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.


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.

She has no tolerance for Hindu fatalism. Keller’s own philosophy and her astonishing career to the age of twenty-four intersect in this sentence. Hers is not the optimism of Pangloss and Polyanna. Enterprise, not complacency, drove her confidence. Along with many beautifully conceived passages about faith and the works of God, this passionate little pamphlet gives early evidence of her concern with politics and social reform.

I consider Optimism a more “thoughtful” book—to use her adjective—than her later book on Swedenborgianism, My Religion (1927). Optimism contains one of her most suggestive and cryptic sentences: “Philosophy is the history of a deaf-blind person writ large.” Haeckel’s famous biogenetic law, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” was probably unknown to Helen, but what she has done here is to cast it in cultural and—more strikingly yet—personal terms. This calm declaration shows her taking her own altogether exceptional experience as definitive and universal, finding in it a parallel to one of the most profound fields of human inquiry. It is a bold and broad-minded conception. Helen’s subsequent long life of dedicated service affirms her steadfast humanity.

In the spring of 1904 Helen, flanked by Annie, received her degree cum laude from Radcliffe College. Writing deadlines disappeared; book royalties brought financial security; fame and independence awaited them. The two exhausted women, age twenty-four and thirty-eight, moved to a roomy farmhouse they bought near friends in Wrentham, outside of Boston.


Reaching Beyond ‘The Story of My Life’

For the first time in their lives Helen and Annie had a home of their own and time to walk in the woods, admire the local stone walls, and ride horseback. Of course the two attractive young celebrities were not left unattended. They received family, friends, and visitors, many from abroad. Aided by Annie, Helen gave talks in Boston and New York, primarily to help the blind. John Macy, who was falling in love with Annie and acting as Helen’s secretary, agent, assistant, and tutor, spent more and more time in Wrentham. And Richard Watson Gilder, a recognized poet and editor of the widely respected Century Magazine, made repeated requests in person and in letters for Helen’s writing on a variety of subjects. Four contributions by Helen appeared in the Century between 1904 and 1908 under various titles, including “Sense and Sensibility.” With an added chapter they were collected in a two-hundred-page volume that Helen entitled The World I Live In. It appeared in October 1908.

As a writer, Helen had first made her mark five years earlier with The Story of My Life, written under crushing deadlines. Now in the more leisurely schedule and surroundings of Wrentham, she produced not a narrative but a series of reflective essays about sensory experience, sustained introspection, and philosophical ideas. When we consider the intermittent composition of the essays, they have a surprisingly sturdy structure. In collecting them into a book, Helen placed them in a playful frame. The brief preface chaffs Gilder for instructing her not to “change the subject” from herself to, for example, the tariff or the Dreyfus case. And the long chapter she added at the end, “A Waking Dream,” picks up that foolery by mocking her own fantasy life even as she gives a stunning account of how her literary culture nourishes her emotional life. Helen here reveals an endearing sense of the grotesque.

Within this lighthearted frame, the essays fall into three parts. The first seven chapters deal with how convincingly Helen’s three senses, particularly touch, supply her with a full account of the external world. The central chapters (7 to 11) describe how the gradual unfolding of the senses through imagination and analogy nurture in her a thinking mind and a sense of self. The last three chapters turn increasingly inward and offer a carefully documented, almost scientific account of her dreams.

I find that Chapter 8, “The Five-sensed World,” does the best job of encapsulating Helen’s fundamental argument: the deaf-blind person need not be or be considered disabled. An enterprising imagination will give the deaf-blind person “the secret inner will” to find the “analogies” that imply the full sensorium. And then comes this passage:

The blind man of spirit faces the unknown and grapples with it, and what else does the world of seeing men do? He has imagination, sympathy, humanity, and these ineradicable existences compel him to share by a sort of proxy in a sense he has not. When he meets terms of color, light, physiognomy, he guesses, divines, puzzles out their meaning by analogies drawn from the senses he has. I naturally tend to think, reason, draw inferences as if I had five senses instead of three. This tendency is beyond my control; it is involuntary, habitual, instinctive. I cannot compel my mind to say “I feel” instead of “I see” or “I hear.” The word “feel” proves on examination to be no less a convention than “see” and “hear” when I seek for words accurately to describe the outward things that affect my three bodily senses. When a man loses a leg, his brain persists in impelling him to use what he has not and yet feels to be there. Can it be that the brain is so constituted that it will continue the activity which animates the sight and the hearing, after the eye and the ear have been destroyed?

