When I was a child, I was fascinated by Annie Sullivan, the great teacher of Helen Keller. I read as many books on her as I could find, and whenever we had to do a book report on a famous person, I chose her (or else Marie Curie, but that’s an obsession for another day.) Annie Sullivan’s story is fascinating. But for some reason, it never occurred to me to be fascinated with Helen Keller’s own story. I finally got a copy of The Story of My Life, Helen Keller’s autobiography and early correspondence, to see what I could learn.
Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880. A “congestion of the stomach and brain” which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis left her blind and deaf when she was only 19 months old. At the time, many people considered that the deaf and blind scarcely had souls, since they had no words, no way of communication with God or man. Annie Sullivan, blind herself for many years, disagreed: she taught Keller the manual alphabet, and helped her put names not only to the concrete things that surrounded her, but to abstract concepts like liberty, justice, and love. It became clear to everyone who met Helen, and soon to the entire world, that the deaf and blind might be locked in a sensory prison, but had the same possibilities as any other human being.
The Story of My Life was published when Helen Keller was 22 years old, and written during her years at Radcliffe College. (It is worth noting that she passed the entrance examinations to Radcliffe at a time when giving extra time or accommodations for people with disabilities was unknown. She had the papers spelled into her hand manually, and otherwise received no help.) It tells the story of her childhood, her relationship with Annie Sullivan, her education at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, and the many famous people she encountered during this first part of her life, from John Greenleaf Whittier (remarkably condescending in his letters, incidentally) to Alexander Graham Bell, from Mark Twain (marvelous letters) to Charlie Chaplin. Best of all, it is all from her own point of view: her difficulties, the things that were mountains or molehills, joys or sorrows to her.
Her style is a young woman’s style, often borrowed from things she’s read. In places, it’s flowery: she gushes over the effect nature has on her (the scent of roses, a shower of dew.) In other places, though, there is a startling directness, such as when she talks about the effect her studies at Radcliffe have had on her:
[At first] The lecture-halls seemed filled with the spirit of the great and the wise, and I thought the professors were the embodiment of wisdom. If I have since learned differently, I am not going to tell anybody.
It is perfectly clear that she strives to think her own thoughts and to phrase them in her own way. This is unusual enough for a 22-year-old, and far more so for a girl who has been sheltered and taught by one woman — Annie Sullivan — all her life. It is a truly remarkable piece of autobiography, and all the more because it is only a beginning.
Later in her life, Helen Keller became a radical. She was a suffragist, a pacifist (she opposed Woodrow Wilson and the entrance of the US into World War I), a unionist, a socialist, and a birth control supporter. She helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the Helen Keller International organization. When she began to speak her thoughts on these issues, though, instead of being praised as a prodigy, as she had been all her childhood and young-womanhood, she was discounted as a disabled person. Naturally, people said, those who are deaf and blind are prone to error. How could she know what we know? I cannot help but think that Helen Keller found solace then, as she did at Radcliffe, in books. As you and I do. As anyone must.
In a word, literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. The things I have learned and the things I have been taught seem of ridiculously little importance compared with their “large loves and heavenly charities.”