be taken seriously in their pursuit of equal rights. Keller was one of the early feminists pursuing fairness for women.
Perception of the Physically Challenged
In 1903, when Keller published The Story of My Life, the public was indifferent to the needs of people who were physically challenged. Among those who had never dealt with such a challenge, there was usually ignorance and negative stereotyping. There were few specialized schools for instructing students who were blind and/or deaf. Often, deaf and blind people were institutionalized in mental asylums, where they neither belonged nor received any kind of education. After completing her degree, Keller set about informing the public about people like herself in hopes of helping people understand that people with disabilities are not so different from those without them. In fact, Keller’s work in this area took her to Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa.
Beginning of Civil Rights Advocacy
When Keller was born in 1880, ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws had just been declared unconstitutional by a Federal Circuit Court. These laws had kept segregation alive in the South, restricting African Americans from entering ‘‘white only’’ establishments, forcing them to drink from ‘‘colored only’’ water fountains, and generally keeping the two races as separate as possible. With the ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws no longer in place, African Americans began to organize to win additional legal battles that would enable them to enjoy the same rights as other American citizens.
As with women’s rights, Keller was one of the early proponents of civil rights. She was appalled that in the United States anyone would be denied their rights based on ethnicity or race. In chapter nine, she describes her childhood admiration for the Pilgrims and early colonists, and she expresses her mixed feelings upon learning more about them. She writes,
I thought they desired the freedom of their fellow men as well as their own. I was keenly surprised and disappointed years later to learn of their acts of persecution that make us tingle with shame, even while we glory in the courage and energy that gave us our ‘Country Beautiful.’
She wrote a letter to the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1916, expressing her dismay at the current system and providing a monetary contribution.
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The story of Keller's early life takes place during the late 1800s, a time when people's understanding of the physically disabled was much more limited than it is today. Physically disabled people were routinely institutionalized and often assumed to be mentally disabled as well. Efforts to teach them to overcome their disabilities and lead normal lives were extremely limited. But Keller was fortunate enough to have parents who refused to institutionalize her, an extraordinary teacher, and a burning desire to learn. Her accomplishments led to a greater public understanding of the handicapped. Her autobiography traces her progress over the first two decades of her life, following her from her parents' home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, through a succession of schools for the handicapped, and concluding when she is a student at Radcliffe College.
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Although Keller occasionally lapses into emotional passages, her writing style is generally formal. It is reminiscent of the lofty language of Greek writers and also of the similes and tones of biblical text. Toward the end of chapter two, for example, she writes, ‘‘Thus it is when we walk in the valley of twofold solitude we know little of the tender affections that grow out of endearing words and actions and companionship.’’ At times, she makes direct allusions to biblical stories, as in chapter three: ‘‘Thus I came out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, and a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders.’’ Recalling what it was like when she first learned to speak, Keller comments, ‘‘My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and all faith.’’ Keller also uses allegorical images to convey her feelings, as when she refers to the ‘‘cup of bitterness’’ and the ‘‘angel of forgetfulness’’ in chapter thirteen. All of these examples demonstrate Keller’s love of figurative language and controlled tone.
Given that Keller was an enthusiastic reader, her writing style may not be so surprising. While most people derive their sense of diction and syntax from interacting with the people around them, Keller was influenced by the writers whose books she read with such vigor. She read the Bible extensively in her youth and took a class at Radcliffe College called ‘‘Bible as English Literature’’ around the time she was writing The Story of My Life. That same semester, she took a class called ‘‘The Odes of Horace,’’ which fed her deep love of classicism. In fact, she claimed that the Iliad ‘‘made Greece my paradise.’’ These influences clearly play a strong role as Keller begins to develop her own writing style.
Despite the hardships Keller overcame, there is no sadness, self-pity, or bitterness in The Story of My Life. She willingly tells of her childhood fits and how angry she was at the time, but she relates these episodes with calm recollection. Her focus is on the people she loved and the wonderful experiences she had in the first twenty-two years of her life. She wistfully recalls moments spent in the orchard or up a tree. Remembering her summer at Cape Cod, she writes, ‘‘As I recall that visit North I am filled with wonder at the richness and variety of the experiences that cluster about it.’’ She describes the beautiful scent of the outdoors and the tempting smells coming from the kitchen on Christmas. At the very beginning of the book, she comments, ‘‘When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her own fantasy.’’
