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A World of Words

That [Helen Keller] has told her story, and told it so well, is half the story itself.”1
—John Macy, 1902

At age twenty-three, still a sophomore at Radcliffe College, collaborating with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and with her young editorial assistant, John Macy, Helen Keller published The Story of My Life. That indispensable book has sold millions of copies worldwide and inspired the statement quoted above. The four hundred pages of The Story of My Life virtually embody Helen’s battle to survive as a fully human hybrid of freak and angel.2

Five years later, in 1908, Helen produced a short collection of essays, The World I Live In.3 It is both a more playful and a more probing book than The Story of My Life and it established Helen Keller as a literary author of the first rank. Beyond her personal story, she here addressed a variety of challenging subjects—relations among the senses, history of philosophy, religious faith, and the mystery of language. The World I Live In provides an essential complement to The Story of My Life.

1.

The First Twenty-four Years

Born a beautiful healthy child in 1880, Helen Keller was struck at nineteen months by a mysterious illness that left her totally deaf and blind. The toddler just beginning to talk reverted nearly to the state of a seriously wounded, untamed animal. She also became Sleeping Beauty. This isolated creature survived five years of frustration and indulgence within her despairing family before finding release. A twenty-one-year-old half-blind teacher, sent from Boston to rural Alabama, was able to wake the child princess and tame the vixen. That double feat required ten weeks of intense physical discipline and simultaneous training in the manual alphabet. Helen learned how to communicate with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and how to receive through Annie’s words symbolic knowledge of all physical and human reality. Helen was born again into language. Her impatience diffused into curiosity and enterprise. She was seven years old.

Communication by the manual alphabet, which entails spelling out words letter by letter, belongs to writing rather than speech. From the beginning, Helen Keller was a writer; she painstakingly learned crude oral speech only several years later. I shall be concerned with her here primarily as a deeply disabled person who found wholeness and salvation in words.

Four months after Annie’s arrival in Alabama, Helen began writing to her aunts and uncles in childish block letters. In six months she was using the first-person “I” instead of referring to herself as “Helen.” In a year she was learning to read and write in Braille. Her letters between age seven and eleven display remarkable development in knowledge of the world around her and in her command of English to describe and analyze that world. The one-hundred-page section of Helen’s letters in The Story of My Life resembles a movie of her mind as it reaches maturity.

Annie’s official report of 1891 to the Perkins Institute for the Blind describes how she persevered through more than two years of seizing every opportunity to teach Helen the world of words, any time, any place.4 Systematic lesson plans in basic subjects came later. Undistracted by extraneous sights and sounds, Helen was an uncannily attentive pupil. By age ten, in 1890, she had made the leap from isolated words as labels to simple sentences and then to sequences of sentences forming rudimentary stories. Annie saw her opportunity. Using household animals, she staged a genuine cat-and-mouse incident for Helen to touch and feel in the real world—and then to experience again in raised letters. “The cat is on the box.” After that revelation, Helen loved books for the stories they tell. She became a dedicated reader.

Before long, what we would call religious questions came to Helen’s attention. Well-intentioned relatives introduced her to words such as “Mother Nature” and “God.” Unprompted, Helen wrote on her tablet: “I wish to write about things I do not understand.” When Annie told her carefully that the world was made by a power to whom we give the name “God,” Helen was very still for a few minutes, evidently thinking earnestly. She then asked, “Who made God?” On another occasion she asked, “What is a soul?” Annie patiently described the soul as the immaterial and invisible part of us that thinks and loves and lives on after the death of the body. Helen’s response to this Christian version of human life reveals her unshakable faith in the reality and serviceability of words. “But if I write that my soul thinks, then it will be visible, and the words will be its body.” Helen at age ten imagined for herself a full-blown writer’s credo.

The following year the “Frost King” episode nearly halted Helen’s progress toward understanding herself and the world through language. Helen’s first attempt to write a story, called “The Frost King” and intended as a gift for the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, turned out to be unwittingly “plagiarized” from another story read to her earlier. What is remarkable about this potentially traumatic blow to her impulse to write was that Helen responded by going on, not by shrinking back. During the summer and fall of 1892 in Alabama, this twelve-year-old deaf-blind wordsmith accepted a commission from The Youth’s Companion to write a brief sketch of her life. It is unclear whether Annie encouraged or discouraged Helen in the task. In either case, if Helen wrote only about her own experiences, she would presumably not have the gnawing afterthought, often expressed to Annie after the plagiarism accusations, “I am not sure it is mine.”5

