Helen Keller

Helen Keller

(1880-1968)

Who Was Helen Keller?

Helen Keller was an American educator, advocate for the blind and deaf and co-founder of the ACLU. Stricken by an illness at the age of 2, Keller was left blind and deaf. Beginning in 1887, Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, helped her make tremendous progress with her ability to communicate, and Keller went on to college, graduating in 1904. During her lifetime, she received many honors in recognition of her accomplishments.

Early Life and Family

The family was not particularly wealthy and earned income from their cotton plantation. Later, Arthur became the editor of a weekly local newspaper, the North Alabamian .

Keller was born with her senses of sight and hearing, and started speaking when she was just 6 months old. She started walking at the age of 1.

Loss of Sight and Hearing

Keller lost both her sight and hearing at just 19 months old. In 1882, she contracted an illness — called "brain fever" by the family doctor — that produced a high body temperature. The true nature of the illness remains a mystery today, though some experts believe it might have been scarlet fever or meningitis.

Within a few days after the fever broke, Keller's mother noticed that her daughter didn't show any reaction when the dinner bell was rung, or when a hand was waved in front of her face.

As Keller grew into childhood, she developed a limited method of communication with her companion, Martha Washington, the young daughter of the family cook. The two had created a type of sign language. By the time Keller was 7, they had invented more than 60 signs to communicate with each other.

During this time, Keller had also become very wild and unruly. She would kick and scream when angry, and giggle uncontrollably when happy. She tormented Martha and inflicted raging tantrums on her parents. Many family relatives felt she should be institutionalized.

Keller's Teacher, Anne Sullivan

Keller worked with her teacher Anne Sullivan for 49 years, from 1887 until Sullivan's death in 1936. In 1932, Sullivan experienced health problems and lost her eyesight completely. A young woman named Polly Thomson, who had begun working as a secretary for Keller and Sullivan in 1914, became Keller's constant companion upon Sullivan's death.

Looking for answers and inspiration, Keller's mother came across a travelogue by Charles Dickens, American Notes, in 1886. She read of the successful education of another deaf and blind child, Laura Bridgman, and soon dispatched Keller and her father to Baltimore, Maryland to see specialist Dr. J. Julian Chisolm.

After examining Keller, Chisolm recommended that she see Alexander Graham Bell , the inventor of the telephone, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell met with Keller and her parents, and suggested that they travel to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan in July 1888

There, the family met with the school's director, Michael Anaganos. He suggested Keller work with one of the institute's most recent graduates, Sullivan.

On March 3, 1887, Sullivan went to Keller's home in Alabama and immediately went to work. She began by teaching six-year-old Keller finger spelling, starting with the word "doll," to help Keller understand the gift of a doll she had brought along. Other words would follow.

At first, Keller was curious, then defiant, refusing to cooperate with Sullivan's instruction. When Keller did cooperate, Sullivan could tell that she wasn't making the connection between the objects and the letters spelled out in her hand. Sullivan kept working at it, forcing Keller to go through the regimen.

As Keller's frustration grew, the tantrums increased. Finally, Sullivan demanded that she and Keller be isolated from the rest of the family for a time, so that Keller could concentrate only on Sullivan's instruction. They moved to a cottage on the plantation.

In a dramatic struggle, Sullivan taught Keller the word "water"; she helped her make the connection between the object and the letters by taking Keller out to the water pump, and placing Keller's hand under the spout. While Sullivan moved the lever to flush cool water over Keller's hand, she spelled out the word w-a-t-e-r on Keller's other hand. Keller understood and repeated the word in Sullivan's hand. She then pounded the ground, demanding to know its "letter name." Sullivan followed her, spelling out the word into her hand. Keller moved to other objects with Sullivan in tow. By nightfall, she had learned 30 words.

In 1905, Sullivan married John Macy, an instructor at Harvard University, a social critic and a prominent socialist. After the marriage, Sullivan continued to be Keller's guide and mentor. When Keller went to live with the Macys, they both initially gave Keller their undivided attention. Gradually, however, Anne and John became distant to each other, as Anne's devotion to Keller continued unabated. After several years, the couple separated, though were never divorced.

In 1890, Keller began speech classes at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. She would toil for 25 years to learn to speak so that others could understand her.

From 1894 to 1896, Keller attended the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. There, she worked on improving her communication skills and studied regular academic subjects.

Around this time, Keller became determined to attend college. In 1896, she attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, a preparatory school for women.

As her story became known to the general public, Keller began to meet famous and influential people. One of them was the writer Mark Twain , who was very impressed with her. They became friends. Twain introduced her to his friend Henry H. Rogers, a Standard Oil executive.

Rogers was so impressed with Keller's talent, drive and determination that he agreed to pay for her to attend Radcliffe College. There, she was accompanied by Sullivan, who sat by her side to interpret lectures and texts. By this time, Keller had mastered several methods of communication, including touch-lip reading, Braille, speech, typing and finger-spelling.

Keller graduated, cum laude, from Radcliffe College in 1904, at the age of 24.

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'The Story of My Life'

With the help of Sullivan and Macy, Sullivan's future husband, Keller wrote her first book, The Story of My Life . Published in 1905, the memoirs covered Keller's transformation from childhood to 21-year-old college student.

Social Activism

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Keller tackled social and political issues, including women's suffrage, pacifism, birth control and socialism.

After college, Keller set out to learn more about the world and how she could help improve the lives of others. News of her story spread beyond Massachusetts and New England. Keller became a well-known celebrity and lecturer by sharing her experiences with audiences, and working on behalf of others living with disabilities. She testified before Congress, strongly advocating to improve the welfare of blind people.

In 1915, along with renowned city planner George Kessler, she co-founded Helen Keller International to combat the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union .

When the American Federation for the Blind was established in 1921, Keller had an effective national outlet for her efforts. She became a member in 1924, and participated in many campaigns to raise awareness, money and support for the blind. She also joined other organizations dedicated to helping those less fortunate, including the Permanent Blind War Relief Fund (later called the American Braille Press).

Soon after she graduated from college, Keller became a member of the Socialist Party, most likely due in part to her friendship with John Macy. Between 1909 and 1921, she wrote several articles about socialism and supported Eugene Debs, a Socialist Party presidential candidate. Her series of essays on socialism, entitled "Out of the Dark," described her views on socialism and world affairs.

It was during this time that Keller first experienced public prejudice about her disabilities. For most of her life, the press had been overwhelmingly supportive of her, praising her courage and intelligence. But after she expressed her socialist views, some criticized her by calling attention to her disabilities. One newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle , wrote that her "mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development."

In 1946, Keller was appointed counselor of international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind. Between 1946 and 1957, she traveled to 35 countries on five continents.

In 1955, at age 75, Keller embarked on the longest and most grueling trip of her life: a 40,000-mile, five-month trek across Asia. Through her many speeches and appearances, she brought inspiration and encouragement to millions of people.

'The Miracle Worker' Movie

Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life , was used as the basis for 1957 television drama The Miracle Worker .

In 1959, the story was developed into a Broadway play of the same title, starring Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan. The two actresses also performed those roles in the 1962 award-winning film version of the play.

Awards and Honors

During her lifetime, she received many honors in recognition of her accomplishments, including the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and election to the Women's Hall of Fame in 1965.

Keller also received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple University and Harvard University and from the universities of Glasgow, Scotland; Berlin, Germany; Delhi, India; and Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was named an Honorary Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, just a few weeks before her 88th birthday. Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1961 and spent the remaining years of her life at her home in Connecticut.

During her remarkable life, Keller stood as a powerful example of how determination, hard work, and imagination can allow an individual to triumph over adversity. By overcoming difficult conditions with a great deal of persistence, she grew into a respected and world-renowned activist who labored for the betterment of others.

QUICK FACTS

  • Name: Helen Adams Keller
  • Birth Year: 1880
  • Birth date: June 27, 1880
  • Birth State: Alabama
  • Birth City: Tuscumbia
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Female
  • Best Known For: American educator Helen Keller overcame the adversity of being blind and deaf to become one of the 20th century's leading humanitarians, as well as co-founder of the ACLU.
  • Education and Academia
  • Astrological Sign: Cancer
  • Wright-Humason School for the Deaf
  • Radcliffe College
  • Cambridge School for Young Ladies
  • Horace Mann School for the Deaf
  • Death Year: 1968
  • Death date: June 1, 1968
  • Death State: Connecticut
  • Death City: Easton
  • Death Country: United States

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CITATION INFORMATION

  • Article Title: Helen Keller Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/activists/helen-keller
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: May 6, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 3, 2014
  • Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.
  • One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.
  • Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost. Sometime, somewhere, somehow we shall find that which we seek.
  • Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.
  • If it is true that the violin is the most perfect of musical instruments, then Greek is the violin of human thought.
  • A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.
  • The two greatest characters in the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller. Napoleon tried to conquer the world by physical force and failed. Helen tried to conquer the world by power of mind — and succeeded!” (Mark Twain)
  • The bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction.
  • We differ, blind and seeing, one from another, not in our senses, but in the use we make of them, in the imagination and courage with which we seek wisdom beyond the senses.
  • [T]he mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!
  • It is more difficult to teach ignorance to think than to teach an intelligent blind man to see the grandeur of Niagara.
  • Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.

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Helen Keller

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Undeterred by deafness and blindness, Helen Keller rose to become a major 20 th century humanitarian, educator and writer. She advocated for the blind and for women’s suffrage and co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union.

Born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Keller was the older of two daughters of Arthur H. Keller, a farmer, newspaper editor, and Confederate Army veteran, and his second wife Katherine Adams Keller, an educated woman from Memphis. Several months before Helen’s second birthday, a serious illness—possibly meningitis or scarlet fever—left her deaf and blind. She had no formal education until age seven, and since she could not speak, she developed a system for communicating with her family by feeling their facial expressions.

Recognizing her daughter’s intelligence, Keller’s mother sought help from experts including inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who had become involved with deaf children. Ultimately, she was referred to Anne Sullivan, a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, who became Keller’s lifelong teacher and mentor. Although Helen initially resisted her, Sullivan persevered. She used touch to teach Keller the alphabet and to make words by spelling them with her finger on Keller’s palm. Within a few weeks, Keller caught on. A year later, Sullivan brought Keller to the Perkins School in Boston, where she learned to read Braille and write with a specially made typewriter. Newspapers chronicled her progress. At fourteen, she went to New York for two years where she improved her speaking ability, and then returned to Massachusetts to attend the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. With Sullivan’s tutoring, Keller was admitted to Radcliffe College, graduating cum laude in 1904. Sullivan went with her, helping Keller with her studies. (Impressed by Keller, Mark Twain urged his wealthy friend Henry Rogers to finance her education.)

Even before she graduated, Keller published two books, The Story of My Life (1902) and Optimism (1903), which launched her career as a writer and lecturer. She authored a dozen books and articles in major magazines, advocating for prevention of blindness in children and for other causes.  

Sullivan married Harvard instructor and social critic John Macy in 1905, and Keller lived with them. During that time, Keller’s political awareness heightened. She supported the suffrage movement, embraced socialism, advocated for the blind and became a pacifist during World War I. Keller’s life story was featured in the 1919 film, Deliverance . In 1920, she joined Jane Addams, Crystal Eastman, and other social activists in founding the American Civil Liberties Union; four years later she became affiliated with the new American Foundation for the Blind in 1924.

After Sullivan’s death in 1936, Keller continued to lecture internationally with the support of other aides, and she became one of the world’s most-admired women (though her advocacy of socialism brought her some critics domestically). During World War II, she toured military hospitals bringing comfort to soldiers.

A second film on her life won the Academy Award in 1955; The Miracle Worker —which centered on Sullivan—won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize as a play and was made into a movie two years later. Lifelong activist, Keller met several US presidents and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. She also received honorary doctorates from Glasgow, Harvard, and Temple Universities.

  • “Helen Keller.” Perkins. Accessed February 4, 2015.
  • “Helen Keller.” American Foundation for the Blind. Accessed February 4, 2015.
  • "Helen Adams Keller." Dictionary of American Biography . New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988. U.S. History in Context . Accessed February 4, 2015.
  • "Keller, Helen." UXL Encyclopedia of U.S. History . Sonia Benson, Daniel E. Brannen, Jr., and Rebecca Valentine. Vol. 5. Detroit: UXL, 2009. 847-849. U.S. History in Context . Accessed February 4, 2015.
  • Ozick, Cynthia. “What Helen Keller Saw.” The New Yorker. June 16, 2003. Accessed February 4, 2015.
  • Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History: An A to Z of People, Organizations, Issues, and Events . New York: Prentice Hall, 1994.
  • PHOTO: Library of Congress

MLA - Michals, Debra.  "Helen Keller."  National Women's History Museum.  National Women's History Museum, 2015.  Date accessed.

Chicago - Michals, Debra.  "Helen Keller."  National Women's History Museum.  2015.  www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/helen-keller. 

Helen Keller: Described and Captioned Educational Media

Helen Keller Biography, American Foundation for the Blind

Helen Keller, Perkins School for the Blind

Helen Keller Birthplace

Helen Keller International

 The Miracle Worker (1962). Dir. Arthur Penn. (DVD) Film.

The Miracle Worker (2000). Dir. Nadia Tass. (DVD) Film.

Keller, Helen. The World I Live In . New York: NYRB Classics, 2004.

Ford, Carin.  Helen Keller: Lighting the Way for the Blind and Deaf .  Enslow Publishers, 2001.

