Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree. The story of how Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become widely known through the dramatic depictions of the play and film The Miracle Worker. Her birthplace in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, is now a museum and sponsors an annual "Helen Keller Day". Her birthday on June 27 is commemorated as Helen Keller Day in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania and was authorized at the federal level by presidential proclamation by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, the 100th anniversary of her birth.
Helen Keller holding a magnolia, ca. 1920.
|Born||Helen Adams Keller
June 27, 1880
Tuscumbia, Alabama, U.S.
|Died||June 1, 1968
Easton, Connecticut, U.S.
|Occupation||Author, political activist, lecturer|
|Alma mater||Radcliffe College|
A prolific author, Keller was well-traveled and outspoken in her convictions. A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women's suffrage, labor rights, socialism, antimilitarism, and other similar causes. She was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 1971 and was one of twelve inaugural inductees to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame on June 8, 2015. Helen proved to the world that deaf people could all learn to communicate and that they could survive in the hearing world. She also taught that deaf people are capable of doing things that hearing people can do. She is one of the most famous deaf people in history and she is an idol to many deaf people in the world.
Early childhood and illness
Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her family lived on a homestead, Ivy Green, that Helen's grandfather had built decades earlier. She had two younger siblings, Mildred Campbell and Phillip Brooks Keller, and two older half-brothers from her father's prior marriage, James and William Simpson Keller.
Her father, Arthur H. Keller, spent many years as an editor for the Tuscumbia North Alabamian, and had served as a captain for the Confederate Army. Her paternal grandmother was the second cousin of Robert E. Lee. Her mother, Kate Adams, was the daughter of Charles W. Adams, a Confederate general. Though originally from Massachusetts, Charles Adams also fought for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, earning the rank of colonel (and acting brigadier-general). Her paternal lineage was traced to Casper Keller, a native of Switzerland. One of Helen's Swiss ancestors was the first teacher for the deaf in Zurich. Keller reflected on this coincidence in her first autobiography, stating "that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his."
Helen Keller was born with the ability to see and hear. At 19 months old, she contracted an illness described by doctors as "an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain", which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat with Martha Washington, the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family. Even though blind and deaf, Helen Keller had passed through many obstacles and she learned to live with her disabilities. She learned how to tell which person was walking by from the vibrations their footsteps would make. The sex and age of the person could be identified by how strong and continuous the steps were.
In 1886, Keller's mother, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens' American Notes of the successful education of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman, dispatched the young Keller, accompanied by her father, to seek out physician J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore, for advice. Chisholm referred the Kellers to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school where Bridgman had been educated, which was then located in South Boston. Michael Anagnos, the school's director, asked 20-year-old former student Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired, to become Keller's instructor. It was the beginning of a 49-year-long relationship during which Sullivan evolved into Keller's governess and eventually her companion.
Anne Sullivan arrived at Keller's house in March 1887, and immediately began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with "d-o-l-l" for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present. Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. In fact, when Sullivan was trying to teach Keller the word for "mug", Keller became so frustrated she broke the mug. Keller's big breakthrough in communication came the next month, when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of "water"; she then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world. Helen Keller was viewed as isolated but she was in fact, very in touch with the outside world. She was able to enjoy music by feeling the beat and she was able to have a strong connection with animals through touch. She was delayed at picking up language, but that did not stop her from having a voice.
Starting in May 1888, Keller attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind. In 1894, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan moved to New York to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, and to learn from Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. In 1896, they returned to Massachusetts, and Keller entered The Cambridge School for Young Ladies before gaining admittance, in 1900, to Radcliffe College, where she lived in Briggs Hall, South House. Her admirer, Mark Twain, had introduced her to Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers, who, with his wife Abbie, paid for her education. In 1904, at the age of 24, Keller graduated from Radcliffe, becoming the first deaf blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She maintained a correspondence with the Austrian philosopher and pedagogue Wilhelm Jerusalem, who was one of the first to discover her literary talent.
Determined to communicate with others as conventionally as possible, Keller learned to speak, and spent much of her life giving speeches and lectures. She learned to "hear" people's speech by reading their lips with her hands—her sense of touch had become extremely subtle. She became proficient at using braille and reading sign language with her hands as well. Shortly before World War I, with the assistance of the Zoellner Quartet she determined that by placing her fingertips on a resonant tabletop she could experience music played close by.
Example of her lectures
On January 22, 1916, Helen Keller and her companion, Anne Sullivan Macy, traveled to the small town of Menomonie in western Wisconsin to deliver a lecture at the Mabel Tainter Memorial Building. Details of her talk were provided in the weekly Dunn County News on January 22, 1916:
A message of optimism, of hope, of good cheer, and of loving service was brought to Menomonie Saturday—a message that will linger long with those fortunate enough to have received it. This message came with the visit of Helen Keller and her teacher, Mrs. John Macy, and both had a hand in imparting it Saturday evening to a splendid audience that filled The Memorial. The wonderful girl who has so brilliantly triumphed over the triple afflictions of blindness, dumbness and deafness, gave a talk with her own lips on "Happiness," and it will be remembered always as a piece of inspired teaching by those who heard it.
