Helen Adams Keller was born on 27 June, 1880 at an estate called Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama and died on 1 June, 1968 in her sleep, passing away 26 days before her 88th birthday, at her home in Arcan Ridge near Westport, Connecticut. A service was held in her honor at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC and her ashes were placed there next to her constant companions, Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson.
Helen Keller was an American author, activist and lecturer. Helen Keller was the first deafblind person to graduate from college.
The story of how Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become known worldwide through the dramatic depictions of the play The Miracle Worker.
What is less well known is how Helen Keller’s life developed after she completed her education. A prolific author, she was well traveled, and was outspoken in her opposition to war. Helen Keller campaigned for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights and socialism, as well as many other progressive causes.
Helen Keller was born to Captain Arthur H. Keller, a former officer of the Confederate Army, and Kate Adams Keller, a cousin of Robert E. Lee and daughter of Charles W. Adams, a former Confederate general. The Keller family originates from Germany, and at least one source claims her father was of Swiss descent. Helen Keller was not born blind and deaf; it was not until 19 months of age that she came down with an illness described by doctors as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”, which could have possibly been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness did not last for a particularly long time, but it left her deaf and blind. At that time her only communication partner was Martha Washington, the 6 year old daughter of the family cook, who was able to create a sign language with her; by the age of 7, she had over 60 home signs to communicate with her family.
In his doctoral dissertation, “Deaf-blind Children (psychological development in a process of education)” (1971, Moscow Defectology Institute), Soviet blind-deaf psychologist Meshcheryakov asserted that Washington’s friendship and teaching was crucial for Helen Keller’s later developments.
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 1898 In 1886, her mother, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the successful education of another deafblind child, Laura Bridgman, dispatched young Helen Keller, accompanied by her father, to seek out Dr. J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist in Baltimore, for advice. Dr J. Julian Chisolm, subsequently, put them in touch with Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Alexander Graham Belll advised the couple to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school where Bridgman had been educated, which was then located in South Boston. The school delegated teacher and former student Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired and then only 20 years old, to become Helen Keller’s instructor.
It was the beginning of a 49-year-long relationship, eventually evolving into governess and then eventual companion.
Anne Sullivan got permission from Helen Keller’s father to isolate the girl from the rest of the family in a little house in their garden. Anne Sullivan loved Helen Keller dearly and loved her like she was her child. Anne Sullivan’s first task was to instill discipline in the spoiled girl. Helen Keller’s big breakthrough in communication came one day when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on her palm, while running cool water over her hand, symbolized the idea of “water”; she then nearly exhausted Anne Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world (including her prized doll).
In 1890, 10 year old Helen Keller was introduced to the story of Ragnhild Kåta, a deafblind Norwegian girl who had learned to speak. Ragnhild Kåta’s success inspired Helen Keller to want to learn to speak as well. Anne Sullivan taught her charge to speak using the Tadoma method of touching the lips and throat of others as they speak, combined with fingerspelling letters on the palm of the child’s hand. Later Helen Keller learned Braille, and used it to read not only English but also French, German, Greek, and Latin. Later she wrote 2 books and acted in a movie.
In 1888, Helen Keller attended the Royal Institute For the Blind. In 1894, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan moved to New York City to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf and Horace Mann School for the Deaf. In 1896, they returned to Massachusetts and Helen Keller entered The Cambridge School for Young Ladies before gaining admittance, in 1900, to Radcliffe College. Helen Keller’s admirer Mark Twain had introduced her to Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleton Rogers, who, with his wife, paid for her education. In 1904, at the age of 24, Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe magna cum laude, becoming the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Anne Sullivan stayed as a companion to Helen Keller long after she taught her. Anne Sullivan married John Macy in 1905, and her health started failing around 1914. Polly Thompson was hired to keep house. Polly Thompson was a young woman from Scotland who didn’t have experience with deaf or blind people. Polly Thompson progressed to working as a secretary as well, and eventually became a constant companion to Helen Keller.