If an amputee still feels sensations located in his lost leg, can undamaged visual centers in the brain of a blind person reconstruct visual sensations from connections other than ocular, with the help of the mysterious faculty of imagination?

It is a striking question, based on an uncertain analogy. In the phantom limb phenomenon, the subject is repeating, remembering, sensations he has felt many times before. At age seven, after five years of silent, gray blankness, Keller did not have enough memory of her first nineteen months of sight and hearing to experience the phantom effect for her missing senses. Twenty years later, however, venturing to the furthest edge of cognitive and neurological self-examination, she is implying here that something other than ear and eye impulses may stimulate appropriate areas of the brain to experience sounds and images. Everything she ever wrote before and after this passage testifies that the proxy stimulus comes from words—words with much of their meaning furnished by analogy, association, and imagination. Years later, in her long-postponed book Teacher (1955), Keller decided not to use the first-person pronoun to refer to herself between the ages of nineteen months and seven years. Instead, she called that lost, mute, self-absorbed creature “Phantom.”

In “The Five-sensed World,” Helen affirms that the deaf-blind person is not crippled and that “all humanly knowable truth is open to him.” (She appears to be alluding to the famous maxim of Terence on human nature: “I am a human being. Nothing human is alien to me.”) She opens the following paragraph with a thunderclap. “The bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction.” She writes not as a postmodernist questioning everything, but as an introspective psychologist marveling at the restorative capacities of the mind. Oliver Sacks in A Leg to Stand On and other books writes with comparable insight about phantom limbs refusing to go away and atrophied reflexes coming back to life after long dormancy.

In Chapter 12, “The Larger Sanctions,” Keller takes up the principle of correspondences among all parts of the world, between unseen and seen, between mind and matter, as one of the “sanctions” supporting the inner healing of a physically disabled person. Earlier in the book she invokes Descartes’ formula “I think, therefore I am,” to establish her own existence. She later goes a step further to reclaim the deaf and the blind by affirming the Platonic principle that “the real world exists only for the mind.” At the same time everything she writes about touch and her hand tends with equal urgency toward the physical world. Her thinking resembled that of one of the most modest and shrewd of all inventors, who wrote calmly to his beloved sister: “My imagination pictures things more vividly than my eyes.” Those are the words of Wilbur Wright in 1907.

In the midst of her impassioned testimony about how an unimpaired mind may overcome impaired senses through analogies and correspondences, through the “internal sense” provided by the imagination, Keller composed a chapter to which her mother objected because it painted so dire a picture of Helen’s infancy. For ten pages in Chapter 11, “Before the Soul Dawn,” Keller set aside her argument about the nature of mind in order to retell the earliest scenes of her sensory loss followed by redemption through the manual alphabet. “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world.” Keller now rewrites The Story of My Life in language struggling to be both autobiographical and professional. One hears, I believe, the effort to extract the primal memory and the resolve to find simple language in which to record it:

I had neither will nor intellect…. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking.