Herrmann, Dorothy.  Helen Keller: A Life .  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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Helen Keller

By: History.com Editors

Updated: January 18, 2019 | Original: April 14, 2010

Helen Keller

Helen Keller was an author, lecturer, and crusader for the handicapped. Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama , She lost her sight and hearing at the age of nineteen months to an illness now believed to have been scarlet fever. Five years later, on the advice of Alexander Graham Bell , her parents applied to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston for a teacher, and from that school hired Anne Mansfield Sullivan. Through Sullivan’s extraordinary instruction, the little girl learned to understand and communicate with the world around her. She went on to acquire an excellent education and to become an important influence on the treatment of the blind and deaf.

Keller learned from Sullivan to read and write in Braille and to use the hand signals of the deaf-mute, which she could understand only by touch. Her later efforts to learn to speak were less successful, and in her public appearances she required the assistance of an interpreter to make herself understood. Nevertheless, her impact as educator, organizer, and fund-raiser was enormous, and she was responsible for many advances in public services to the handicapped.

With Sullivan repeating the lectures into her hand, Keller studied at schools for the deaf in Boston and New York City and graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1904. Her unprecedented accomplishments in overcoming her disabilities made her a celebrity at an early age; at twelve she published an autobiographical sketch in the Youth’s Companion , and during her junior year at Radcliffe, she produced her first book, The Story of My Life ,  still in print in over fifty languages. Keller published four other books of her personal experiences as well as a volume on religion, one on contemporary social problems, and a biography of Anne Sullivan. She also wrote numerous articles for national magazines on the prevention of blindness and the education and special problems of the blind.

In addition to her many appearances on the lecture circuit, Keller in 1918 made a movie in Hollywood, Deliverance , to dramatize the plight of the blind and during the next two years supported herself and Sullivan on the vaudeville stage. She also spoke and wrote in support of women’s rights and other liberal causes and in 1940 strongly backed the United States’ entry into World War II .

In 1924, Keller joined the staff of the newly formed American Foundation for the Blind as an adviser and fund-raiser. Her international reputation and warm personality enabled her to enlist the support of many wealthy people, and she secured large contributions from Henry Ford , John D. Rockefeller , and leaders of the motion picture industry. When the AFB established a branch for the overseas blind, it was named Helen Keller International. Keller and Sullivan were the subjects of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson, which opened in New York in 1959 and became a successful Hollywood film in 1962.

Widely honored throughout the world and invited to the White House by every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson , Keller altered the world’s perception of the capacities of the handicapped. More than any act in her long life, her courage, intelligence, and dedication combined to make her a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

write a biography on helen keller

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Biography Online

Biography

Helen Keller Biography

Helen_Keller

“Once I knew the depth where no hope was, and darkness lay on the face of all things. Then love came and set my soul free. Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy.”

– Helen Keller, On Optimism (1903)

Short Biography of Helen Keller

helen-keller

In 1886, Helen was sent to see an eye, ear and nose specialist in Baltimore. He put them in touch with Alexander Graham Bell , who was currently investigate issues of deafness and sound (he would also develop the first telephone) Bell was moved by the experience of working with Keller, writing that:

“I feel that in this child I have seen more of the Divine than has been manifest in anyone I ever met before.”

Alexander Bell helped Keller to visit the Perkins Institute for the Blind, and this led to a long relationship with Anne Sullivan – who was a former student herself. Sullivan was visually impaired and, aged only 20, and with no prior experience, she set about teaching Helen how to communicate. The two maintained a long relationship of 49 years.

Learning to Communicate

In the beginning, Keller was frustrated by her inability to pick up the hand signals that Sullivan was giving. However, after a frustrating month, Keller picked up on Sullivan’s system of hand signals through understanding the word water. Sullivan poured water over Keller’s left hand and wrote out on her right hand the word ‘water’. This helped Helen to fully understand the system, and she was soon able to identify a variety of household objects.

“The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.”

– Helen Keller, The Story of My Life , 1903, Ch. 4

helen-keller

Keller came into contact with American author, Mark Twain . Twain admired the perseverance of Keller and helped persuade Henry Rogers, an oil businessman to fund her education. With great difficulty, Keller was able to study at Radcliffe College, where in 1904, she was able to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree. During her education, she also learned to speak and practise lip-reading. Her sense of touch became extremely subtle. She also found that deafness and blindness encouraged her to develop wisdom and understanding from beyond the senses.

“We differ, blind and seeing, one from another, not in our senses, but in the use we make of them, in the imagination and courage with which we seek wisdom beyond the senses.”

― Helen Keller , The Five-sensed World (1910)

Keller became a proficient writer and speaker. In 1903, she published an autobiography ‘ The Story of My Life ‘ It recounted her struggles to overcome her disabilities and the way it forced her to look at life from a different perspective.

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

― Helen Keller

Political Views

Keller also wrote on political issues, Keller was a staunch supporter of the American Socialist party and joined the party in 1909. She wished to see a fairer distribution of income, and an end to the inequality of Capitalist society. She said she became a more convinced socialist after the 1912 miners strike. Her book ‘ Out of the Dark ‘ (1913) includes several essays on socialism. She supported Eugene V Debs, in each of the Presidential elections he stood for. In 1912, she joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); as well as advocating socialism, Keller was a pacifist and opposed the American involvement in World War One.

Religious Views

In religious matters, she advocated the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Christian theologian who advocated a particular spiritual interpretation of the Bible. She published ‘ My Religion ‘ in 1927.

Charity Work

From 1918, she devoted much of her time to raising funds and awareness for blind charities. She sought to raise money and also improve the living conditions of the blind, who at the time were often badly educated and living in asylums. Her public profile helped to de-stigmatise blindness and deafness. She was also noted for her optimism which she sought to cultivate.

“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.”

― Helen Keller, Optimism (1903)

Towards the end of her life, she suffered a stroke, and she died in her sleep on June 1, 1968. She was given numerous awards during her life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, by Lyndon B. Johnson.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan . “Biography of Helen Keller ”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net , Published: 1st Feb. 2014. Last updated 3rd March 2017.

Hellen Keller – The Story of My Life

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Hellen Keller – The Story of My Life at Amazon

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Helen Keller Intl

Helen keller’s life and legacy.

Portrait of American writer, educator and advocate for the disabled Helen Keller (1880 - 1968) holding a Braille volume and surrounded by shelves containing books and decorative figurines. A childhood illness left Keller blind, deaf and mute. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Helen Keller

Helen Keller is known the world over as a symbol of courage in the face of overwhelming odds.  Yet she was so much more.  A woman of luminous intelligence, high ambition and great accomplishment, she was driven by her deep compassion for others to devote her life to helping them overcome significant obstacles to living healthy and productive lives. 

A Living Legacy

Helen Keller Intl was co-founded in 1915 by two extraordinary individuals, Helen Keller and George Kessler, to assist soldiers blinded during their service in the first World War. Since our founding, we have committed ourselves to continuing Helen’s work.

Guided by her fierce optimism, we have been working on the front lines of health for more than 100 years. We deliver life-changing health care to vulnerable families in places where the need is great, but access is limited. Our proven, science-based programs empower people to create opportunities in their own lives.

Today we prioritize the essential building blocks of good health, sound nutrition and clear vision, helping millions of people create lasting change in their own lives.

Our commitment to continuing Helen’s work is firmly rooted in her own belief:

The welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all.”

A Brief Biographical Timeline

1880:  On June 27, Helen Keller is born in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

1882:   Following a bout of illness, Helen loses her sight and hearing.

1887:  Helen’s parents hire Anne Sullivan, a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, to be Helen’s tutor.  Anne begins by teaching Helen that objects have names and that she can use her fingers to spell them. Over time, Helen learns to communicate via sign language, to read and write in Braille, to touch-lip read, and to speak.

1900:  After attending schools in Boston and New York, Helen matriculates at Radcliffe College.

1903:  Helen’s first book, an autobiography called The Story of My Life , is published.

1904:  Helen graduates cum laude from Radcliffe, becoming the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

1915:  Helen, already a vocal advocate for people with disabilities, co-founds the American Foundation for Overseas Blind to support World War I veterans blinded in combat. This organization later becomes Helen Keller Intl and expands its mission to address the causes and consequences of blindness, malnutrition and poor health.

write a biography on helen keller

Help sustain—and build—Helen’s legacy.  Your donation now can transform the lives of vulnerable children and adults facing vision loss, malnutrition and diseases of poverty.

1920:  Helen helps found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

1924:  Helen joins the American Foundation for the Blind. She serves as a spokesperson and ambassador for the foundation until her death.

1946:  Helen begins touring internationally on behalf of the American Foundation for Overseas Blind (see 1915 above), expanding her advocacy for people with vision impairment.  In 11 years, she will visit 35 countries on five continents.

1956:  Helen wins an Academy Award for a documentary film about her life.

1961:  Helen suffers a stroke and retires from public life.

1964:  Helen is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson.

1968:  On June 1, Helen dies peacefully at her home in Connecticut.  Her ashes are interred at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

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Biography of Helen Keller, Deaf and Blind Spokesperson and Activist

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Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880–June 1, 1968) was a groundbreaking exemplar and advocate for the blind and deaf communities. Blind and deaf from a nearly fatal illness at 19 months old, Helen Keller made a dramatic breakthrough at the age of 6 when she learned to communicate with the help of her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Keller went on to live an illustrious public life, inspiring people with disabilities and fundraising, giving speeches, and writing as a humanitarian activist.

Fast Facts: Helen Keller

  • Known For : Blind and deaf from infancy, Helen Keller is known for her emergence from isolation, with the help of her teacher Annie Sullivan, and for a career of public service and humanitarian activism.
  • Born : June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama
  • Parents : Captain Arthur Keller and Kate Adams Keller
  • Died : June 1, 1968 in Easton Connecticut
  • Education : Home tutoring with Annie Sullivan, Perkins Institute for the Blind, Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, studies with Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, The Cambridge School for Young Ladies, Radcliffe College of Harvard University
  • Published Works : The Story of My Life, The World I Live In, Out of the Dark, My Religion, Light in My Darkness, Midstream: My Later Life
  • Awards and Honors : Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936, Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, election to the Women's Hall of Fame in 1965, an honorary Academy Award in 1955 (as the inspiration for the documentary about her life), countless honorary degrees
  • Notable Quote : "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen, nor touched ... but are felt in the heart."

Early Childhood

Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama to Captain Arthur Keller and Kate Adams Keller. Captain Keller was a cotton farmer and newspaper editor and had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War . Kate Keller, 20 years his junior, had been born in the South, but had roots in Massachusetts and was related to founding father John Adams .

Helen was a healthy child until she became seriously ill at 19 months. Stricken with an illness that her doctor called "brain fever," Helen was not expected to survive. The crisis was over after several days, to the great relief of the Kellers. However, they soon learned that Helen had not emerged from the illness unscathed. She was left blind and deaf. Historians believe that Helen had contracted either scarlet fever or meningitis.

The Wild Childhood Years

Frustrated by her inability to express herself, Helen Keller frequently threw tantrums that included breaking dishes and even slapping and biting family members. When Helen, at age 6, tipped over the cradle holding her baby sister, Helen's parents knew something had to be done. Well-meaning friends suggested that she be institutionalized, but Helen's mother resisted that notion.

Soon after the incident with the cradle, Kate Keller read a book by Charles Dickens about the education of Laura Bridgman. Laura was a deaf-blind girl who had been taught to communicate by the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. For the first time, the Kellers felt hopeful that Helen could be helped as well.

The Guidance of Alexander Graham Bell

During a visit to a Baltimore eye doctor in 1886, the Kellers received the same verdict they had heard before. Nothing could be done to restore Helen's eyesight. The doctor, however, advised the Kellers that Helen might benefit from a visit with the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, D.C.

Bell's mother and wife were deaf and he had devoted himself to improving life for the deaf, inventing several assistive devices for them. Bell and Helen Keller got along very well and would later develop a lifelong friendship.

Bell suggested that the Kellers write to the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where Laura Bridgman, now an adult, still resided. The director wrote the Kellers back, with the name of a teacher for Helen: Annie Sullivan .

Annie Sullivan Arrives

Helen Keller's new teacher had also lived through difficult times. Annie Sullivan had lost her mother to tuberculosis when she was 8. Unable to care for his children, her father sent Annie and her younger brother Jimmie to live in the poorhouse in 1876. They shared quarters with criminals, prostitutes, and the mentally ill.

Young Jimmie died of a weak hip ailment only three months after their arrival, leaving Annie grief-stricken. Adding to her misery, Annie was gradually losing her vision to trachoma, an eye disease. Although not completely blind, Annie had very poor vision and would be plagued with eye problems for the rest of her life.

When she was 14, Annie begged visiting officials to send her to school. She was lucky, for they agreed to take her out of the poorhouse and send her to the Perkins Institute. Annie had a lot of catching up to do. She learned to read and write, then later learned braille and the manual alphabet (a system of hand signs used by the deaf).

After graduating first in her class, Annie was given the job that would determine the course of her life: teacher to Helen Keller. Without any formal training to teach a deaf-blind child, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan arrived at the Keller home on March 3, 1887. It was a day that Helen Keller later referred to as "my soul's birthday."

A Battle of Wills

Teacher and pupil were both very strong-willed and frequently clashed. One of the first of these battles revolved around Helen's behavior at the dinner table, where she roamed freely and grabbed food from the plates of others.

Dismissing the family from the room, Annie locked herself in with Helen. Hours of struggle ensued, during which Annie insisted Helen eat with a spoon and sit in her chair.