After Anne Sullivan died in 1936, Helen Keller and Polly Thompson moved to Connecticut. They travelled worldwide raising funding for the blind. Polly Thompson had a stroke in 1957 from which she never fully recovered, and died in 1960.
Winnie Corbally, a nurse who was originally brought in to care for Polly Thompson in 1957, stayed on after Polly Thompson’s death and was Helen Keller’s companion for the rest of her life.
Helen Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. Helen Keller is remembered as an advocate for people with disabilities amid numerous other causes. Helen Keller was a suffragist, a pacifist, a Wilson opposer, a radical socialist, and a birth control supporter. In 1915, Helen Keller and George Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization. This organization is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. In 1920, she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan traveled to over 39 countries, making several trips to Japan and becoming a favorite of the Japanese people. Helen Keller met every US President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin, and Mark Twain.
Helen Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working classes from 1909 to 1921. Helen Keller supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency. Newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence before she expressed her socialist views now called attention to her disabilities. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.” Helen Keller responded to that editor, referring to having met him before he knew of her political views:
“ At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him…Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.”
Helen Keller joined the Industrial Workers of the World (known as the IWW or the Wobblies) in 1912, saying that parliamentary socialism was “sinking in the political bog.” Helen Keller wrote for the IWW between 1916 and 1918. In Why I Became an IWW, Helen Keller explained that her motivation for activism came in part from her concern about blindness and other disabilities:
“ I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers, and the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness. ”
The last sentence refers to prostitution and syphilis, the latter a leading cause of blindness.
Helen Keller and her friend Mark Twain were both considered radicals in the socio-political context present in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, and as a consequence, their political views have been forgotten or glossed over in popular perception.
One of Helen Keller’s earliest pieces of writing, at the age of 11, was The Frost King (1891). There were allegations that this story had been plagiarized from The Frost Fairies by Margaret Canby. An investigation into the matter revealed that Helen Keller may have experienced a case of cryptomnesia, which was that she had Canby’s story read to her but forgot about it, while the memory remained in her subconscious.
At the age of 23, Helen Keller published her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903), with help from Anne Sullivan and Anne Sullivan’s husband, John Macy. It includes letters that Helen Keller wrote and the story of her life up to age 21, and was written during her time in college.
Helen Keller wrote “The World I Live In” in 1908 giving readers an insight into how she felt about the world. “Out of the Dark”, a series of essays on Socialism, was published in 1913.
Helen Keller’s spiritual autobiography, My Religion, was published in 1927 and re-issued as Light in my Darkness. It advocates the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the controversial mystic who gives a spiritual interpretation of the Last Judgment and second coming of Jesus Christ, and the movement named after him, Swedenborgianism.
In total Helen Keller wrote 12 books and numerous articles.
When Helen Keller visited Akita Prefecture in Japan in July 1937, she inquired about Hachikō, the famed Akita dog that had died in 1935. Helen Keller told a Japanese person that she would like to have an Akita dog; one was given to her within a month, with the name of Kamikaze-go. When he died of canine distemper, his older brother, Kenzan-go, was presented to her as an official gift from the Japanese government in July 1939. Helen Keller is credited with having introduced the Akita to the United States through these 2 dogs. By 1938 a breed standard had been established and dog shows had been held, but such activities stopped after World War II began. Helen Keller wrote in the Akita
“ If ever there was an angel in fur, it was Kamikaze. I know I shall never feel quite the same tenderness for any other pet. The Akita dog has all the qualities that appeal to me — he is gentle, companionable and trusty. ”
Helen Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1961 and spent the last years of her life at her home.
On 14 September, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Helen Keller the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States’ highest 2 civilian honors. In 1965 she was elected to the Women’s Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair.
Helen Keller devoted much of her later life to raise funds for the American Foundation for the Blind.
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