Psychologists today would hesitate to offer a description of mental events in terms so close to behaviorism, which equates thinking with incipient behavior. But Keller lived closer than most of us to both reflex and conscious action. In the previous chapter, pursuing the same goal of total candor, Keller carried her writing to the far edge of comprehensibility. “I declare that for me branched thoughts, instead of pines, wave, sway, rustle, make musical the ridges of mountains rising summit upon summit.” I understand this curious sentence as an intuitive description of neurons and synapses in action at the seat of thought. In a comparable fashion Claude Monet in his last paintings, when he was nearly blind, set down on canvas not so much the garden scene before him as the swirling, tumultuous responses of his own retinas.6

At the end of the book, following two chapters about her ordinary dreams, Helen added a chapter, “A Waking Dream.” “One day” she sits down at her typewriter to compose an essay for which she already has a working plan. But her thoughts will not come to her call: they are having a “party” and pay no attention. Helen resigns herself to watch “the merry frolic.” First she sees in her mind a jumbled procession of thoughts, images, and phrases “until my head sang like a buzz-saw.” (This is the most piercing, specifically rural, and personal simile in her writing: she would have heard the scream of a buzz-saw with her entire body.) Next she notices an eruption of “figures” from Homer to Kipling accompanied by “a rushing swarm of quotations.” They set the whole school curriculum to dancing comically before her. The scene becomes increasingly grotesque, like the nineteenth-century French lithographs of Grandville depicting humans as musical instruments. At last Helen, feeling drowsy, literally wakes herself up by nodding off to sleep. Bottom or Alice could be directing this motley cast.

Sections of “A Waking Dream” approach automatic writing not unlike what the Surrealists produced at their “research” sessions in the 1920s. The end becomes somewhat contrived. When, near the beginning, Helen tells the reader, “Shut your eyes, and see them come—the knights and ladies of my revel,” she is reminding us that her eyes are always shut tight, and that she is condemned forever to be watching the waking dream of her own thought. The passing figures, from Pan and Bottom to the stately allegorical giants History and Philosophy, impel us to see the whole exercise both as mockery of her own writing and as testimony to its high seriousness. Can she and we really have it both ways? Keller’s readers have been reluctant to recognize her strong comic bent.


Reader Response: Mark Twain and William James

The World I Live In received genuinely respectful attention when it appeared in 1908. It never won the wide readership and classic status of The Story of My Life, to which it was both sequel and corrective. The World I Live In was out of print for decades in spite of its wonderful readability on subtle questions of perception and consciousness. For the new edition just being published, it is appropriate to recall the response of two great American authors to this unassuming book.

Entering his mid-seventies, Mark Twain had already made admiring statements about Helen and Annie. When he received The World I Live In, he made no public pronouncement. Instead, he effectively summoned his two friends along with Annie’s new husband, John Macy, to his Connecticut mansion for a command performance—of themselves. In a vivid account of the visit, Helen describes how Twain, with his white suit, trademark cigar, and eloquent profanity, opened his life to them and enacted his admiration and affection for this pair of exceptional women. Helen’s portrait of Twain reveals as much about herself as about him:

I recall many talks with him about human affairs. He never made me feel that my opinions were worthless, as so many people do. He knew that we do not think with eyes and ears, and that our capacity for thought is not measured by five senses. He kept me always in mind while he talked, and he treated me like a competent human being. That is why I loved him.

Perhaps my strongest impression of him was that of sorrow. There was about him the air of one who had suffered greatly. Whenever I touched his face his expression was sad, even when he was telling a funny story. He smiled, not with the mouth but with his mind—a gesture of the soul rather than of the face. His voice was truly wonderful. To my touch, it was deep, resonant. He had the power of modulating it so as to suggest the most delicate shades of meaning and he spoke so deliberately that I could get almost every word with my fingers on his lips.7

Twain died the following year without seeing them again. Helen’s delightful and moving pages, collected in Chapter IV of Midstream, demonstrate that the lack of sight and hearing need not prevent an observant mind from working as a first-rate journalist. The essential thoughts and details in that passage were not supplied by Annie and John.