In order to distance Helen from her parents, who gave in to her every demand, Annie proposed that she and Helen move out of the house temporarily. They spent about two weeks in the "annex," a small house on the Keller property. Annie knew that if she could teach Helen self-control, Helen would be more receptive to learning.

Helen fought Annie on every front, from getting dressed and eating to going to bed at night. Eventually, Helen resigned herself to the situation, becoming calmer and more cooperative.

Now the teaching could begin. Annie constantly spelled words into Helen's hand, using the manual alphabet to name the items she handed to Helen. Helen seemed intrigued but did not yet realize that what they were doing was more than a game.

Helen Keller's Breakthrough

On the morning of April 5, 1887, Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller were outside at the water pump, filling a mug with water. Annie pumped the water over Helen's hand while repeatedly spelling “w-a-t-e-r” into her hand. Helen suddenly dropped the mug. As Annie later described it, "a new light came into her face." She understood.

All the way back to the house, Helen touched objects and Annie spelled their names into her hand. Before the day was over, Helen had learned 30 new words. It was just the beginning of a very long process, but a door had been opened for Helen.

Annie also taught her how to write and how to read braille. By the end of that summer, Helen had learned more than 600 words. 

Annie Sullivan sent regular reports on Helen Keller's progress to the director of the Perkins Institute. On a visit to the Perkins Institute in 1888, Helen met other blind children for the first time. She returned to Perkins the following year and stayed for several months of study.

High School Years

Helen Keller dreamed of attending college and was determined to get into Radcliffe , a women's university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, she would first need to complete high school.

Helen attended a high school for the deaf in New York City, then later transferred to a school in Cambridge. She had her tuition and living expenses paid for by wealthy benefactors.

Keeping up with school work challenged both Helen and Annie. Copies of books in braille were rarely available, requiring that Annie read the books, then spell them into Helen's hand. Helen would then type out notes using her braille typewriter. It was a grueling process.

Helen withdrew from the school after two years, completing her studies with a private tutor. She gained admission to Radcliffe in 1900, making her the first deaf-blind person to attend college.

Life as a Coed

College was somewhat disappointing for Helen Keller. She was unable to form friendships both because of her limitations and the fact that she lived off campus, which further isolated her. The rigorous routine continued, in which Annie worked at least as much as Helen. As a result, Annie suffered severe eyestrain.

Helen found the courses very difficult and struggled to keep up with her workload. Although she detested math, Helen did enjoy English classes and received praise for her writing. Before long, she would be doing plenty of writing.

Editors from Ladies' Home Journal offered Helen $3,000, an enormous sum at the time, to write a series of articles about her life.

Overwhelmed by the task of writing the articles, Helen admitted she needed help. Friends introduced her to John Macy, an editor and English teacher at Harvard . Macy quickly learned the manual alphabet and began to work with Helen on editing her work.

Certain that Helen's articles could successfully be turned into a book, Macy negotiated a deal with a publisher and "The Story of My Life" was published in 1903 when Helen was only 22 years old. Helen graduated from Radcliffe with honors in June 1904.

Annie Sullivan Marries John Macy

John Macy remained friends with Helen and Annie after the book's publication. He found himself falling in love with Annie Sullivan, although she was 11 years his senior. Annie had feelings for him as well, but wouldn't accept his proposal until he assured her that Helen would always have a place in their home. They were married in May 1905 and the trio moved into a farmhouse in Massachusetts.

The pleasant farmhouse was reminiscent of the home Helen had grown up in. Macy arranged a system of ropes out in the yard so that Helen could safely take walks by herself. Soon, Helen was at work on her second memoir, "The World I Live In," with John Macy as her editor.

By all accounts, although Helen and Macy were close in age and spent a lot of time together, they were never more than friends.

An active member of the Socialist Party, John Macy encouraged Helen to read books on socialist and communist theory. Helen joined the Socialist Party in 1909 and she also supported the women's suffrage movement .

Helen's third book, a series of essays defending her political views, did poorly. Worried about their dwindling funds, Helen and Annie decided to go on a lecture tour.

Helen and Annie Go on the Road

Helen had taken speaking lessons over the years and had made some progress, but only those closest to her could understand her speech. Annie would need to interpret Helen's speech for the audience.

Another concern was Helen's appearance. She was very attractive and always well dressed, but her eyes were obviously abnormal. Unbeknownst to the public, Helen had her eyes surgically removed and replaced by prosthetic ones prior to the start of the tour in 1913.

Prior to this, Annie made certain that the photographs were always taken of Helen's right profile because her left eye protruded and was obviously blind, whereas Helen appeared almost normal on the right side.

The tour appearances consisted of a well-scripted routine. Annie spoke about her years with Helen and then Helen spoke, only to have Annie interpret what she had said. At the end, they took questions from the audience. The tour was successful, but exhausting for Annie. After taking a break, they went back on tour two more times.

Annie's marriage suffered from the strain as well. She and John Macy separated permanently in 1914. Helen and Annie hired a new assistant, Polly Thomson, in 1915, in an effort to relieve Annie of some of her duties.

Helen Finds Love

In 1916, the women hired Peter Fagan as a secretary to accompany them on their tour while Polly was out of town. After the tour, Annie became seriously ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

While Polly took Annie to a rest home in Lake Placid, plans were made for Helen to join her mother and sister Mildred in Alabama. For a brief time, Helen and Peter were alone together at the farmhouse, where Peter confessed his love for Helen and asked her to marry him.

The couple tried to keep their plans a secret, but when they traveled to Boston to obtain a marriage license, the press obtained a copy of the license and published a story about Helen's engagement.

Kate Keller was furious and brought Helen back to Alabama with her. Although Helen was 36 years old at the time, her family was very protective of her and disapproved of any romantic relationship.

Several times, Peter attempted to reunite with Helen, but her family would not let him near her. At one point, Mildred's husband threatened Peter with a gun if he did not get off his property.

Helen and Peter were never together again. Later in life, Helen described the relationship as her "little island of joy surrounded by dark waters."

The World of Showbiz

Annie recovered from her illness, which had been misdiagnosed as tuberculosis, and returned home. With their financial difficulties mounting, Helen, Annie, and Polly sold their house and moved to Forest Hills, New York in 1917.

Helen received an offer to star in a film about her life, which she readily accepted. The 1920 movie, "Deliverance," was absurdly melodramatic and did poorly at the box office.

In dire need of a steady income, Helen and Annie, now 40 and 54 respectively, next turned to vaudeville. They reprised their act from the lecture tour, but this time they did it in glitzy costumes and full stage makeup, alongside various dancers and comedians.

Helen enjoyed the theater, but Annie found it vulgar. The money, however, was very good and they stayed in vaudeville until 1924.

American Foundation for the Blind

That same year, Helen became involved with an organization that would employ her for much of the rest of her life. The newly-formed American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) sought a spokesperson and Helen seemed the perfect candidate.

Helen Keller drew crowds whenever she spoke in public and became very successful at raising money for the organization. Helen also convinced Congress to approve more funding for books printed in braille.

Taking time off from her duties at the AFB in 1927, Helen began work on another memoir, "Midstream," which she completed with the help of an editor.

Losing 'Teacher' and Polly

Annie Sullivan's health deteriorated over several years' time. She became completely blind and could no longer travel, leaving both women entirely reliant on Polly. Annie Sullivan died in October 1936 at the age of 70. Helen was devastated to have lost the woman whom she had known only as "Teacher," and who had given so much to her.

After the funeral, Helen and Polly took a trip to Scotland to visit Polly's family. Returning home to a life without Annie was difficult for Helen. Life was made easier when Helen learned that she would be taken care of financially for life by the AFB, which built a new home for her in Connecticut.

Helen continued her travels around the world through the 1940s and 1950s accompanied by Polly, but the women, now in their 70s, began to tire of travel.

In 1957, Polly suffered a severe stroke. She survived, but had brain damage and could no longer function as Helen's assistant. Two caretakers were hired to come and live with Helen and Polly. In 1960, after spending 46 years of her life with Helen, Polly Thomson died.

Later Years

Helen Keller settled into a quieter life, enjoying visits from friends and her daily martini before dinner. In 1960, she was intrigued to learn of a new play on Broadway that told the dramatic story of her early days with Annie Sullivan. "The Miracle Worker" was a smash hit and was made into an equally popular movie in 1962.

Strong and healthy all of her life, Helen became frail in her 80s. She suffered a stroke in 1961 and developed diabetes.

On June 1, 1968, Helen Keller died in her home at the age of 87 following a heart attack. Her funeral service, held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., was attended by 1,200 mourners.

Helen Keller was a groundbreaker in her personal and public lives. Becoming a writer and lecturer with Annie while blind and deaf was an enormous accomplishment. Helen Keller was the first deaf-blind individual to earn a college degree.

She was an advocate for communities of people with disabilities in many ways, raising awareness through her lecture circuits and books and raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind. Her political work included helping to found the American Civil Liberties Union and advocacy for increased funding for braille books and for women's suffrage.

She met with every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson. While she was still alive, in 1964, Helen received the highest honor awarded to a U.S. citizen, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Lyndon Johnson .

Helen Keller remains a source of inspiration to all people for her enormous courage overcoming the obstacles of being both deaf and blind and for her ensuing life of humanitarian selfless service.

  • Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Keller, Helen. Midstream: My Later Life . Nabu Press, 2011.
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Helen Keller Birthplace

The Biography of Helen Keller

Helen Adams Keller was born a healthy child on June 27, 1880, to Captain Arthur H. and Kate Adams Keller of Tuscumbia. Her father, Arthur H. Keller, was a retired Confederate Army captain and editor of the local newspaper. Her mother, Kate Keller, was an educated young woman from Memphis.

When Helen Keller was 19 months old, she was afflicted by an unknown illness, possibly scarlet fever or meningitis, which left her deaf and blind.

Helen was quite intelligent and tried to learn in her own way with taste, feel and smell. She developed a rudimentary sign language with which to communicate, but soon she realized that her family members could communicate with their mouths instead of signing. This left her isolated, unruly and prone to wild tantrums. Some members of her family considered institutionalizing her. 

Keller would later write in her autobiography, “the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly.”

Seeking to improve her condition, in 1886 Helen and her parents traveled from their Alabama home to Baltimore, Maryland, to see an oculist who had had some success in dealing with conditions of the eye. After examining Keller, he told her parents that he could not restore her sight, but suggested that she could still be educated, referring them to Alexander Graham Bell, who despite having achieved worldwide fame with the invention of the telephone, was working with deaf children in Washington, D.C.

After the visit Bell connected the Kellers to The Perkins Institute and by March 3, 1887 Anne Sullivan came to Ivy Green to be Helen’s teacher.  The strong willed Sullivan, a recent graduate of the Perkins school, met her match in Helen. The two worked together even though Helen pinched, hit, kicked and even knocked out one of Anne’s teeth. Once she had gained Helen’s trust, the real work could begin.

Anne began teaching Helen using finger spelling into the child’s hand. Although Helen enjoyed this, she didn’t understand it truly until Sullivan was steadily pumping cool water into one of the girl’s hands while repeatedly tapping out the five letters in W-A-T-E-R. She continued finger spelling while pumping the water again and again as young Helen painstakingly struggled to break her world of silence.

Suddenly the signals crossed Helen’s consciousness with a meaning. By nightfall, Helen had learned 30 words using this process.

After Helen’s miraculous break-through at the simple well-pump, she proved so gifted that she soon learned the fingertip alphabet and shortly afterward to write. By the end of August, in six short months, she knew 625 words.

By age 10, Helen had mastered Braille as well as the manual alphabet and even learned to use the typewriter. By the time she was 16, Helen could speak well enough to go to preparatory school and to college. Sullivan interpreted lectures and class discussions to Helen. In 1904 she became the first deaf-blind person to graduate cum laude from Radcliffe College.

Helen became one of history’s most remarkable women. She dedicated her life to improving the conditions of the visually impaired and the hearing impaired around the world, lecturing in more than 25 countries. She helped to create the American Civil Liberties Union advocating for the rights of women and of those with disabilities.

During her life she performed on the Vaudeville circuit, earned an Oscar, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, traveled to 25 countries and met every President from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy, 12 to be exact.

write a biography on helen keller

Keller stopped her public appearances in 1961 after she suffered a series of strokes. She was unable to attend the ceremony when President Lyndon B.  Johnson awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Keller’s 1968 funeral was held at the National Cathedral, and more than 1,200 people were in attendance. Alabama Senator Lister Hill gave the eulogy. He said, “She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith.”

Helen is interred at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea.

A Cathedral crypt is just off that chapel. A small, bronze plaque on the wall shows this is Keller’s final resting place.  The plaque simply states: “Helen Keller and her lifelong companion Anne Sullivan Macy are interred in the columbarium behind this chapel.” Those same words are also written in Braille.

Although only Keller’s and Sullivan’s names are listed on the plaque, Polly Thomson, Keller’s companion later in life, is also interred with the other two women’s ashes.

write a biography on helen keller

Helen Keller

  • Occupation: Activist
  • Born: June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama
  • Died: June 1, 1968 in Arcan Ridge, Easton, Connecticut
  • Best known for: Accomplishing much despite being both deaf and blind.