When part of the account was reprinted in the January 20, 2016, edition of the paper under the heading "From the Files", the column compiler added
According to those who attended, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her. She was thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess and stated that the most productive pleasures she had were curiosity and imagination. Keller also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others ... Keller imparted that "helping your fellow men were one's only excuse for being in this world and in the doing of things to help one's fellows lay the secret of lasting happiness." She also told of the joys of loving work and accomplishment and the happiness of achievement. Although the entire lecture lasted only a little over an hour, the lecture had a profound impact on the audience.
Anne Sullivan stayed as a companion to Helen Keller long after she taught her. Anne married John Macy in 1905, and her health started failing around 1914. Polly Thomson was hired to keep house. She was a young woman from Scotland who had no experience with deaf or blind people. She progressed to working as a secretary as well, and eventually became a constant companion to Keller.
Keller moved to Forest Hills, Queens, together with Anne and John, and used the house as a base for her efforts on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind. "While in her thirties Helen had a love affair, became secretly engaged, and defied her teacher and family by attempting an elopement with the man she loved." He was "Peter Fagan, a young Boston Herald reporter who was sent to Helen's home to act as her private secretary when lifelong companion, Anne, fell ill."
Anne Sullivan died in 1936 after a coma, with Keller holding her hand. Keller and Thomson moved to Connecticut. They traveled worldwide and raised funds for the blind. Thomson had a stroke in 1957 from which she never fully recovered, and died in 1960. Winnie Corbally, a nurse whom they originally hired to care for Thomson in 1957, stayed on after her death and was Keller's companion for the rest of her life.
Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. She is remembered as an advocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes. The Deaf community was widely impacted by her. She traveled to twenty-five different countries giving motivational speeches about Deaf people's conditions. She was a suffragette, a pacifist, an opponent of Woodrow Wilson, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter. In 1915 she and George Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization. This organization is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. In 1920, she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Keller traveled to over 40 countries with Sullivan, making several trips to Japan and becoming a favorite of the Japanese people. Keller met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. Keller and Twain were both considered radicals at the beginning of the 20th century, and as a consequence, their political views have been forgotten or glossed over in the popular mind.
Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921. Many of her speeches and writings were about women's right to vote and the impacts of war. She had speech therapy in order to have her voice heard better by the public. When the Rockefeller-owned press refused to print her articles, she protested until her work was finally published. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency. Before reading Progress and Poverty, Helen Keller was already a socialist who believed that Georgism was a good step in the right direction. She later wrote of finding "in Henry George's philosophy a rare beauty and power of inspiration, and a splendid faith in the essential nobility of human nature."
Keller claimed that newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence before she expressed her socialist views now called attention to her disabilities. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her "mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development." Keller responded to that editor, referring to having met him before he knew of her political views:
At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him. ... Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.
Keller joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, known as the Wobblies) in 1912, saying that parliamentary socialism was "sinking in the political bog". She wrote for the IWW between 1916 and 1918. In Why I Became an IWW, Keller explained that her motivation for activism came in part from her concern about blindness and other disabilities:
I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness.
The last sentence refers to prostitution and syphilis, the former a frequent cause of the latter, and the latter a leading cause of blindness. In the same interview, Keller also cited the 1912 strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts for instigating her support of socialism.
Keller wrote a total of 12 published books and several articles.
One of her earliest pieces of writing, at age 11, was The Frost King (1891). There were allegations that this story had been plagiarized from The Frost Fairies by Margaret Canby. An investigation into the matter revealed that Keller may have experienced a case of cryptomnesia, which was that she had Canby's story read to her but forgot about it, while the memory remained in her subconscious.
At age 22, Keller published her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903), with help from Sullivan and Sullivan's husband, John Macy. It recounts the story of her life up to age 21 and was written during her time in college.
Keller wrote The World I Live In in 1908, giving readers an insight into how she felt about the world. Out of the Dark, a series of essays on socialism, was published in 1913.
When Keller was young, Anne Sullivan introduced her to Phillips Brooks, who introduced her to Christianity, Keller famously saying: "I always knew He was there, but I didn't know His name!"
Her spiritual autobiography, My Religion, was published in 1927 and then in 1994 extensively revised and re-issued under the title Light in My Darkness. It advocates the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Christian revelator and theologian who gives a spiritual interpretation of the teachings of the Bible and who claims that the second coming of Jesus Christ has already taken place. Adherents use several names to describe themselves, including Second Advent Christian, Swedenborgian, and New Church.
Keller described the progressive views of her belief in these words:
But in Swedenborg's teaching it [Divine Providence] is shown to be the government of God's Love and Wisdom and the creation of uses. Since His Life cannot be less in one being than another, or His Love manifested less fully in one thing than another, His Providence must needs be universal ... He has provided religion of some kind everywhere, and it does not matter to what race or creed anyone belongs if he is faithful to his ideals of right living.
Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1961 and spent the last years of her life at her home.
On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States' two highest civilian honors. In 1965 she was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame at the New York World's Fair.