Keller is especially affectionate in her descriptions of Sullivan and the patience and creativity she exhibited in Keller’s childhood. When Keller attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in preparation for Radcliffe College, two members of the staff learned the manual alphabet in order to communicate directly with Keller. While Keller appreciated this, she missed Sullivan. Keller recalls, ‘‘But, though everybody was kind and ready to help us, there was only one hand that could turn drudgery into pleasure.’’ Keller’s admiration for Sullivan is clear in the following excerpt from chapter seven:
My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her. How much of my delight in all beautiful things is innate, and how much is due to her influence, I can never tell. I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers. All the best of me belongs to her— there is not a talent or an inspiration or a joy in me that was not awakened by her loving touch.
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Because The Story of My Life is an autobiography, it tends to be episodic and anecdotal rather than tightly plotted; after all, an individual's life seldom takes the form of a well-plotted novel. This structure also partly results from the circumstances of its composition. Keller wrote many of the chapters as themes for the English composition course she took while attending Radcliffe. Consequently, there is little connection between chapters, although Keller's progress towards leading a normal life provides a thematic framework for her story.
Modern readers may find Keller's style old-fashioned, for she describes her experiences and feelings with sentimental Victorian language. Her writing is full of literary allusions, especially biblical references. Her imagery is so vivid and extraordinarily visual that many of her contemporary readers refused to believe that she had written the book. They failed to understand that language is inherently visual and that Keller's style was formed by reading the works of seeing authors. Furthermore, by using tactile analogies, such as heat, she could grasp visual concepts such as color and even intensities in color, so these elements in her writing are not unnatural.
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Early Twentieth Century: Educational opportunities for the blind and deaf are extremely limited. There are very few schools to teach children with these needs, and in many cases the blind and deaf are sent to mental asylums. Public sentiment toward the blind and deaf is negative and uneducated.
Today: There are numerous schools across the country specializing in instructing students with these needs, and many children who are blind or deaf learn to function in public schools. Laws require that the handicapped be accommodated and that employers offer equal opportunities to prospective employees, regardless of physical challenges.
Early Twentieth Century: In 1900, Keller begins her college studies at Radcliffe. Her firstyear courses are French, German History, English composition, and English literature.
Today: While freshman courses vary from college to college, most students take four or five courses per semester. These courses often include American or world history, English literature, a math course, a science course, and a foreign language. In some universities, first-year students study economics, philosophy, psychology, or theology.
Early Twentieth Century: Women are not encouraged to pursue education because college degrees have little relevance to women’s roles as wives and mothers. Generally, when women do pursue higher education, they do so at schools for women.
Today: Almost all colleges and universities offer enrollment for men and women alike, and strive to maintain a balance in their student bodies.
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Keller’s life is the basis of William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, which includes many of the events of Keller’s life as portrayed in The Story of My Life. The play was successful on the stage and was adapted to film in 1962, produced by Playfilm Productions and starring Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke as Keller. For their performances in the 1962 film version, Bancroft and Duke won Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. In 1970, a film called Helen Keller and Her Teacher was produced by Jerome Kurtz and Jesse Sandler.
The Miracle Worker
has also been filmed for television. In 1979, the film was made starring Patty Duke as Sullivan and Melissa Gilbert as Keller. A newer version was broadcast in 2001, starring Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Keller and Alison Elliott as Sullivan.
A documentary featuring Keller herself was produced by Nancy Hamilton Presentation in 1956, titled Helen Keller in Her Story. The film won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.
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Brown, Ray B., ed., Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Gale, 1990.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 8: 1966–1970, American Council of Learned Societies, 1988.
Kendrick, Walter, ‘‘Her Hands Were a Bridge to the World,’’ in New York Times Book Review, August 30, 1998.
McCray, Nancy, Review in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 18, May 15, 1994, p. 1702.
Moyers, Bill, Fooling With Words, HarperPerrenial, 2000. ‘‘Nonethnic Rights,’’ in Civil Rights in America: 1500 to the Present, The Gale Group, 1998.
Schuur, Diane, ‘‘The Miracle: Helen Keller,’’ in Time, Vol. 153, No. 23, p. 163.