Helen Keller

  • Annie Sullivan was often called the "Miracle Worker" for the way she was able to help Helen.
  • Helen became very famous. She met with every President of the United States from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson . That's a lot of presidents!
  • Helen starred in a movie about herself called Deliverance . Critics liked the movie, but not a lot of people went to see it.
  • She loved dogs. They were a great source of joy to her.
  • Helen became friends with famous people such as the inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell and the author Mark Twain .
  • She wrote a book titled Teacher about Annie Sullivan's life.
  • Two films about Helen Keller won Academy Awards. One was a documentary called The Unconquered (1954) and the other was a drama called The Miracle Worker (1962) starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.
  • Listen to a recorded reading of this page:

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Helen Keller Biography

Helen keller (1880-1968).

Imagine that you couldn't see these words or hear them spoken. But you could still talk, write, read, and make friends. In fact, you went to college, wrote nearly a dozen books, traveled all over the world, met 12 U.S. presidents, and lived to be 87. Well, there was such a person, and she was born over a hundred years ago!

Helen at age 7

Meet Helen Keller, a woman from the small farm town of Tuscumbia, Alabama who taught the world to respect people who are blind and deaf. Her mission came from her own life; when she was 1 1/2, she was extremely ill, and she lost both her vision and hearing. It was like entering a different world, with completely new rules, and she got very frustrated. By the time she was 7, her parents knew they needed help, so they hired a tutor named Anne Sullivan.

Anne was strict, but she had a lot of energy. In just a few days, she taught Helen how to spell words with her hands (called the manual alphabet, which is part of the sign language that deaf people use). The trouble was, Helen didn't understand what the words meant—until one morning at the water pump (like an outdoor water fountain) she got a whole new attitude.

Anne Sullivan

Anne had Helen hold one hand under the water. Then she spelled "W-A-T-E-R" into Helen's other hand. It was electric! The feeling turned into a word. Immediately, Helen bent down and tapped the ground; Anne spelled "earth." Helen's brain flew; that day, she learned 30 words.

Helen Keller reading a braille book From then on, Helen's mind raced ahead. She learned to speak when she was ten by feeling her teacher's mouth when she talked. Often people found it hard to understand her, but she never gave up trying. Meanwhile, she learned to read French, German, Greek, and Latin in braille! When she was 20, she entered Radcliffe College, the women's branch of Harvard University. Her first book, called The Story of My Life, was translated into 50 languages. (She used two typewriters: one regular, one braille.) She wrote ten more books and a lot more articles! How did she find the time?

Helen k\Keller reading

Helen also did research, gave speeches, and helped raise money for many organizations, such as the American Foundation for the Blind and the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind, which is now called Helen Keller Worldwide. From 1946 and 1957, she went around the world, speaking about the experiences and rights of people who are blind. She wound up visiting 39 countries on five different continents! Helen also inspired many works of art, including two Oscar-winning movies, and received dozens of awards, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that an American civilian can receive. She died in her sleep in 1968.

Helen became an exceptional leader, once she saw the potential in her own mind.

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How Helen Keller Learned to Write

By Cynthia Ozick

An illustration of Helen Keller

Suspicion stalks fame; incredulity stalks great fame. At least three times—at the ages of eleven, twenty-three, and fifty-two—Helen Keller was assaulted by accusation, doubt, and overt disbelief. She was the butt of skeptics and the cynosure of idolaters. Mark Twain compared her to Joan of Arc, and pronounced her “fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals.” Her renown, he said, would endure a thousand years.

It has, so far, lasted more than a hundred, while steadily dimming. Fifty years ago, even twenty, nearly every ten-year-old knew who Helen Keller was. “The Story of My Life,” her youthful autobiography, was on the reading lists of most schools, and its author was popularly understood to be a heroine of uncommon grace and courage, a sort of worldly saint. Much of that worshipfulness has receded. No one nowadays, without intending satire, would place her alongside Caesar and Napoleon; and, in an era of earnest disabilities legislation, who would think to charge a stone-blind, stone-deaf woman with faking her experience?

Yet as a child she was accused of plagiarism, and in maturity of “verbalism”—substituting parroted words for firsthand perception. All this came about because she was at once liberated by language and in bondage to it, in a way few other human beings can fathom. The merely blind have the window of their ears, the merely deaf listen through their eyes. For Helen Keller there was no ameliorating “merely”; what she suffered was a totality of exclusion. The illness that annihilated her sight and hearing, and left her mute, has never been diagnosed. In 1882, when she was four months short of two years, medical knowledge could assert only “acute congestion of the stomach and brain,” though later speculation proposes meningitis or scarlet fever. Whatever the cause, the consequence was ferocity—tantrums, kicking, rages—but also an invented system of sixty simple signs, intimations of intelligence. The child could mimic what she could neither see nor hear: putting on a hat before a mirror, her father reading a newspaper with his glasses on. She could fold laundry and pick out her own things. Such quiet times were few. Having discovered the use of a key, she shut up her mother in a closet. She overturned her baby sister’s cradle. Her wants were physical, impatient, helpless, and nearly always belligerent.

She was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, fifteen years after the Civil War, when Confederate consciousness was still inflamed. Her father, who had fought at Vicksburg, called himself a “gentleman farmer,” and edited a small Democratic weekly until, thanks to political influence, he was appointed a United States marshal. He was a zealous hunter who loved his guns and his dogs. Money was usually short; there were escalating marital angers. His second wife, Helen’s mother, was younger by twenty years, a spirited woman of intellect condemned to farmhouse toil. She had a strong literary side (Edward Everett Hale, the New Englander who wrote “The Man Without a Country,” was a relative) and read seriously and searchingly. In Charles Dickens’s “American Notes,” she learned about Laura Bridgman, a deaf-blind country girl who was being educated at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, in Boston. Ravaged by scarlet fever at the age of two, she was even more circumscribed than Helen Keller—she could neither smell nor taste. She was confined, Dickens said, “in a marble cell, impervious to any ray of light, or particle of sound,” lost to language beyond a handful of words unidiomatically strung together.

News of Laura Bridgman ignited hope—she had been socialized into a semblance of personhood, while Helen remained a small savage—and hope led, eventually, to Alexander Graham Bell. By then, the invention of the telephone was well behind him, and he was tenaciously committed to teaching the deaf to speak intelligibly. His wife was deaf; his mother had been deaf. When the six-year-old Helen was brought to him, he took her on his lap and instantly calmed her by letting her feel the vibrations of his pocket watch as it struck the hour. Her responsiveness did not register in her face; he described it as “chillingly empty.” But he judged her educable, and advised her father to apply to Michael Anagnos, the director of the Perkins Institution, for a teacher to be sent to Tuscumbia.

Anagnos chose Anne Mansfield Sullivan, a former student at Perkins. “Mansfield” was her own embellishment; it had the sound of gentility. If the fabricated name was intended to confer an elevated status, it was because Annie Sullivan, born into penury, had no status at all. At five, she contracted trachoma, a disease of the eye. Three years on, her mother died of tuberculosis and was buried in potter’s field—after which her father, a drunkard prone to beating his children, deserted the family. The half-blind Annie was tossed into the poorhouse at Tewksbury, Massachusetts, among syphilitic prostitutes and madmen. Decades later, recalling its “strangeness, grotesqueness and even terribleness,” Annie Sullivan wrote, “I doubt if life or for that matter eternity is long enough to erase the terrors and ugly blots scored upon my mind during those dismal years from 8 to 14.”

She was rescued from Tewksbury by a committee investigating its spreading notoriety, and was mercifully transferred to Perkins. She learned Braille and the manual alphabet—finger positions representing letters—and, at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, underwent two operations, which enabled her to read almost normally, though the condition of her eyes was fragile and inconsistent over her lifetime. After six years, she graduated from Perkins as class valedictorian. But what was to become of her? How was she to earn a living? Someone suggested that she might wash dishes or peddle needlework. “Sewing and crocheting are inventions of the devil,” she sneered. “I’d rather break stones on the king’s highway than hem a handkerchief.”

She went to Tuscumbia instead. She was twenty years old and had no experience suitable for what she would encounter in the despairs and chaotic defeats of the Keller household. The child she had come to educate threw cutlery, pinched, grabbed food off dinner plates, sent chairs tumbling, shrieked, struggled. She was strong, beautiful but for one protruding eye, unsmiling, painfully untamed: virtually her first act on meeting the new teacher was to knock out one of her front teeth. The afflictions of the marble cell had become inflictions. Annie demanded that Helen be separated from her family; her father could not bear to see his ruined little daughter disciplined. The teacher and her recalcitrant pupil retreated to a cottage on the grounds of the main house, where Annie was to be the sole authority.

What happened then and afterward she chronicled in letter after letter, to Anagnos and, more confidingly, to Mrs. Sophia Hopkins, the Perkins housemother who had given her shelter during school vacations. Mark Twain saw in Annie Sullivan a writer: “How she stands out in her letters!” he exclaimed. “Her brilliancy, penetration, originality, wisdom, character and the fine literary competencies of her pen—they are all there.” Jubilantly, she set down the progress, almost hour by hour, of an exuberant deliverance far more remarkable than Laura Bridgman’s frail and inarticulate release. Annie Sullivan’s method, insofar as she recognized it formally as a method, was pure freedom. Like any writer, she wrote and wrote and wrote, all day long: words, phrases, sentences, lines of poetry, descriptions of animals, trees, flowers, weather, skies, clouds, concepts—whatever lay before her or came usefully to mind. She wrote not on paper with a pen but with her fingers, spelling rapidly into the child’s alert palm. Mimicking unknowable configurations, Helen spelled the same letters back—but not until a connection was effected between finger-wriggling and its referent did mind break free.

This was, of course, the fabled incident at the well pump, when Helen suddenly understood that the pecking at her hand was inescapably related to the gush of cold water spilling over it. “Somehow,” the adult Helen Keller recollected, “the mystery of language was revealed to me.” In the course of a single month, from Annie’s arrival to her triumph in bridling the household despot, Helen had grown docile, affectionate, and tirelessly intent on learning from moment to moment. Her intellect was fiercely engaged, and when language began to flood it she rode on a salvational ark of words.

To Mrs. Hopkins, Annie wrote ecstatically:

Something within me tells me that I shall succeed beyond my dreams. . . . I know that [Helen] has remarkable powers, and I believe that I shall be able to develop and mould them. I cannot tell how I know these things. I had no idea a short time ago how to go to work; I was feeling about in the dark; but somehow I know now, and I know that I know. I cannot explain it; but when difficulties arise, I am not perplexed or doubtful. I know how to meet them; I seem to divine Helen’s peculiar needs. . . .
Already people are taking a deep interest in Helen. No one can see her without being impressed. She is no ordinary child, and people’s interest in her education will be no ordinary interest. Therefore let us be exceedingly careful in what we say and write about her. . . . My beautiful Helen shall not be transformed into a prodigy if I can help it.

At this time, Helen was not yet seven years old, and Annie was being paid twenty-five dollars a month.

The public scrutiny Helen Keller aroused far exceeded Annie’s predictions. It was Michael Anagnos who first proclaimed her to be a miracle child—a young goddess. “History presents no case like hers,” he exulted. “As soon as a slight crevice was opened in the outer wall of their twofold imprisonment, her mental faculties emerged full-armed from their living tomb as Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus.” And again: “She is the queen of precocious and brilliant children, Emersonian in temper, most exquisitely organized, with intellectual sight of unsurpassed sharpness and infinite reach, a true daughter of Mnemosyne.” Annie, the teacher of a flesh-and-blood child, protested: “His extravagant way of saying [these things] rubs me the wrong way. The simple facts would be so much more convincing!” But Anagnos’s glorifications caught fire: one year after Annie had begun spelling into her hand, Helen Keller was celebrated in newspapers all over America and Europe. When her dog was inadvertently shot, an avalanche of contributions poured in to replace it; unprompted, she directed that the money be set aside for the care of an impoverished deaf-blind boy at Perkins. At eight, she was taken to visit President Cleveland at the White House, and in Boston was introduced to many of the luminaries of the period: Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, Edward Everett Hale, and Bishop Phillips Brooks (who addressed her puzzlement over the nature of God). At nine, she wrote to Whittier, saluting him as “Dear Poet”:

I thought you would be glad to hear that your beautiful poems make me very happy. Yesterday I read “In School Days” and “My Playmate,” and I enjoyed them greatly. . . . It is very pleasant to live here in our beautiful world. I cannot see the lovely things with my eyes, but my mind can see them all, and so I am joyful all the day long.
When I walk out in my garden I cannot see the beautiful flowers, but I know that they are all around me; for is not the air sweet with their fragrance? I know too that the tiny lily-bells are whispering pretty secrets to their companions else they would not look so happy. I love you very dearly, because you have taught me so many lovely things about flowers and birds, and people.

Her dependence on Annie for the assimilation of her immediate surroundings was nearly total, but through the raised letters of Braille she could be altogether untethered: books coursed through her. In childhood, she was captivated by “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story of a sunnily virtuous boy who melts a crusty old man’s heart; it became a secret template of her own character as she hoped she might always manifest it—not sentimentally but in full awareness of dread. She was not deaf to Caliban’s wounded cry: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” Helen Keller’s profit was that she knew how to rejoice. In young adulthood, she seized on Swedenborgian spiritualism. Annie had kept away from teaching any religion at all: she was a down-to-earth agnostic whom Tewksbury had cured of easy belief. When Helen’s responsiveness to bitter social deprivation later took on a worldly strength, leading her to socialism, and even to unpopular Bolshevik sympathies, Annie would have no part of it, and worried that Helen had gone too far. Marx was not in Annie’s canon. Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Milton were: she had Helen reading “Paradise Lost” at twelve.