Keller devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind. She died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, at her home, Arcan Ridge, located in Easton, Connecticut, a few weeks short of her eighty-eighth birthday. A service was held in her honor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., her body was cremated and her ashes were placed there next to her constant companions, Anne Sullivan and Polly Thomson. She was buried at the Washington National Cathedral.
She was also the subject of the documentaries Helen Keller in Her Story, narrated by Katharine Cornell, and The Story of Helen Keller, part of the Famous Americans series produced by Hearst Entertainment.
The Miracle Worker is a cycle of dramatic works ultimately derived from her autobiography, The Story of My Life. The various dramas each describe the relationship between Keller and Sullivan, depicting how the teacher led her from a state of almost feral wildness into education, activism, and intellectual celebrity. The common title of the cycle echoes Mark Twain's description of Sullivan as a "miracle worker." Its first realization was the 1957 Playhouse 90 teleplay of that title by William Gibson. He adapted it for a Broadway production in 1959 and an Oscar-winning feature film in 1962, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It was remade for television in 1979 and 2000.
In 1984, Keller's life story was made into a TV movie called The Miracle Continues. This film that entailed the semi-sequel to The Miracle Worker recounts her college years and her early adult life. None of the early movies hint at the social activism that would become the hallmark of Keller's later life, although a Disney version produced in 2000 states in the credits that she became an activist for social equality.
A documentary called Shining Soul: Helen Keller's Spiritual Life and Legacy was produced by the Swedenborg Foundation in the same year. The film focuses on the role played by Emanuel Swedenborg's spiritual theology in her life and how it inspired Keller's triumph over her triple disabilities of blindness, deafness and a severe speech impediment.
On March 6, 2008, the New England Historic Genealogical Society announced that a staff member had discovered a rare 1888 photograph showing Helen and Anne, which, although previously published, had escaped widespread attention. Depicting Helen holding one of her many dolls, it is believed to be the earliest surviving photograph of Anne Sullivan Macy.
Video footage showing Helen Keller learning to mimic speech sounds also exists.
A biography of Helen Keller was written by the German Jewish author H.J.Kaeser.
A 10-by-7-foot painting titled The Advocate: Tribute to Helen Keller was created by three artists from Kerala as a tribute to Helen Keller. The Painting was created in association with a non-profit organization Art d'Hope Foundation, artists groups Palette People and XakBoX Design & Art Studio. This painting was created for a fundraising event to help blind students in India  and was inaugurated by M. G. Rajamanikyam, IAS (District Collector Ernakulam) on Helen Keller day (June 27, 2016). The painting depicts the major events of Helen Keller's life and is one of the biggest paintings done based on Helen Keller's life.
A preschool for the deaf and hard of hearing in Mysore, India, was originally named after Helen Keller by its founder, K. K. Srinivasan. In 1999, Keller was listed in Gallup's Most Widely Admired People of the 20th century.
A stamp was issued in 1980 by the United States Postal Service depicting Keller and Sullivan, to mark the centennial of Keller's birth.
On October 7, 2009, a bronze statue of Helen Keller was added to the National Statuary Hall Collection, as a replacement for the State of Alabama's former 1908 statue of the education reformer Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry. It is displayed in the United States Capitol Visitor Center and depicts Keller as a seven-year-old child standing at a water pump. The statue represents the seminal moment in Keller's life when she understood her first word: W-A-T-E-R, as signed into her hand by teacher Anne Sullivan. The pedestal base bears a quotation in raised Latin and braille letters: "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart." The statue is the first one of a person with a disability and of a child to be permanently displayed at the U.S. Capitol.
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Sometime after she had progressed to the point that she could engage in conversation, she was told of God and his love in sending Christ to die on the cross. She is said to have responded with joy, "I always knew he was there, but I didn't know his name!"
- Helms, Harold E. (April 30, 2004). God's Final Answer. Xulon Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-1-59467-410-5. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
A favorite story about Helen Keller concerns her first introduction to the gospel. When Helen, who was both blind and deaf, learned to communicate, Anne Sullivan, her teacher, decided that it was time for her to hear about Jesus Christ. Anne called for Phillips Brooks, the most famous preacher in Boston. With Sullivan interpreting for him, he talked to Helen Keller about Christ. It wasn't long until a smile lighted up her face. Through her teacher she said, "Mr. Brooks, I have always known about God, but until now I didn't know His name."
- Dickinson, Mary Lowe; Avary, Myrta Lockett (1901). Heaven, Home And Happiness. The Christian Herald. p. 216. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
Phillips Brooks began to tell her about God, who God was, what he had done, how he loved me, and what he was to us. The child listened very intently. Then she looked up and said, "Mr. Brooks, I knew all that before, but I didn't know His name."
- Keller, Helen (March 17, 2007). My Religion. The Book Tree. pp. 177–178. ISBN 978-1-58509-284-0.
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|Booknotes interview with Dorothy Herrmann on Helen Keller: A Life October 25, 1998], C-SPAN|
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- Poems by Florence Earle Coates: "To Helen Keller", "Helen Keller with a Rose", "Against the Gate of Life"