Helen Keller

I grew up hearing about her, seeing the movie The Miracle Worker and reading the play. There were bad-taste Heller Keller jokes I heard as a kid, and the obits when she died. More recently I’ve been hearing about how her life has been misrepresented and under-reported (With Loewen’s entry on her in Lies Across America being a typical, but far from the only example).
So last week I finally pulled out Keller’s own autobio, The Story of my Life, that I picked up for a buck, and read it.

Jeez, this woman makes me feel inadequate.

Not only did she first have to overcome the incredible handicaop of becoming blind and deaf at the age of two from disease (probably scarlet fever), but she then went on to learn the full curriculum of a well-equipped circa 1900 school – the kinf described by Heinlein in Expanded Universe that taught Greek and Rhetoric and other such forghotten subjects.

Keller learned to speak phenomenally well (from all accounts) and studied French, German, and Latin before college, and in an age when there weren’t a lot of books printed in Braille. She writes (beautifully, by the way) about the differences between German Literature and French Literature, and her appreciation for different authors. She had a hard time with math, but studied it anyway. Its not hard to understand her difficulty with math – she couldn’t see the diagrams (and I know sighted dyslexics for whom math is a trial). And to make things worse, there were at the time three different Braille math conventions that used different symbols (I don’t know if this is still true/ I’ll bet they fixed it.)

On top of this, she met a Who’s Who of the important people of her age, including Alexander Graham Bell and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
She wrote the book (and did all this) at the tender age of 23, and had a lot of “Life” left to go.

Her NY Times obit:

I read somewhere that she was an EXTREME left-wing radical, like to left of the Kremlin. You don’t hear that too much about her (assuming it’s true).

She was a very active member of the Socialist Party. I doubt that puts her to the left of the Kremlin however (she did support some Communist causes but never joined the Communist Party). Mostly she spoke out for things like workers having the right to organize unions, women and minorities having equal rights to white men, children should be able to go to school, war was bad, and other wacky ideas like that.

Crazy talk. Kids these days, with ther newfangled ideas, y’know?

I think I remember now where I read about her lefty leanings; it was probably in “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James W. Loewen. I don’t recall specifics, but my impression was she was for much more radical leftist ideas than those you mention above.

In fact, his point was that because history books (at least the ones in school) avoid talking about her more extreme positions, people are left with the impression that the stuff you mention is representative of her politics, when in fact she was much more radical.

I’m at work, so I can’t find get specifics unfortunately. If I remember tonight (and can find the book) I’ll try to get more specific examples he mentioned.

Wikipedia has a good chunk on this

Helen Keller is featured on Alabama’s quarter.


I wonder what she’d have done if she’d been around today (assuming she was still deaf-blind) considering her obvious talents and what she did then while being sheltered to the point where it was “obvious” that she could never marry, even if she’d wanted to.

I wouldn’t want to tackle the schooling she went through, that’s for sure.