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A reminder of miracles

May 04, 2003|Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

The Story of My Life

The Restored Classic 1903-2003

Helen Keller

With supplementary accounts by Anne Sullivan,

her teacher, and John Macy

Edited by Roger Shattuck with Dorothy Hermann

W.W. Norton: 352 pp., $24.95

*

Mark Twain, certainly not one to indulge in sugary sentiment, declared that the two most interesting characters of the 19th century were Napoleon Bonaparte and Helen Keller. Keller, of course, lived her adult life in the 20th century, but it says something about the age in which we live that her gentler, less equivocal virtues no longer seem to command the attention, let alone the sheer sense of wonder, they once did.

Everyone knows the story of Helen Keller is a story of a courageous young girl, blind and deaf from the age of 19 months, overcoming seemingly insuperable odds. And almost everyone knows it is also the story of a dedicated and resourceful teacher, the 20-year-old Anne Sullivan, herself partially blind, who miraculously managed to break down the walls of blankness and silence surrounding the willful, confused, seemingly uncontrollable 7-year-old Helen. The drama inherent in this aspect of the story was brilliantly captured by William Gibson in his 1957 televised play "The Miracle Worker," later adapted for the stage and made into a film. But there's more to the story, so much more.

The story of Keller's journey from isolation to understanding is a kind of "Education of Henry Adams" with optimistic progressivism replacing pessimistic disillusion. Born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, a small town in northern Alabama, the indulged daughter of a conventional Southern family, Helen Keller not only learned to overcome her own disabilities but also developed a keen social conscience and fierce sense of justice. Yet her political views, controversial enough in her time to arouse the anxieties of J. Edgar Hoover, are all but forgotten today. Her passionate sympathy for the poor, downtrodden and disadvantaged led her to join the Socialist Party in 1909 and support its distinguished candidate, Eugene V. Debs, in the presidential election of 1912. Keller was a friend of the communist John Reed and the anarchist Emma Goldman, and an ardent supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World, the so-called Wobblies, the radical left-wing labor union.

Not surprisingly, she advocated women's suffrage. Perhaps a little more surprisingly for a native of Alabama -- and much to the distress of her Southern family -- Keller championed the rights of African Americans and was an early supporter of the NAACP: "The outrages against the coloured people are a denial of Christ," she declared in a letter printed by W.E.B. DuBois. She publicly criticized discrimination against blacks and Jews at Harvard: "Harvard, in discriminating against the Jew and the Negro on grounds other than intellectual qualifications, has proved unworthy of its traditions and covered itself with shame."

Keller's work on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind, a cause that was understandably the closest to her heart, put her under pressure to be less controversial. Also, because her family lost its money, she was sometimes unwillingly obliged to depend on the beneficence of wealthy patrons like Andrew Carnegie, who (semi-jocularly, one presumes) threatened to put her over his knee and spank her for espousing socialism. A public accustomed to thinking of Keller as an ethereal figure, safely beyond the controversies of politics, was shocked by the series of essays explaining her commitment to socialism in her 1913 book "Out of the Dark." Critics claimed that Keller was only aping the leftist views of her mentor and editor John Macy, a charge that distressed her deeply.

Indeed, as one reads "The Story of My Life," written when Keller was still a Radcliffe College junior, one can see that her ideas about politics and society had their roots in her own sensory impressions of the world in which she lived. As she explains to her readers, you don't need eyes and ears -- or even books -- to sense what's wrong:

"People who think that all sensations reach us through the eye and the ear have expressed surprise that I should notice any difference

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