But Helen’s formal schooling was widening beyond Annie’s tutelage. With her teacher at her side—and the financial support of such patrons as John Spaulding, the Sugar King, and Henry Rogers, of Standard Oil—Helen spent a year at Perkins, and then entered the Wright-Humason School, in New York, a fashionable academy for deaf girls; she was its single deaf-blind pupil. She was also determined to learn to speak like other people, but her efforts could not be readily understood. Speech was not her only ambition: she intended to go to college. To prepare, she enrolled in the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, where she studied mathematics, German, French, Latin, and Greek and Roman history. In 1900, she was admitted to Radcliffe (then an “annex” to Harvard), still with Annie in attendance. Despite Annie’s presence in every class, diligently spelling the lecture into Helen’s hand, and wearing out her troubled eyes as she transcribed text after text into the manual alphabet, no one thought of granting her a degree along with Helen: the radiant miracle outshone the driven miracle worker. It was not uncommon for Annie Sullivan to play second fiddle to Helen Keller, or to be charged with being Helen’s jailer, or harrier, or ventriloquist. During examinations at Radcliffe, Annie was not permitted to be in the building. Otherwise, Helen relied on her own extraordinary memory and on Annie’s lightning fingers. Luckily, a second helper soon turned up: he was John Macy, a twenty-five-year-old English instructor at Harvard, a writer and editor, a fervent socialist, and, eventually, Annie Sullivan’s husband, eleven years her junior.

At Radcliffe, Helen became a writer. Charles Townsend Copeland—Harvard’s illustrious Copey, a professor of rhetoric—had encouraged her (as she put it to him in a grateful letter) “to make my own observations and describe the experiences peculiarly my own. Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life and write my own thoughts.” Out of this came “The Story of My Life,” the autobiography of a twenty-one-year-old, published while she was still an undergraduate. It began as a series of sketches for the Ladies ’ Home Journal; the fee was three thousand dollars. John Macy described the laborious process:

When she began work at her story, more than a year ago, she set up on the Braille machine about a hundred pages of what she called “material,” consisting of detached episodes and notes put down as they came to her without definite order or coherent plan. . . . Then came the task where one who has eyes to see must help her. Miss Sullivan and I read the disconnected passages, put them into chronological order, and counted the words to be sure the articles should be the right length. All this work we did with Miss Keller beside us, referring everything, especially matters of phrasing, to her for revision. . . .
Her memory of what she had written was astonishing. She remembered whole passages, some of which she had not seen for many weeks, and could tell, before Miss Sullivan had spelled into her hand a half-dozen words of the paragraphs under discussion, where they belonged and what sentences were necessary to make the connections clear.

This method of collaboration continued throughout Helen Keller’s professional writing life; yet within these constraints the design and the sensibility were her own. She was a self-conscious stylist. Macy remarked that she had the courage of her metaphors—he meant that she sometimes let them carry her away—and Helen herself worried that her prose could now and then seem “periwigged.” To the contemporary ear, there is too much Victorian lace and striving uplift in her cadences; but the contemporary ear is scarcely entitled, simply by being contemporary, to set itself up as judge—every period is marked by a prevailing voice. Helen Keller’s earnestness is a kind of piety. It is as if Tennyson and the transcendentalists had together got hold of her typewriter. At the same time, she is embroiled in the whole range of human perplexity—except, tellingly, for irony. She has no “edge,” and why should she? Irony is a radar that seeks out the dark side; she had darkness enough. She rarely knew what part of her mind was instinct and what part was information, and she was cautious about the difference. “It is certain,” she wrote, “that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and texture of my mind. . . . It seems to me that the great difficulty of writing is to make the language of the educated mind express our confused ideas, half feelings, half thoughts, where we are little more than bundles of instinctive tendencies.” She who had once been incarcerated in the id did not require Freud to instruct her in its inchoate presence.

“The Story of My Life,” first published in 1903, is being honored in its centenary year by two new reissues, one from the Modern Library, edited and with a preface by James Berger, and the other from W. W. Norton, edited by Roger Shattuck with Dorothy Herrmann; Shattuck also supplies a thoughtful foreword and afterword. Much else accompanies the Keller text: Macy’s ample contribution to the original edition, as well as Annie’s indelible reports and Helen’s increasingly impressive letters from childhood on. All these elements together make up at least a partial biography, though they do not take us into Helen Keller’s astonishing future as world traveller and energetic advocate for the blind. (Two full biographies, “Helen Keller: A Life,” by Dorothy Herrmann, and “Helen and Teacher,” by Joseph P. Lash, flesh out her long and active life.) Macy was able to write about Helen nearly as authoritatively as Annie, but also (in private) more skeptically: after his marriage, the three of them, a feverishly literary crew, set up housekeeping in rural Wrentham, Massachusetts. Macy soon discovered that he had married not just a woman, and a moody one at that, but the infrastructure of a public institution. As Helen’s secondary amanuensis, he continued to be of use until the marriage foundered—on his profligacy with money, on Annie’s irritability (she scorned his uncompromising socialism), and, finally, on his accelerating alcoholism.

Because Macy was known to have assisted Helen in the preparation of “The Story of My Life,” the insinuations of control that often assailed Annie landed on him. Helen’s ideas, it was suggested, were really Macy’s; he had transformed her into a “Marxist propagandist.” It was true that she sympathized with his political bent, but she had arrived at her views independently. The charge of expropriation, of both thought and idiom, was old, and dogged her at intervals during her early and middle years: she was a fraud, a puppet, a plagiarist. She was false coin. She was “a living lie.”

Helen Keller was eleven when these words were first hurled at her by an infuriated Michael Anagnos. What brought on this defection was a little story she had written, called “The Frost King,” which she sent him as a birthday present. In the voice of a highly literary children’s narrative, it recounts how the “frost fairies” cause the season’s turning:

When the children saw the trees all aglow with brilliant colors they clapped their hands and shouted for joy, and immediately began to pick great bunches to take home. “The leaves are as lovely as the flowers!” cried they, in their delight.

Anagnos—doubtless clapping his hands and shouting for joy—immediately began to publicize Helen’s newest accomplishment. “The Frost King” appeared both in the Perkins alumni magazine and in another journal for the blind, which, following Anagnos, unhesitatingly named it “without parallel in the history of literature.” But more than a parallel was at stake; the story was found to be nearly identical to “The Frost Fairies,” by Margaret Canby, a writer of children’s books. Anagnos was humiliated, and fled headlong from adulation to excoriation. Feeling personally betrayed and institutionally discredited, he arranged an inquisition for the terrified Helen, standing her alone in a room before a jury of eight Perkins officials and himself, all mercilessly cross-examining her. Her mature recollection of Anagnos’s “court of investigation” registers as pitiably as the ordeal itself:

Mr. Anagnos, who loved me tenderly, thinking that he had been deceived, turned a deaf ear to the pleadings of love and innocence. He believed, or at least suspected, that Miss Sullivan and I had deliberately stolen the bright thoughts of another and imposed them on him to win his admiration. . . . As I lay in my bed that night, I wept as I hope few children have wept. I felt so cold, I imagined I should die before morning, and the thought comforted me. I think if this sorrow had come to me when I was older, it would have broken my spirit beyond repairing.

She was defended by Alexander Graham Bell, and by Mark Twain, who parodied the whole procedure with a thumping hurrah for plagiarism, and disgust for the egotism of “these solemn donkeys breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant damned rubbish! . . . A gang of dull and hoary pirates piously setting themselves the task of disciplining and purifying a kitten that they think they’ve caught filching a chop!” Margaret Canby’s tale had been spelled to Helen perhaps three years before, and lay dormant in her prodigiously retentive memory; she was entirely oblivious of reproducing phrases not her own. The scandal Anagnos had precipitated left a lasting bruise. But it was also the beginning of a psychological, even a metaphysical, clarification that Helen refined and ratified as she grew older, when similar, if subtler, suspicions cropped up in the press. “The Story of My Life” was attacked in The Nation not for plagiarism in the usual sense but for the purloining of “things beyond her powers of perception with the assurance of one who has verified every word. . . . One resents the pages of second-hand description of natural objects.” The reviewer blamed her for the sin of vicariousness. “All her knowledge,” he insisted, “is hearsay knowledge.”

It was almost a reprise of the Perkins tribunal: she was again being confronted with the charge of inauthenticity. Anagnos’s rebuke—“Helen Keller is a living lie”—regularly resurfaced, in the form of a neurologist’s or a psychologist’s assessment, or in the reservations of reviewers. A French professor of literature, who was himself blind, determined that she was “a dupe of words, and her aesthetic enjoyment of most of the arts is a matter of auto-suggestion rather than perception.” A New Yorker interviewer complained, “She talks bookishly. . . . To express her ideas, she falls back on the phrases she has learned from books, and uses words that sound stilted, poetical metaphors.”

But the cruellest appraisal of all came, in 1933, from Thomas Cutsforth, a blind psychologist. By this time, Helen was fifty-two, and had published four additional autobiographical volumes. Cutsforth disparaged everything she had become. The wordless child she once was, he maintained, was closer to reality than what her teacher had made of her through the imposition of “word-mindedness.” He objected to her use of images such as “a mist of green,” “blue pools of dog violets,” “soft clouds tumbling.” All that, he protested, was “implied chicanery” and “a birthright sold for a mess of verbiage.” He criticized

the aims of the educational system in which [Helen Keller] has been confined during her whole life. Literary expression has been the goal of her formal education. Fine writing, regardless of its meaningful content, has been the end toward which both she and her teacher have striven. . . . Her own experiential life was rapidly made secondary, and it was regarded as such by the victim. . . . Her teacher’s ideals became her ideals, her teacher’s likes became her likes, and whatever emotional activity her teacher experienced she experienced.

For Cutsforth—and not only for him—she was the victim of language rather than its victorious master. She was no better than a copy; whatever was primary, and thereby genuine, had been stamped out. As for Annie, while here she was pilloried as her pupil’s victimizer, elsewhere she was pitied as a woman cheated of her own life by having sacrificed it to serve another. Either Helen was Annie’s slave or Annie was Helen’s.

Helen knew what she saw. Once, having been taken to the uppermost viewing platform of what was then the tallest building in the world, she defined her condition:

I will concede that my guides saw a thousand things that escaped me from the top of the Empire State Building, but I am not envious. For imagination creates distances that reach to the end of the world. . . . There was the Hudson—more like the flash of a swordblade than a noble river. The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head!

Her rebuttal to word-mindedness, to vicariousness, to implied chicanery and the living lie, was inscribed deliberately and defiantly in her images of “swordblade” and “rainbow waters.” The deaf-blind person, she wrote, “seizes every word of sight and hearing, because his sensations compel it. Light and color, of which he has no tactual evidence, he studies fearlessly, believing that all humanly knowable truth is open to him.” She was not ashamed of talking bookishly: it meant a ready access to the storehouse of history and literature. She disposed of her critics with a dazzling apothegm—“The bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction”—and went on to contend that history itself “is but a mode of imagining, of making us see civilizations that no longer appear upon the earth.” Those who ridiculed her rendering of color she dismissed as “spirit-vandals” who would force her “to bite the dust of material things.” Her idea of the subjective onlooker was broader than that of physics, and while “red” may denote an explicit and measurable wavelength in the visible spectrum, in the mind it varies from the bluster of rage to the reticence of a blush: physics cannot cage metaphor.

She saw, then, what she wished, or was blessed, to see, and rightly named it imagination. In this she belongs to a broader class than that narrow order of the deaf-blind. Her class, her tribe, hears what no healthy ear can catch and sees what no eye chart can quantify. Her common language was not with the man who crushed a child for memorizing what the fairies do, or with the carpers who scolded her for the crime of a literary vocabulary. She was a member of the race of poets, the Romantic kind; she was close cousin to those novelists who write not only what they do not know but what they cannot possibly know.

And though she was early taken in hand by a writerly intelligence, it was hardly in the power of the manual alphabet to pry out a writer who was not already there. Laura Bridgman stuck to her lacemaking, and with all her senses intact might have remained a needlewoman. John Macy believed finally that between Helen and Annie there was only one genius—his wife. In the absence of Annie’s inventiveness and direction, he implied, Helen’s efforts would show up as the lesser gifts they were. This did not happen. Annie died, at seventy, in 1936, four years after Macy; they had long been estranged. Depressed, obese, cranky, and inconsolable, she had herself gone blind. Helen came under the care of her secretary, Polly Thomson, a loyal but unliterary Scotswoman: the scenes she spelled into Helen’s hand never matched Annie’s quicksilver evocations.

Even as Helen mourned the loss of her teacher, she flourished. With the assistance of Nella Henney, Annie Sullivan’s biographer, she continued to publish journals and memoirs. She undertook gruelling visits to Japan, India, Israel, Europe, Australia, everywhere championing the disabled and the dispossessed. She was indefatigable until her very last years, and died in 1968, weeks before her eighty-eighth birthday.

Yet the story of her life is not the good she did, the panegyrics she inspired, or the disputes (genuine or counterfeit? victim or victimizer?) that stormed around her. The most persuasive story of Helen Keller’s life is what she said it was: “I observe, I feel, I think, I imagine.” She was an artist. She imagined.

“Blindness has no limiting effect upon mental vision,” she argued again and again. “My intellectual horizon is infinitely wide. The universe it encircles is immeasurable.” And, like any writer making imagination’s mysterious claims before the material-minded, she had cause to cry out, “Oh, the supercilious doubters!”