The other writer to respond spontaneously to The World I Live In was William James. He too was approaching the end of his career, having published Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902 and Pragmatism in 1907. Like Mark Twain he died in 1910. The letter he sent to Helen just a few weeks after he received a copy of World was no perfunctory or polite acknowledgment. James wrote, in longhand, about the center of his preoccupations with medicine, psychology, and philosophy.8

December 9, 1908

Dear Miss Keller,

I cannot forbear sending you a word of thanks for having written “the world I live in,” and of praise for the success with which you have told so much truth about human nature which nobody had suspected. Evidently sensations as such form the relatively smaller part of the world we mentally live in, relations being the things of most interest there, and the whole spread & extent and interest consisting of material suggested and treated analogically, and being practically quite as vast in one person as in another, and similar in effects of contrast etc., and in aesthetic and moral appeal in us all. I have found the book extraordinarily instructive.

I won’t praise your power over language, or your clearness of discrimination or your genius for psychological insight, for I don’t want to add to the spoiling process to which you have been subjected so long!!! The sum of it is that you’re a blessing & I’ll kill anyone who says you’re not!

I think your love of writing has let your pen run away with you the least bit in Chaps XIV & XV [“Dreams and Reality” and “A Waking Dream”], but I admire the Whitmanesque poem, and I think that the optimism that streams from this book is a splendid moral inspiration to the reader.

Helen answered immediately, coming back to the question of different kinds of memory. Too easily, perhaps, she granted that

my fancy ran away with me in chapters 14 and 15. I was trying to describe some impressions I have of our dream-experiences. I had too much fun with the waking dreams to be precise.

I do not think I truly remember emotions which I experienced before I was taught. I knew I had them because I have a tactual memory of shedding tears, screaming, kicking, and other acts which indicate feeling. Yet in no case can I recall the emotions as such. I used to hunt for good things to eat, and when I failed to find them, I cried. But, to save my life, I can’t remember the disappointment which caused the tears. I am astonished that there should be such distinct images of different acts in my mind side by side with such a vacuum of emotional memory.

James wrote back equally promptly, picking up the two terms Helen had relied on heavily in the book to explain the texture of her perceptions: imagination and analogy.

I have no explanation of the lack of emotional memory you speak of, and in general I am quite disconcerted, professionally speaking, by your account of yourself before your “consciousness” was awakened by instruction. But whatever you were or are, you’re a blessing!

It is no paradox that you live in a world so indistinguishable from ours. The great world of the background, in all of us is the world of our beliefs: That is the world of the permanencies and the immensities, and our relations with it are mostly verbal. We think of its history and structure in verbal terms exclusively—the sensations we have of the remote and the hidden being the merest incipiencies and hints which, as you so well show, we extend by imagination or add to by analogy.

But it makes no difference in what shape the content of our verbal material may come. In some it is more optical, in others more motor in nature. In you it is motor and tactile, but its functions are the same as ours, the relations meant by the words symbolizing the relations existing between the things.

In the last two paragraphs of the above quotation, James acknowledges that our relations with the background world of beliefs are forged principally by words, which in turn rely on imagination and analogy to extend their meaning. Through the symbolic power of words Helen can reach “the relations existing between things.” I read James as affirming that Helen Keller became fully human and overcame her physical handicaps through the power of language as communication and as an extension of experience.

James welcomes Helen Keller’s revelation that our mental worlds are formed not by separate sensations but by relations and analogies among things, and by a background of shared beliefs registered and communicated by the forms of a common language. The skill with which Helen Keller deploys this common language in the pages of The World I Live In leads James to declare, “It is no paradox that you live in a world so indistinguishable from ours.” Through language Helen restored her missing senses.

But what “paradox” is James denying? He has just read a book whose apparent purpose is to describe how different Helen Keller’s life and exper-ience are from his and ours. The title itself implies a world apart, cut off by her deaf-blind condition. But the effect of the book is precisely the opposite. Almost every page presents an example of shared experiences or an argument about how she can extend her experiences through analogy and imagination into areas from which we might believe her excluded. And James understands that the active element that permits the virtual restoration of Helen’s senses is the rich suggestiveness of language.