My Story” appeared in The Youth’s Companion in January 1894, preceded by a nearly defiant editorial note: “Written wholly without help of any sort by a deaf blind girl, twelve years old, and printed without change.” Wholly without help? In the five years since Annie’s arrival in Alabama, Helen had benefited from one of the most sustained, demanding, and personalized programs of help ever afforded a handicapped child. Within a year she was learning words not only from Annie’s systematic object lessons but also from the independent activity of reading books in Braille. The culture itself, as recorded in every word of the written language, was helping Helen as it helps all of us to experience situations beyond the range of our senses. None of us would write a word without help. The pertinent question is: Did Helen receive help with these specific pages?

My mother’s tender arms.” “My little heart.” “I awoke with joy in my heart.” Much of the phrasing in “My Story” is stilted and bookish; it testifies to a precocious mind suspended between childhood and maturity. Could that twelve-year-old girl, living in soundless, imageless blankness yet eager to be like those around her, have composed the following account of learning the meaning of her first word, w-a-t-e-r, spelled rapidly into her hand at the water pump five years earlier?

That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song. Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought.

A soul full of song? To light the lamp of thought by means of words? Helen did not create these expressive metaphors ex nihilo: she adopted and adapted them from the Romantic poets she was reading. I find it believable that Helen composed that vivid account “without anyone’s help,” using her own fund of words.

The following paragraph furnishes another example. Learning the word “baby” to refer to her infant cousin suggested to Helen an obvious yet momentous thought: “I was myself, and not a baby.” We can almost hear Helen’s “self” forming within her chamber of thought along with those earliest words. The greatest wonder occurred a little later at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where many students knew and used the manual alphabet. That circumstance inspired the most spontaneous lines in the Youth’s Companion sketch. “Oh, what happiness! to talk freely with other children! to feel at home in the great world!” Plagiarism does not enter here.

My Story” offers us a hodgepodge of formulaic phrases and poetic passages that confirm Helen’s absorption of Annie’s lessons and of the world of books. At twelve, what could Helen aspire to become in her deaf-blind world other than the writer of her own story?

In her ensuing teenage years, Helen enrolled in two schools in New York and Boston, and undertook with Annie and a tutor in mathematics and Latin a demanding academic program of preparation for the admission examinations to Radcliffe College. Then during the opening years of the new millennium, Helen and Annie shouldered an immense physical and mental load. Granted admission to Radcliffe, Helen assimilated, through Annie’s faculties and unresting hand, lectures and books otherwise beyond her ken. And this was only the beginning. While barely keeping abreast of the courses, Helen and Annie met relentless deadlines to produce The Story of My Life—first in the fall of 1902 as six monthly installments in the Ladies’ Home Journal and then in the spring of 1903 as a four-hundred-page book for Doubleday in New York. For these editorial tasks they procured the help of John Macy, a gifted Harvard English instructor in his twenties. He became a virtual member of this unconventional family and married Annie in 1905.

In addition to all these tasks, Helen had the idea of writing a book of her own, not something commissioned by an enterprising editor in New York. It appeared in November 1903. Identified on the title page as “an essay,” its seventy-five large-type pages bound into a slender green volume, Optimism is the least known of Keller’s books and the easiest to dismiss as naive and sentimental. But she stands her ground:

If I am happy in spite of my deprivations, if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life,—if, in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.

Two pages later she tells us, “I know what evil is,” and that she has gained strength from struggling against evil. This short pamphlet presents both an extended logical argument about the social rewards of optimism and a declaration of personal faith in life as God has created it.

The two strands mingle near the end in a passage where Keller mounts an unhesitating attack on the moral evils of a pessimistic religion based on reincarnation and the caste system:

In India it is a sin to teach the blind and the deaf because their affliction is regarded as a punishment for offences in a previous state of existence.

  1. 1

    John Macy makes the statement at the very end of his two-part article “Helen Keller as She Really Was,” (Ladies’ Home Journal, October– November 1902). His article followed the six-part appearance in the same magazine of The Story of My Life and described the material and editorial challenge of preparing her autobiography for publication.

  2. 2

    Just published in a new, unabridged edition: Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, edited by Roger Shattuck and Dorothy Herrmann (Norton, 2003).

  3. 3

    The World I Live In has just been published in a new edition by New York Review Books. This essay appears as its introduction.

  4. 4

    See Keller, The Story of My Life, pp. 198–210.

  5. 5

    Keller, The Story of My Life, p. 63.

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