Braille Monitor                                                 October 2011

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Featured Book from the Jacobus tenBroek Library
Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait by Van Wyck Brooks, New York: Dutton, 1956

Reviewed by Ed Morman

In this woodcut two blind students of the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, the Parisian school with which Louis Braille was associated, are depicted operating a printing press. Printing was one of the professions blind people in France were often trained in during the early nineteenth century.From the Editor: With some regularity we spotlight books in the tenBroek Library. Here is librarian Ed Morman's review of a book in our collection:

To those who remember Helen Keller in her later years, she was a dignified, kindly looking older lady, conservative in dress and comfortable in the company of prominent people ranging from popular entertainers to world leaders. She posed for photos with eyes open and was not often recorded speaking. Although her fame rested, first of all, on her deaf-blindness, it was easy to see her as simply a celebrity who devoted herself to good causes.

But there was much more to Helen Keller as revealed in her own writings and in this book. Its author, Van Wyck Brooks, was a historian of American literature and a member of the social circle of Connecticut intellectuals that included Keller. He wrote Sketch for a Portrait some twenty years after first meeting her, and like many of her acquaintances and friends from the start he had found her to be charming and fun to be around.

Helen Keller was almost certainly a genius; she was unquestionably a fascinating character. Anyone looking at Keller’s life, though, must recognize that, although she became well known as a result of being deaf and blind, there was much more to her than absence of sight and hearing. And, though she generally depended on an intermediary in order to communicate with other people, she formed her own opinions and was outspoken in her beliefs.

Like Louis Braille’ Keller’s talents became evident as a teenager. She wrote her first autobiography, The Story of My Life, while an undergraduate at Radcliffe College. No amateurish piece of juvenilia, this is a lucid memoir written in an elegant style. A few years later—in response to a clamor for more information about how she perceived her surroundings, what she understood of things too big or too distant for tactile inspection, and what she dreamed—she produced The World I Live In. Never a slave to the desires of others, she eventually let people know that she had opinions and thoughts about things other than her own condition. She could have used a copy of the NFB’s “Courtesy Rules of Blindness.” Rule number 9 states: “I'll discuss blindness with you if you're curious, but it's an old story to me. I have as many other interests as you do.”

Helen Keller was born on her family’s property in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. Her family was well established, but hardly wealthy. Her father had been an officer in the Confederate Army and made his living publishing a newspaper. Keller lost her sight and hearing as the result of an illness when she was nineteen months old. Unable to communicate well, by the time she reached school age her parents found her difficult to control.

How the Kellers happened to engage Anne Sullivan as Helen’s teacher is a fascinating story, involving Charles Dickens’s writings about his visit to the United States and a direct appeal to Alexander Graham Bell. Eventually the Kellers were referred to Michael Anagnos, Samuel Gridley Howe’s successor as director of the Perkins School. Howe had taught the deaf-blind Laura Bridgman, and the Kellers hoped that Anagnos would be able to help with their daughter. As it turned out, Helen Keller was not simply another Laura Bridgman (who spent her whole life at Perkins with limited outside contact). Once she learned to communicate well, Keller demonstrated intellectual brilliance and an urgent desire to explore the world around her. Her mind was matched by a strong body, and she prided herself on her rowing, her ability to climb trees, and other evidences of athletic skill.

Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was at the right place at the right time for recruitment into this job. An impoverished orphan with some residual vision (vision that increased for a while and eventually diminished entirely), Sullivan had herself been educated at Perkins and needed a paying job once she graduated. Although Anagnos made several mistakes in his dealings with Keller, he hit a home run in his choice of Sullivan to be her teacher.

Sullivan began teaching Keller by finger-spelling words on the seven-year-old’s palm. At first these words had no meaning for Keller, but in a sudden realization she connected the feeling of water with the letters w-a-t-e-r. From then on there was no stopping her. The story as told in the film, The Miracle Worker, conforms to the events as recounted by both Keller and Sullivan.

Of course Sullivan was not a miracle worker at all. She was an intuitive teacher who trusted and loved her student and who brought to the relationship a willingness to work hard and a set of skills she had learned as a child from observing Howe and Laura Bridgman.

After little more than a year, Sullivan and Keller left Alabama for the Boston area, where they could interact with people at the Perkins school. Although Keller never enrolled at Perkins, Anagnos took it upon himself to publicize Sullivan’s successes. Keller quickly became a well-known phenomenon and began meeting notable people from all walks of life. When Mark Twain, then in his fifties, got to know the teenaged Keller, he counted her among his personal friends. He described her as one of the most important people of the century and arranged for a wealthy friend to provide a stipend for Keller and Sullivan, so that they could continue what had become a partnership in Keller’s development.