Nevertheless, she was a warrior in a vaster and more vexing conflict. Do we know only what we see, or do we see what we somehow already know? Are we more than the sum of our senses? Does a picture—whatever strikes the retina—engender thought, or does thought create the picture? Can there be subjectivity without an object to glance off? Theorists have their differing notions, to which the ungraspable organism that is Helen Keller is a retort. She is not an advocate for one side or the other in the ancient debate concerning the nature of the real. She is not a philosophical or neurological or therapeutic topic. She stands for enigma; there lurks in her still the angry child who demanded to be understood yet could not be deciphered. She refutes those who cannot perceive, or do not care to value, what is hidden from sensation: collective memory, heritage, literature.

Helen Keller’s lot, it turns out, was not unique. “We work in the dark,” Henry James affirmed, on behalf of his own art; and so did she. It was the same dark. She knew her Wordsworth: “Visionary power / Attends the motions of the viewless winds, / Embodied in the mystery of words: / There, darkness makes abode.” She vivified Keats’s phantom theme of negative capability, the poet’s oarless casting about for the hallucinatory shadows of desire. She fought the debunkers who, for the sake of a spurious honesty, would denude her of landscape and return her to the marble cell. She fought the literalists who took imagination for mendacity, who meant to disinherit her, and everyone, of poetry. Her legacy, after all, is an epistemological marker of sorts: proof of the real existence of the mind’s eye.

In one respect, though, she was as fraudulent as the cynics charged. She had always been photographed in profile; this hid her disfigured left eye. In maturity, she had both eyes surgically removed and replaced with glass—an expedient known only to her intimates. Everywhere she went, her sparkling blue prosthetic eyes were admired for their living beauty and humane depth. ♦

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Helen Keller's Life: A Tale of Incredible Inspiration

Posted: October 24, 2023 | Last updated: October 24, 2023

<p>Even though her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Keller's own beliefs were almost completely opposite. She became increasingly involved in politics and was a member of the Socialist Party, helping to found the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU. </p> <p>She had ultra far-left views and at one point, she was even under investigation by the FBI. Keller is known for her work regarding women's suffrage, worker's rights, and birth control. She also wrote essays about her admiration of Vladimir Lenin and his Socialistic ideals. </p>

Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller faced adversity from an extremely young age after losing her sight and hearing. However, her devotion to learning, guidance from others, and commitment to activism helped her become one of the most influential individuals of the 20th century.

Her entire life is a testament to the strength of the human spirit, as she was able to accomplish much more than most people, without the use of sight and hearing. Take an in-depth look into the incredible life of Helen Keller and what she managed to achieve without the senses many of us take for granted.

<p>Born in 1880, Helen Keller wasn't born blind and deaf. However, she fell ill at just 19 months old with what the doctors called "acute congestion of the stomach and the brain." Today, she most likely would have been diagnosed with Scarlet Fever or Meningitis. While both could have been treated with modern medicine, back then, the consequences were usually severe. </p> <p>After Keller's fever eventually broke, her mother began to notice that she was no longer responding to sounds. After waving a hand in front of her face, she came to the shocking realization that Keller had lost both her eyesight and hearing. </p>

She Wasn't Born Disabled

Born in 1880, Helen Keller wasn't born blind and deaf. However, she fell ill at just 19 months old with what the doctors called "acute congestion of the stomach and the brain." Today, she most likely would have been diagnosed with Scarlet Fever or Meningitis. While both could have been treated with modern medicine, back then, the consequences were usually severe.

After Keller's fever eventually broke, her mother began to notice that she was no longer responding to sounds. After waving a hand in front of her face, she came to the shocking realization that Keller had lost both her eyesight and hearing.

<p>Considering her condition, as a young girl, Keller's behavior was often erratic and extreme. When angry, she would kick and scream in fits of rage, and if happy, would have uncontrollable laughing attacks. Many of her relatives believed that she should be placed in an institution. </p> <p>As it turns out, this was due to her high intelligence paired with her inability to express herself, which became increasingly frustrating for her. She was so desperate to communicate that she had created her own form of sign language with her friend, Martha Washington. By the time she was seven, the two had invented more than 60 different signs. </p>

She Was Described As An Unruly Child

Considering her condition, as a young girl, Keller's behavior was often erratic and extreme. When angry, she would kick and scream in fits of rage, and if happy, would have uncontrollable laughing attacks. Many of her relatives believed that she should be placed in an institution.

As it turns out, this was due to her high intelligence paired with her inability to express herself, which became increasingly frustrating for her. She was so desperate to communicate that she had created her own form of sign language with her friend, Martha Washington. By the time she was seven, the two had invented more than 60 different signs.

<p>Once Keller became involved with Anne Sullivan, her mentor, and teacher, she believed her life truly began. Anne came into Keller's life in 1887 when she was seven years old, and Anne was 21. Anne was also visually impaired and had just graduated from school. Anne then began teaching Keller how to fingerspell, so she would be able to communicate with other people. </p> <p>At first, it was challenging for Keller, but things finally fell into place after Anne put Keller's hand under the water pump and spelled out "water" on her hand. Supposedly, by the end of the night, she had learned 30 different words.</p>

She Claims Her Life Began When She Was Seven Years Old

Once Keller became involved with Anne Sullivan, her mentor, and teacher, she believed her life truly began. Anne came into Keller's life in 1887 when she was seven years old, and Anne was 21. Anne was also visually impaired and had just graduated from school. Anne then began teaching Keller how to fingerspell, so she would be able to communicate with other people.

At first, it was challenging for Keller, but things finally fell into place after Anne put Keller's hand under the water pump and spelled out "water" on her hand. Supposedly, by the end of the night, she had learned 30 different words.

<p>When Keller was just six years old, her parents took her to see Julian John Chisolm, Professor of Diseases of the Eye and Ear at the University of Maryland. He recommended that they take her to see Alexander Graham Bell, a famous inventor credited with creating the first telephone. </p> <p>Bell's wife was deaf and he had established several schools for the deaf as a result and taught deaf students as well. Bell suggested that her parents enroll her at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. It was there Keller first met Sullivan, and along with Bell, they remained friends until his death in 1922. </p>

Alexander Graham Bell Was A Part Of Her Life

When Keller was just six years old, her parents took her to see Julian John Chisolm, Professor of Diseases of the Eye and Ear at the University of Maryland. He recommended that they take her to see Alexander Graham Bell, a famous inventor credited with creating the first telephone.

Bell's wife was deaf and he had established several schools for the deaf as a result and taught deaf students as well. Bell suggested that her parents enroll her at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. It was there Keller first met Sullivan, and along with Bell, they remained friends until his death in 1922.

<p>Keller met Mark Twain in 1895 as a teenager while attending Cambridge School for Young Ladies. The two met for lunch in New York with her recalling that he "treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties." The two bonded over similar political views and ideologies, as well as the fact that Twain had a daughter the same age as Keller. </p> <p>Twain helped convince industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers to pay for her education and was openly amazed by the work Anne Sullivan had managed to accomplish. </p>

She Was Good Friends With Mark Twain

Keller met Mark Twain in 1895 as a teenager while attending Cambridge School for Young Ladies. The two met for lunch in New York with her recalling that he "treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties." The two bonded over similar political views and ideologies, as well as the fact that Twain had a daughter the same age as Keller.

Twain helped convince industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers to pay for her education and was openly amazed by the work Anne Sullivan had managed to accomplish.

<p>In 1900, Keller was accepted into the renown Radcliff College in Cambridge. Anne was accepted as well so she could attend her classes and help her along the way. Before entering school, she had learned to read peoples' lips using her fingers, as well as braille, typing, and finger spelling. Keller had also learned to speak although not as well as she would have liked.</p> <p>By her junior year, she had written her autobiography, <i>The Story of My Life. </i>By 1904, not only had she written a book, but she also graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, making her the first blind and deaf student to ever attain a college degree. </p>

She Was The First Blind And Deaf Person To Graduate College

In 1900, Keller was accepted into the renown Radcliff College in Cambridge. Anne was accepted as well so she could attend her classes and help her along the way. Before entering school, she had learned to read peoples' lips using her fingers, as well as braille, typing, and finger spelling. Keller had also learned to speak although not as well as she would have liked.

By her junior year, she had written her autobiography, The Story of My Life. By 1904, not only had she written a book, but she also graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, making her the first blind and deaf student to ever attain a college degree.

She Was A Member Of the Socialist Party

Even though her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Keller's own beliefs were almost completely opposite. She became increasingly involved in politics and was a member of the Socialist Party, helping to found the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU.

She had ultra far-left views and at one point, she was even under investigation by the FBI. Keller is known for her work regarding women's suffrage, worker's rights, and birth control. She also wrote essays about her admiration of Vladimir Lenin and his Socialistic ideals.

<p>In 1916, when Keller was 36 years old, she fell in love with Peter Fagan, a former newspaper reporter. Seven years her junior, Fagan was working as her temporary secretary during a period when Sullivan was sick. Fagan returned the feelings to Keller, and the two secretly became engaged and even took out a marriage license. </p> <p>However, upon discovering their secret engagement, Keller's family forbade the marriage on account of her disabilities. Throughout her life, not marrying was one of her biggest regrets.</p>

She Fell In Love With Her Secretary

In 1916, when Keller was 36 years old, she fell in love with Peter Fagan, a former newspaper reporter. Seven years her junior, Fagan was working as her temporary secretary during a period when Sullivan was sick. Fagan returned the feelings to Keller, and the two secretly became engaged and even took out a marriage license.

However, upon discovering their secret engagement, Keller's family forbade the marriage on account of her disabilities. Throughout her life, not marrying was one of her biggest regrets.

<p>In the 1930s, Keller was touring around Japan visiting schools and making public appearances. She was a known animal lover, and a Japanese police officer gave her an Akita named Kamikaze-Go as a present. She immediately bonded with the dog, who unfortunately passed away not long before she returned to the United States.</p> <p>Hearing that her dog died, the Japanese government gifted her another dog from the same litter and shipped it to the United States. This made Keller the first person to bring the dog breed into the U.S. After World War II, she returned to Japan once again to visit the disabled in military hospitals. </p>

She Was The First Person To Bring The Akita Breed To The US

In the 1930s, Keller was touring around Japan visiting schools and making public appearances. She was a known animal lover, and a Japanese police officer gave her an Akita named Kamikaze-Go as a present. She immediately bonded with the dog, who unfortunately passed away not long before she returned to the United States.

Hearing that her dog died, the Japanese government gifted her another dog from the same litter and shipped it to the United States. This made Keller the first person to bring the dog breed into the U.S. After World War II, she returned to Japan once again to visit the disabled in military hospitals.

<p>While Keller and Sullivan had become widely known to the public, they weren't making a comfortable living based on their earnings from Keller's lectures and writings. So, during the 1920s, the duo spent four years on the vaudeville circuit. </p> <p>During that time, Keller would discuss her life and host Q&A sessions where audiences could ask questions and Sullivan would translate. People couldn't fathom the hardships she had managed to overcome.</p>

She Was Named The Eighth Wonder of The World

While Keller and Sullivan had become widely known to the public, they weren't making a comfortable living based on their earnings from Keller's lectures and writings. So, during the 1920s, the duo spent four years on the vaudeville circuit.

During that time, Keller would discuss her life and host Q&A sessions where audiences could ask questions and Sullivan would translate. People couldn't fathom the hardships she had managed to overcome.

<p>In 1919, Keller starred in <i>Deliverance, </i>a film about herself. During that time, she became friendly with many Hollywood A-listers such as Charlie Chapman and other prominent individuals in the media industry. In 1955, at the age of 75, Keller accepted an Academy Award for the documentary about her life titled <i>Helen Keller: In Her Story. </i></p> <p>Of course, depictions of her life didn't stop there. The William Gibson play <i>The Miracle Worker </i>won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and was turned into a film two years later. Anne Bancroft won Best Actress for her performance as Sullivan, and Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for playing Keller. </p>

She's An Oscar Winner

In 1919, Keller starred in Deliverance, a film about herself. During that time, she became friendly with many Hollywood A-listers such as Charlie Chapman and other prominent individuals in the media industry. In 1955, at the age of 75, Keller accepted an Academy Award for the documentary about her life titled Helen Keller: In Her Story.

Of course, depictions of her life didn't stop there. The William Gibson play The Miracle Worker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and was turned into a film two years later. Anne Bancroft won Best Actress for her performance as Sullivan, and Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for playing Keller.

<p>In 2003, as part of the 50 state quarters program, Keller's image was printed on the Alabama State quarter. On the quarter, Keller is depicted sitting in a rocking chair while reading a book in braille. </p> <p>The coin was introduced in March 2003, with her name printed on the quarter in typical lettering as well as braille. Beneath the image of her is the phrase "Spirit <i>of</i> Courage." These coins were produced for just ten weeks and are now considered a collector's item. </p>

Her Likeness Is On A US Quarter

In 2003, as part of the 50 state quarters program, Keller's image was printed on the Alabama State quarter. On the quarter, Keller is depicted sitting in a rocking chair while reading a book in braille.

The coin was introduced in March 2003, with her name printed on the quarter in typical lettering as well as braille. Beneath the image of her is the phrase "Spirit of Courage." These coins were produced for just ten weeks and are now considered a collector's item.

<p>Although there is still a substantial amount of footage of Keller, as well as her works, there used to be much more. Unfortunately, much of her archival footage and other material was stored at the World Trade Center. </p> <p>During the attack on September 11, almost all of it was lost in the destruction of the towers. Furthermore, the offices of Helen Keller Worldwide were located just a block away from the World Trade Centers, and they too were also destroyed in the wake of the attacks. </p>

Many Of Her Archives Were Destroyed

Although there is still a substantial amount of footage of Keller, as well as her works, there used to be much more. Unfortunately, much of her archival footage and other material was stored at the World Trade Center.