James was dogged all his life by bouts of melancholia, of deep depression. A year before Keller published Optimism, James had published Varieties of Religious Experience. Four of its most arresting and subtly personal chapters present a powerful defense of “morbid-mindedness” and “the sick soul” as against “healthy-mindedness.” James could well have entitled this ninety-page section (longer than Keller’s Optimism) “Pessimism.” James and Keller had met only briefly in Cambridge, were acquainted with each other’s reputation and exalted status in 1908, but had not read each other’s writings. Suddenly for a short period they seemed to give full attention to this encounter in written words, a domain where they met as equals. The correspondence enacts a beautiful pavane of two contrasting eminences paying tribute to each other. The sick-souled melancholic reaches out in genuine admiration toward the healthy-minded unstoppable victim of multiple handicaps. She looks back in sympathy at the stalwart Job-figure who has never surrendered to his illness. In such a scene, both players triumph. In a finely tuned essay on James’s state of mind during these years, Louis Menand finds the heart of James’s condition and, by extrapolation, Helen Keller’s also: “He created a philosophy of hope expressly premised on the understanding that there is, finally, no reason for hope.”9

I feel compelled now to go one step further in this examination of Helen Keller’s reliance on language to heal her handicaps. All modern thinking about language converges on the notion that language gradually results from our arbitrary association of conventional meanings with articulated sounds represented by written letters. But certain rare uses of language claim to be privileged, to surmount these rules—poetry, for example. Lessing reveals the rash ambition of poetry in one pithy sentence: “Poetry must raise its arbitrary signs to the natural: that is how it differs from prose and becomes poetry.” At the furthest extreme, “word magic” in spells and incantations presupposes a real cause-and-effect connection between words and things. “Word realism” is probably the simplest term for the way Helen Keller was able to make use of language to supply her needs through mental prosthesis. Words seconded by touch became her eyes and ears. The perceptive linguist Joseph Church wrote that word realism manifests itself in “the power that words have over us, and the sense of power over reality that words give us.” And he goes on:

Most of education, for instance, and of miseducation as well, consists in learning verbally about things we have never observed and may never observe but which we may have to think about and take account of through our lives.10

Church could be describing Annie’s language-based program of education, through which Helen came to use the verbs “see” and “hear” as if she had the required faculties. The anthropologist Terrence Deacon, writing about the role of language in human evolution, adopts the term “virtual” to refer to these unauthorized side effects:

We tell stories about our real experiences and invent stories about imaginary ones, and we even make use of these stories to organize our lives. In a real sense, we live our lives in this shared virtual world…. The doorway into this virtual world was opened to us alone [among the species] by the evolution of language.11

This “virtual world” of “things we have never observed” constitutes the world we share with Helen Keller, the world “indistinguishable from our own” in James’s phrase.

We are navigating now far from the use of language as a set of arbitrary conventions and within sight of poetry and word realism, in a world of words which have on us virtual effects verging on the real. The reason why we find a convincingly human quality in The Story of My Life and The World I Live In reaches beyond our fascination with the disabled and the handicapped. These books display the redemptive power of language in certain cases, and the power of that language to reach us all. Virtual or real, it works. This resource allowed Helen to write in her closing poem, “A Chant of Darkness”:

Search out thy blindness. It holdeth
Riches past computing.

  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.

  6. 6

    See my “Claude Monet: Approaching the Abyss,” in The Innocent Eye, reprint edition (MFA Books, 2003).

  7. 7

    Helen Keller, Midstream: My Later Life (Doubleday, Doran, 1929), pp. 66–67.

  8. 8

    The James–Keller letters are quoted in Joseph P. Lash, Helen and Teacher (Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1980), pp. 345–346.

  9. 9

    Louis Menand, “William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient,” The New York Review of Books, December 17, 1998.

  10. 10

    Joseph Church, Language and the Discovery of Reality: A Developmental Psychology of Cognition (Random House, 1961), p. 76.

  11. 11

    Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (Norton, 1997), p. 22.