Communication through fingerspelling was not sufficient for Keller, and neither was the English language. By the time she entered college, she could read Braille and other embossed codes, she could write using a board with metal rods, she could type and use a Brailler, and she was proficient in several languages, ancient and modern. She very much wanted to learn to speak and took special lessons developed by teachers of the deaf. One of her great disappointments was that her speech was never easily intelligible to people who did not know her well.

In 1905 Sullivan married John Macy, a socialist literary critic and Harvard instructor. Macy took charge of publishing Keller’s life story, appending to Keller’s manuscript, first, a series of letters she had written starting when she was just beginning to communicate and, second, Sullivan’s letters and recollections of the process of teaching language to Keller. Although Macy possibly inserted himself too strongly into the book, he did provide a great service by including the series of letters that show Keller’s phenomenal progress in her ability to communicate, not merely clearly, but with style.

Keller lived with the Macys for several years, until Macy and Sullivan drifted apart. Once the marriage disintegrated, the two women proceeded on their own, living mainly on income from Keller’s writings and lectures. Meanwhile, in her early adulthood, Keller became a socialist, a supporter of trade unions and racial justice, and a pacifist. At the same time she became strongly influenced by the religious and philosophical writing of the eighteenth-century theologian, Emmanuel Swedenborg. At one point she had plans to marry another socialist activist, but her mother intervened to prevent this. Keller’s disappointment at never being able to speak clearly was matched by her disappointment at never marrying.

Because Keller insisted on writing about her political and religious views—and not just her life and how she perceived the world—the demand for her writing declined. Needing money, she and Sullivan sought other sources of income. They visited Hollywood, then just becoming the center of movie making, where they met Charlie Chaplin and flew in an airplane and where Keller performed in a silent film. But while a career in the movies was not in the cards, the stage beckoned. They were hired to tour with a vaudeville company, presenting a twenty-minute act in which Keller would answer questions posed to her by audience members. During this time Keller met performers such as Sophie Tucker, who advised her on grooming. Because of the greater income and because she was able to be frank in her responses to questions in the vaudeville houses, Keller preferred vaudeville to the lecture circuit. No one ever suggested that it was demeaning for Keller and Sullivan to present themselves in this way.

Although Keller was strong and healthy, Sullivan was beginning to feel her age, and they gave up vaudeville in 1922 after two years on the road. By that time the American Foundation for the Blind had been established by people whom Keller and Sullivan had come to know through the Perkins School and other connections. The AFB seemed a good match, and Keller joined its staff.

By the time Van Wyck Brooks met her in 1932, Keller was, in many ways, the public face of the AFB. She believed she was serving the blind of the U.S. and the world by working for the foundation and traveling the world as its spokesperson. It is ironic that this highly accomplished and outspoken deaf-blind woman was never affiliated with either the organized blind or the organized deaf. To Federationists she was too closely associated with the blindness establishment and its paternalism. And many deaf activists resented her attachment to finger spelling and to Alexander Graham Bell’s insistence that the deaf should learn to speak. Through her life Keller opposed the use of American Sign Language, in part because she could not use it herself, but also because she believed it would lead to segregation of the deaf from the rest of society. Keller desperately wanted to be part of society—and if one believes Van Wyck Brooks, who wrote this entertaining book after knowing her for twenty years--she succeeded admirably, even with her poor enunciation.

Anne Sullivan remained Helen Keller’s companion until her death in 1936. Totally blind in her final years and not proficient at Braille, Sullivan ultimately relied on Keller to read to her. After Sullivan died, her place as Keller’s companion was taken by Polly Thomson, who had been working for the two women for several years. With Thomson, Keller traveled widely for the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind, accomplishing much good in providing resources for the education of blind people in poorer countries.

Helen Keller was sixty years old in 1940, when Jacobus tenBroek founded the National Federation of the Blind, and she remained active into her eighties. Therefore, for a period of more than twenty years Keller could have collaborated with the NFB—yet it is very possible that she was never even aware of the Federation’s existence. TenBroek Library staff have found no correspondence between NFB leaders and Keller, and the finding aid for the Helen Keller Papers at the American Foundation for the Blind has no mention of the NFB or Jacobus tenBroek. Regardless of the Federation’s past conflicts with the AFB and the rest of the old blindness establishment, it is fitting that Federationists recognize Keller’s achievements and her unique standing.

Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait is available in Braille from the NLS (BRA11078) and in Talking Book format from other libraries. Other biographies abound, but Keller’s own autobiographical writings, including My Religion and Teacher (her biography of Anne Sullivan) are better sources and are available from the NLS and elsewhere. Keller’s political beliefs are discussed by Brook and further documented in The Radical Lives of Helen Keller by Kim E. Nielsen (which unfortunately does not appear to be available in accessible format). 

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