During the attack on September 11, almost all of it was lost in the destruction of the towers. Furthermore, the offices of Helen Keller Worldwide were located just a block away from the World Trade Centers, and they too were also destroyed in the wake of the attacks.

<p>In 1946, Keller was appointed counselor of international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind. In total, she went to 39 different countries throughout her life. </p> <p>During her travels, she made it a point to advocate for educational policies for the disabled to the many world leaders that she encountered. She also particularly fell in love with the Middle East.</p>

She Travelled Extensively

In 1946, Keller was appointed counselor of international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind. In total, she went to 39 different countries throughout her life.

During her travels, she made it a point to advocate for educational policies for the disabled to the many world leaders that she encountered. She also particularly fell in love with the Middle East.

<p>Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller faced adversity from an extremely young age after losing her sight and hearing. However, her devotion to learning, guidance from others, and commitment to activism helped her become one of the most influential individuals of the 20th century. </p> <p>Her entire life is a testament to the strength of the human spirit, as she was able to accomplish much more than most people, without the use of sight and hearing. Take an in-depth look into the incredible life of Helen Keller and what she managed to achieve without the senses many of us take for granted. </p>

Keller And Sullivan Were Inseparable

From the time that Keller met Sullivan when she was just seven years old, the two became inseparable for the rest of their lives. Most likely, Keller would have been institutionalized without the help of Sullivan, who was there for her every step of the way. They spent their lives together from attending college, traveling the world, and leaving lasting impressions on people around the world.

When Sullivan passed away in 1936, Keller was next to her, holding her hand. Keller notes that the moment she met Sullivan was when her "soul was born." The two women are buried side-by-side at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

<p>In 1952, Keller visited the Middle East where she met with political leaders about the rights of the blind and the disabled. In Egypt, she managed to convince the Minister of Education to establish secondary schools for the blind that would aid in them receiving college educations. </p> <p>In Israel, Jerusalem's Helen Keller School was named in her honor. For her work, in 1953, Keller was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the award went to George Catlett Marshall for his post-war work after World War II. </p>

She Was Nominated For The Nobel Peace Prize

In 1952, Keller visited the Middle East where she met with political leaders about the rights of the blind and the disabled. In Egypt, she managed to convince the Minister of Education to establish secondary schools for the blind that would aid in them receiving college educations.

In Israel, Jerusalem's Helen Keller School was named in her honor. For her work, in 1953, Keller was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the award went to George Catlett Marshall for his post-war work after World War II.

<p>For a lifetime of hard work and activism, Keller was recognized on numerous occasions. In 1936 she received the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Sevice Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and election to the Women's Hall of Fame in 1965. </p> <p>Moreover, Keller received honorary doctoral degrees from several universities both at home and abroad including Harvard University. She continued to be honored after her death in 1968, appearing on <i>Time's </i>1999 list of the 100 most important figures of the 20th century, among other recognitions. </p>

She Has An Impressive List Of Awards And Accolades

For a lifetime of hard work and activism, Keller was recognized on numerous occasions. In 1936 she received the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Sevice Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and election to the Women's Hall of Fame in 1965.

Moreover, Keller received honorary doctoral degrees from several universities both at home and abroad including Harvard University. She continued to be honored after her death in 1968, appearing on Time's 1999 list of the 100 most important figures of the 20th century, among other recognitions.

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Biographics

Helen Keller Biography: Courage in the Dark

At the age of seven, Helen Keller was described my family members as a little monster. She threw temper tantrums, attacked people and had terrible personal habits. Yet, within a year, the deaf and blind girl had been transformed. She became teachable and that teaching untapped a level of genius – and determination – which saw her overcome her disabilities and achieve unimaginable success . In this week’s Biographics we explore how Helen Keller beat incredible odds to become an inspiration to the world.

A ‘Normal’ Beginning

Helen Keller was born on June 27th, 1880 in Tuscumbia, a small town in northern Alabama. She was a perfectly healthy baby with the ability to see and hear. Her mother Kate, just 23 years old, was a pampered Southern belle who doted on her first child. Helen’s father, Arthur, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, was 42 when his daughter was born. Kate was his second wife and he had two grown sons from his first marriage.

Helen Keller, as a young girl, reading.

The birth of Helen was a relief to Kate, who now had a child of her own to shower love and attention upon. Helen was a quick developer, speaking her first words at six months and and taking her first steps on her first birthday. However, in February, 1882, at the age of nineteen months, she became severely ill with what doctors at the time called ‘brain fever.’ Modern researchers believe she may have had Scarlet Fever or, possibly, meningitis. Whatever the cause of her illness, the local doctor was convinced that the child would not survive.

A World of Darkness and Solitude

Helen did survive – but the illness had robbed her of her hearing and her sight. Her bright, happy world was now filled with silence and darkness. As an adult, Helen recalled coming out of her illness . . .

I was too young to realize what had happened. When I awoke and found that all was dark and still, I suppose I thought it was night, and I must have wondered why day was so long coming. Gradually, however, I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me, and forgot that it had ever been day.

For the first few months after her illness, a terrified Helen would do no more than sit on her mother’s lap and cling to her dress as Kate tried to do her daily chores. Then she began to venture out on her own, first crawling around the room and feeling her way forward. She discovered that her hands could, in a small way, do the job of her eyes, helping her to identify objects and areas of the house.

"Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it." Helen Keller

With Kate’s patient assistance, Helen also developed a crude system of communication; a shake of the head for ‘no’, a nod for ‘yes’, a pull on her mother’s dress for ‘come’. Before long she had incorporated pantomime actions into her ‘vocabulary’ – if she wanted ice-cream she would pretend she was working the freezer while shivering. He ever-attentive mother would then rush to give her what she wanted.

Helen proved to be a very determined child. If she set her mind on a task, she would keep at it until she was successful. Her greatest desire was to improve her ability to communicate with others. Making simple signs with her hands was not enough. The inability to make people understand what she was thinking and feeling led to a level of frustration that welled deep inside her. This led to outbursts of temper, screaming fits and violent outbursts.

Helen’s temper tantrums terrorized the family. She would smash lanterns, thrust her fist in plates of food and claw and pinch whoever was close by. Relatives referred to the child as a ‘monster’ and strongly urged Kate and Arthur to put her in an institution.

In 1885, Kate had a second child, Mildred, a baby sister for Helen. With her mother’s doting attention now being shared, Helen became intensely jealous. Once she knocked over Mildred’s cot, causing the baby to fall out. A desperate Kate was at her wit’s end, unable to control or help Helen. But she was determined not to send her away.

With Patty Duke, who portrayed Helen Keller in both the play and film The Miracle Worker (1962). In a 1979 remake, Patty Duke played Anne Sullivan.

When Helen was six, her father learned of a doctor in Baltimore, Maryland, named Julian Chisholm who had helped restore sight to blind people. The family took the trip to consult with Dr. Chisholm only to be told that there was nothing medically that could be done to fix Helen’s eyesight. But the doctor did hold out a ray of hope. He told the Kellers about a man who specialized in helping deaf children to communicate. His name was Alexander Graham Bell.

Although best remembered as the inventor of the telephone, Bell’s passion was helping the deaf. His mother and his wife were both deaf. In fact, he had met his wife, Mabel, when he had taken on the job as her private tutor, teaching her through a system of signing that he had developed. The Keller’s traveled to Washington to meet him.

Helen felt comfortable with Bell right away. At that first meeting he sat her on his knee and handed her his pocket watch. She was delighted with the vibrations she felt when the watch struck the hour. Bell suggested that the Kellers write to the Perkins Institute For The Blind in Boston, requesting a tutor for Helen. The Institute trained teachers who could go out and work with deaf and blind students. The director of the Institute looked over his list of recent graduates, settling upon his star pupil, a twenty year old who was, herself, partially blind from suffering trachoma as a child. Her name was Anne Sullivan.

Enter the Miracle Worker

Anne Sullivan arrived at the Keller house on March 3rd, 1887. Helen stood in the doorway as she approached. The child knew, from her mother’s scurried activity that morning, that something important was happening, but she didn’t know what. Years later, however, she would write . . .

The most important day I remember in all my life is the one in which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. Helen Keller

Helen could hear footsteps approaching. Assuming it was her mother, she held out her hand. Anne took the girl’s hand and pulled her in for an embrace. But when Helen realized that this was a stranger, she struggled to break free. This was the first of many temper outbursts that Anne would be confronted with. The very next day, in a fit of rage, the student knocked out one of her teacher’s front teeth.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan, July 1888

But Helen was quickly to realize that Miss Sullivan was not about to let the petulant child get away her outrageous behavior, as had been happening up until then. When, at the breakfast table, Helen reached across to grab food from Anne’s plate, as she was accustomed to doing with her family members, Anne grabbed her hand and pushed it away. This sent Helen into a fit of rage – she flopped on the floor and exhibited a full on tantrum. Sullivan asked the other family members to leave the room and lock the door. She then proceeded to continue eating her breakfast, completely ignoring Helen’s performance. Finally, the exasperated child got off the floor and felt for Anne’s body to see what she was doing. When she discovered that Anne was calmly eating her food she again began to grab at the plate. But, each time, Anne would slap her hand away. Helen then began pinching Anne’s hand, something she was allowed to do with impunity to her family members. Again Anne slapped the hand. Finally, Helen sat back on her chair and began eating her own food.

Anne soon came to the realization that Helen’s family members had been enabling her bad behavior. She knew that to make any progress, she would have to separate the child from her parents. The Kellers agreed to let Anne and Helen live in a small cottage not far from the main house. Anne wanted Helen to think that they had traveled a long distance from the family, so the two of them set out on a carriage ride that, unknown to Helen, circled back to the cottage.

Helen wasn’t happy to be packed off with her strict new teacher. She spent the first day screaming and throwing things around the cottage. That night, Anne had to hold Helen down for hours just to keep her in bed. The child’s strength and determination were incredible. But Anne’s was just that little bit greater.

As the days and weeks passed, Anne was able to slowly bring Helen under control. The change began when Anne started spelling out words on Helen’s palm. The first word was DOLL. The finger play intrigued Helen and she proved to be an excellent mimic. Soon she was spelling out a dozen three letter words with her fingers – but she still didn’t know what they meant.

"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart." Helen Keller

The breakthrough came on April 5th, 1887. That morning, Anne had been trying to get Helen to understand the difference between the words ‘mug’ and ‘water.’ She took her to the water pump outside the cottage and had the girl hold out a mug. Anne then worked the pump so that water filled it and began to overflow. Then she began to spell the word WATER on Helen’s free hand.

Suddenly the light went off in Helen’s mind. She later wrote . . .

That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope joy, set it free.

Now, that she had a taste of word meanings, she couldn’t get enough. She wanted Anne to spell out everything around her. She managed to add dozens of new words to her vocabulary that day.

As her understanding of the world grew, Helen’s personality began to mellow and the temper tantrums became less frequent. She came to understand that people would treat her with greater empathy if she displayed a kind, caring personality.

Helen Keller

With the key to knowledge – understanding word meaning – now unlocked, Helen was able to learn with amazing speed. In just a few months she was reading books in Braille. Anne was no longer spelling only simple words into Helen’s palm. Now she was signing portions of Shakespeare and the Bible. By the time she was nine, Helen was ‘reading the works of such great poets as Shelley, Longfellow and Oliver Wendell-Holmes. This made her far more advanced, in a literary sense, than most other children of her age.

Anne quickly came to the realization that Helen’s ability to comprehend complex ideas was highly advanced. Writing a report to the director of the Perkins School for the Blind, she spoke of Anne’s near-genius level learning ability. But she added that that director must not show the report to anyone else. She didn’t want Anne to be turned into a prodigy. However, the director, Michael Anagnos, saw Helen’s story as an opportunity for reflected glory. He titled the 56th annual report of the Perkins School ‘Helen Keller: A Second Laura Bridgeman.’ In the report he embellished Helen’s story, making it even more irresistible to the press.

Before long newspapers all over the country were writing gushing stories about the child genius who was reading Shakespeare, despite not being able to see or hear. Helen’s story even reached across to Europe, where Queen Victoria was intrigued to hear of the brilliant little deaf and blind girl.

By age ten, Helen Keller was an internationally renowned figure. When a policeman shot her dog, Lioness, the news was picked up by the papers. People began sending her money to buy another dog. Helen was reported as saying that she didn’t need a new dog, but she would like to use the money to help a poor blind, deaf and mute boy name Tommy Stringer to attend the Perkins School for the Blind. The public responded and Tommy’s tuition fees were paid for. This inspired Helen to want to help more children so, she began writing letters to people who were willing to donate money.

Learning to Speak

By the time she was ten years of age, Helen had not spoken a clear word in her life. But then, in March 1890 she heard about a blind / deaf girl in Norway who had learned to speak with her mouth. She now became obsessed with doing the same thing. Anne Sullivan knew just who could help – Sarah Fuller, the director of the Mann School for the Deaf in Boston, Massachusetts. Fuller decided to teach Helen herself. She took hold of Helen’s hand and placed it over her mouth to allow the girl to feel the movement of her lips and tongue as she spoke. Helen then copied the motions with her own speech organs. After an hour of intense concentration and effort she was able to speak her first sentence . . .

It is too warm.