Wolfe, Kathi, ‘‘Ordinary People: Why the Disabled Aren’t So Different,’’ in Humanist, Vol. 56, No. 6, November– December 1996, pp. 31–35.
Einhorn, Lois J., Helen Keller, Public Speaker: Sightless but Seen, Deaf but Heard, Greenwood Press, 1998. Einhorn provides an in-depth study of Keller’s career as a lecturer and public speaker. The author examines Keller’s ability to communicate, while offering analysis and texts of Keller’s wide-ranging speeches.
Gitter, Elisabeth, The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001. Gitter’s book tells the compelling story of Dr. Howe, the man who devised the system of communicating to the deaf-blind by using the manual alphabet in their hands. His original student, Laura Bridgman, was a great inspiration to Helen Keller.
Hickok, Lorena A., Touch of Magic: The Story of Helen Keller’s Great Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, Dodd, 1961. For students interested in how Sullivan came to be the kind of person and teacher she was, this biography provides her background.
Steinem, Gloria, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Holt, 1983. In this book Steinem, arguably the foremost feminist of modern times, provides an overview of the views that made her so prominent in the women’s movement. The topics are sometimes public and sometimes personal, ranging from politics to Marilyn Monroe.
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Boylan, Esther, ed. Women and Disability. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1991. A series of articles on the situation of disabled women in the world. This book places emphasis on the concept that women have a “double handicap” by being female as well as disabled.
Brooks, Van Wyck. Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1956. A biography of Keller covering her early years, her later development as an adult author and activist, and her continuing relationship with Anne Sullivan Macy, her teacher from early childhood.
Hillyer, Barbara. Feminism and Disability. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. The story of a woman bringing up a disabled little girl. The stress in this book is on the feminist movement and the movement for the rights of disabled people of both sexes, and on how the two issues may come into conflict.
Keller, Helen. Midstream: My Later Life. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1968. A reprint of an autobiography of Keller originally published in 1929. This book continues where The Story of My Life left off. It offers insights into the author’s later development, after she was graduated from college and entered the mainstream of American society.
Keller, Helen. Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955. A biography of Helen Keller’s early teacher and longtime companion and helper. Explores Keller’s training from a later point of view, as well as providing insight into the life of Anne Sullivan and the long-standing relationship between the two women.
Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Delacorte Press, 1980. The story of Keller’s training and the relationship between Keller and her teacher. Traces the development of both women from Sullivan’s childhood in the 1860’s through Keller’s death in 1968.
McInnes, J. M., and J. A. Treffry. Deaf-Blind Infants and Children: A Developmental Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. A modern guide to the teaching of children with Helen Keller’s problems. This book provides a discussion of modern methods used in treating such children, which have changed greatly since the days of Keller’s childhood.
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Braddy, Nella (Henney). Anne Sullivan Macy: The Story Behind Helen Keller. New York: Doubleday Doran, 1933. Braddy was a close friend of both Keller and Sullivan and wrote her book based on her conversations with Sullivan. Braddy was the first person to deal with Sullivan's accomplishments, rather than just Keller's.
Brooks, Van Wyck. Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait. New York: Dutton, 1956. Brooks was a well-known historian as well as Keller's good friend. He brings discipline and style to a subject he knows well, and produces a fine biography of Keller up to the point of middle age.
Davidson, Margaret. Helen Keller. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1969. A biography for children ages five to eight.
Gibson, William. The Miracle Worker: A Play for Television. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957. This is a famous and moving dramatization of Sullivan's first month with Keller, climaxing with Helen's discovery that everything has a name.
Hickok, Lorena A. The Story of Helen Keller. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1958. An engaging biography for young children.
The Touch of Magic: The Story of Helen Keller's Great Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961. A good biography for young adults.
Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1980. This is the best researched and most extensive biography of either Keller or Sullivan. Lash deals in depth with the complexities of their personalities and their relationship, showing them as full human beings rather than saints, a temptation many other biographers have fallen prey to—especially many of those who write for children. Lash gives a full account of Keller's later years and her relationship with Polly Thomson, who became her full-time companion after Sullivan died.
Peare, Catherine Owens. The Helen Keller Story. New York: Crowell, 1959. A biography for young children.
Waite, Helen Elmira. Valiant Companions: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith, 1959. A good biography of both women for older children.