The sound of Helen’s voice, however, was raspy and almost impossible to understand. Her untrained vocal cords would need a lot of practice before she was able to make legible speech. In later years, she would train for three summers under the guidance of a famous music teacher to improve her speaking voice.

Back home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Helen and Anne continued to work on speech development. They also developed a method of ‘hearing’ what others were saying. She would place her thumb on the throat of the speaker, her forefinger on their lips and her middle finger on their nose, allowing her to translate the vibrations into sound.

“The Frost King”

In November, 1891, 11-year old Helen sent a birthday present to Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institute. It was a short story that she had written on her Braille slate called ‘The Frost King.’ Anagnos was impressed with the quality of the prose and published the story in the Perkins Alumni magazine. Helen was overjoyed to become a published author. But her joy was short-lived.

Helen Keller in 1899 with lifelong companion and teacher Anne Sullivan. Photo taken by Alexander Graham Bell at his School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics

Reports reached Tuscumbia that there was a book in print called The Frost Fairies by Margaret T. Canby. The story was uncannily similar to Helen’s story, The Frost King. Accusations started to circulate that she had plagiarized the story. When this was explained to her, she was horrified. Reading Canby’s book, she realized the similarities were striking. But she was adamant that she had written her own, original story.

The reality was that Helen had become a voracious reader. She would digest one book after another, with no thought for who had written them. Ideas became jumbled in her mind and she was unable to remember if they came from herself or from what she had read. So, when she enthusiastically produced her story, she believed that the ideas were her own. However, a worker at the Perkins Institute had, indeed, read the Frost Fairies to her over a year before. The story had become lodged in her subconscious and was clearly the inspiration for The Frost King.

This incident caused deep embarrassment to Helen. She wrote in her diary . . .

It made us feel so bad that people thought we had been untrue and wicked. My heart was full of tears, for I love the beautiful truth with my whole heart and mind.

Michael Anagnos was also humiliated by the incident. He had to print a retraction to explain the mix-up. After questioning Helen, he believed that no deliberate plagiarism was involved. But then one of his teachers reported to him that Helen had ‘confessed’ the wrongdoing to her. The truth was that this manipulative teacher had twisted Helen’s words to make her sound guilty. It was enough, however, for Anagnos to turn against Helen, and his former star pupil, Anne Sullivan. He set up a formal hearing in which Helen was interrogated by an 8-member panel. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of the 11-year-old’s life. After a day of tough scrutiny, the panel was split down the middle as to whether deliberate plagiarism was involved. In the end, Anagnos split the stalemate, coming down on the side of Helen.

The Fisher King experience haunted Helen for many years to come. Whenever she wrote a sentence from then onwards, she would check it repeatedly to make sure that it was her own, original work.

The World At Large

In March, 1893, Anne and Helen attended the Presidential inauguration of Grover Cleveland. From there they went to Niagara Falls where Helen was astounded at the power of the vibrations caused by the massive pounding waters. They then went to Chicago to attend the World’s Fair. They were escorted by Alexander Graham Bell, who was featuring his telephone at the great exhibition. But the famous deaf-blind girl who had conquered her handicaps was just as much a drawcard as the renowned inventor.

The exhibition, which featured exhibits from all over the world, thrilled Helen. She was the only one of the millions of visitors who was allowed to run her hands over the exhibits. This gave her a far greater appreciation of the world round eher than anything she had read in books, wetting her appetite to learn more.

Higher Learning

At the age of 16, Helen began studying at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was now in a class alongside and competing with, girls who could see and hear. Ann Sullivan attended every class alongside Helen, interpreting the lessons. She made rapid progress, completing her first year’s study with honors in German and English. In her second year, however, she struggled, especially at mathematics. The decision was made to withdraw her from the School and provide her with a private tutor. A year later she was ready to take the entrance exams for Radcliffe College, the women’s division of Harvard University. Passing with distinction, she became the first person with major disabilities to enter an institution of higher learning.

Helen found the pace at Radcliffe frenetic. Again she had Anne alongside to spell out the lessons on her fingers, but even she had difficulty keeping pace with the fast talking lecturers. Despite the harried pace, Helen did well, especially in English. During her second year her literacy teacher encouraged her to write her life story so that the world could get an insight into the struggles she had gone through.

Helen worked on the manuscript while also studying, which placed an almost intolerable strain on her. Finally, in March, 1903 The Story of My Life was published. Sales were slow at first but it has gone on to become a beloved classic and was recognized by the New York Public Library as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th Century. It was the first of 15 books that she would go on to write.

Helen graduated from Radcliffe on June 28, 1904 to become the first person with a serious disability to earn an undergraduate degree. She now found herself in demand for speaking engagements where people flocked to hear her inspirational story. In 1905, Anne Sullivan married John Macy, who had helped Helen publish her autobiography. The three of them lived under the same roof, with Macy and Helen developing a special bond.

Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, and Polly Thomson with a Great Dane.

Helen devoted the rest of her life to helping the blind. She wrote extensively on the subject and worked tirelessly for a uniform system of Braille. Along with Anne, and sometimes her mother Kate, she travelled internationally, giving lectures in sold out halls everywhere from Canada to Australia. When Anne died in 1936, former housemaid Polly Thomson became Helen’s constant companion. During World War Two, Helen was a ray of hope for the thousands of servicemen who were blinded or deafened in combat. During 1943, alone, she visited 70 army and naval hospitals up and down the United States.

In her later years, Helen Keller was widely regarded as the greatest living American woman. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Four years later she suffered a heart attack. She died on June 1st, 1968 at her home in Westport, Connecticut. She was 87 years of age.

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Helen Keller – an Inspirational Woman

  • Categories: Biography Helen Keller Heroes

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Words: 555 |

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 555 | Page: 1 | 3 min read

Works Cited

  • Berger, E. (1998). Helen Keller: A Life. Penguin Books.
  • Herrmann, D. (1998). Helen Keller: A Photographic Story of a Life. DK Children.
  • Larsen, D. (2019). Helen Keller: A Biography. Routledge.
  • Keller, H. (1903). The Story of My Life. Doubleday, Page & Co.
  • Swift, H. G. (2008). The Life and Times of Helen Keller. Read Books.
  • Keller, H. (2003). The World I Live In. Dover Publications.
  • Herrmann, D. (2003). Helen Keller: Selected Writings. NYU Press.
  • Helen Keller International. (n.d.). About Helen Keller. Retrieved from https://www.hki.org/about-hki/helen-keller
  • National Women's History Museum. (n.d.). Helen Keller. Retrieved from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/helen-keller
  • American Foundation for the Blind. (n.d.). Helen Keller: AFB and Helen Keller. Retrieved from https://www.afb.org/about-afb/history/helen-keller

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write a biography on helen keller

IMAGES

  1. Helen Keller Hero Biography

    write a biography on helen keller

  2. Helen Keller

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  3. The Story of Helen Keller: A Biography Book for New Readers by

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  4. Helen Keller Biography Pack

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  5. The story of my life by -Helen Keller class 10 (novel of class 10 biography of Helen Keller)

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  6. Helen Keller and Her Miracle Worker

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VIDEO

  1. Helen Keller Biography in Short

  2. Helen Keller

  3. Helen Keller

  4. Helen Keller: American author

  5. Helen Keller Day Speech

  6. 10 Lines on Helen Keller || English Essay on Helen Keller

COMMENTS

  1. Helen Keller

    Helen Keller (born June 27, 1880, Tuscumbia, Alabama, U.S.—died June 1, 1968, Westport, Connecticut) American author and educator who was blind and deaf. Her education and training represent an extraordinary accomplishment in the education of persons with these disabilities. Helen Keller's birthplace. Helen Keller's birthplace, Tuscumbia ...

  2. Helen Keller

    DOWNLOAD BIOGRAPHY'S HELEN KELLER FACT CARD 'The Story of My Life' With the help of Sullivan and Macy, Sullivan's future husband, Keller wrote her first book, The Story of My Life. Published in ...

  3. Helen Keller

    Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 - June 1, 1968) was an American author, disability rights advocate, political activist and lecturer. Born in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, she lost her sight and her hearing after a bout of illness when she was 19 months old. She then communicated primarily using home signs until the age of seven, when she met her first teacher and life-long companion Anne Sullivan.

  4. Helen Keller

    Born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Keller was the older of two daughters of Arthur H. Keller, a farmer, newspaper editor, and Confederate Army veteran, and his second wife Katherine Adams Keller, an educated woman from Memphis. Several months before Helen's second birthday, a serious illness—possibly meningitis or scarlet fever ...

  5. Helen Keller

    Helen Keller. Helen Keller was an author, lecturer, and crusader for the handicapped. Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, She lost her sight and hearing at the age of nineteen months to an illness now ...

  6. Helen Keller Biography

    Portrait of Helen Keller as a young girl, with a white dog on her lap (August 1887) Helen Adams Keller was born a healthy child in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. Her parents were Kate Adams Keller and Colonel Arthur Keller. On her father's side she was descended from Colonel Alexander Spottswood, a colonial governor of Virginia, and on ...

  7. Helen Keller Biography

    Helen Keller Biography. Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an American author, political activist and campaigner for deaf and blind charities. Helen became deaf and blind as a young child and had to struggle to overcome her dual disability. However, she became the first deaf-blind person to attain a bachelor's degree and became an influential ...

  8. Helen Keller biography and timeline

    Helen Keller biography and timeline. October 25, 2021. Helen Keller is a historical figure known worldwide, but many remember her as 7-year-old DeafBlind girl at a water pump. She recounted this ...

  9. Helen Keller's Life and Legacy

    A Brief Biographical Timeline. 1880: On June 27, Helen Keller is born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. 1882: Following a bout of illness, Helen loses her sight and hearing. 1887: Helen's parents hire Anne Sullivan, a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, to be Helen's tutor.Anne begins by teaching Helen that objects have names and that she can use her fingers to spell them.

  10. Helen Keller, Deaf and Blind Spokesperson and Activist

    Biography of Helen Keller, Deaf and Blind Spokesperson and Activist. Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880-June 1, 1968) was a groundbreaking exemplar and advocate for the blind and deaf communities. Blind and deaf from a nearly fatal illness at 19 months old, Helen Keller made a dramatic breakthrough at the age of 6 when she learned to ...

  11. Biography

    The Biography of Helen Keller Helen Adams Keller was born a healthy child on June 27, 1880, to Captain Arthur H. and Kate Adams Keller of Tuscumbia. Her father, Arthur H. Keller, was a retired Confederate Army captain and editor of the local newspaper. ... Keller would later write in her autobiography, "the need of some means of communication ...

  12. Helen Keller Biography

    After her 1904 graduation from Radcliffe with honors in German and English, Helen Keller continued to write. The World I Live In was published in 1908; The Song of the Stone Wall , in 1910; and ...

  13. Biography: Helen Keller for Kids

    Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She was a happy healthy baby. Her father, Arthur, worked for a newspaper while her mother, Kate, took care of the home and baby Helen. She grew up on her family's large farm called Ivy Green. She enjoyed the animals including the horses, dogs, and chickens.

  14. Helen Keller Biography

    Well, there was such a person, and she was born over a hundred years ago! Helen at age 7. Meet Helen Keller, a woman from the small farm town of Tuscumbia, Alabama who taught the world to respect people who are blind and deaf. Her mission came from her own life; when she was 1 1/2, she was extremely ill, and she lost both her vision and hearing.

  15. The Story of My Life.

    (The small house on the right is where Helen Keller was born.) The Keller homestead, where the family lived, was a few steps from our little rose-bower. It was called "Ivy Green" because the house and the surrounding trees and fences were covered with beautiful English ivy. Its old-fashioned garden was the paradise of my childhood.

  16. The Story of My Life

    Author Biography. Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. She suffered a serious illness at the age of nineteen months that left her blind and deaf. ... Keller's writing in The Story of My Life speaks to the senses, not to the intellect. Reading The Story of My Life as poetry opens up a new understanding of Keller's world ...

  17. How Helen Keller Learned to Write

    By Cynthia Ozick. June 8, 2003. When Helen was eleven, she was accused of fraudulence—of being a "living lie.". Such charges would recur throughout her life. Illustration by Barry Blitt ...

  18. Helen Keller's Life: A Tale of Incredible Inspiration

    Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller faced adversity from an extremely young age after losing her sight and hearing. However, her devotion to learning, guidance from others, and commitment to ...

  19. Helen Keller Biography: Courage in the Dark

    Helen Keller was born on June 27th, 1880 in Tuscumbia, a small town in northern Alabama. She was a perfectly healthy baby with the ability to see and hear. Her mother Kate, just 23 years old, was a pampered Southern belle who doted on her first child. Helen's father, Arthur, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, was 42 when his daughter was ...

  20. Helen Keller

    Helen Keller: A Biography. Routledge. Keller, H. (1903). The Story of My Life. Doubleday, Page & Co. Swift, H. G. (2008). The Life and Times of Helen Keller. Read Books. Keller, H. (2003). The World I Live In. ... We can write you a custom essay that will follow your exact instructions and meet the deadlines. Let's fix your grades together ...

  21. Helen Keller

    Helen Keller: Discover the Life of an American Legend by Don McLeese Biography of Helen Keller, who became blind and deaf as the result of a childhood fever but learned to read, speak, and write. For grades 2-4. 2003. Download BR14883. Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Elizabeth Miller Alabama, 1887.

  22. Guided writing

    Guided writing - writing a biography ( Helen Keller) amira_albalushi. 1610. 22. 11. 0. 1/2. Let's do English ESL creative writing prompt.