Commentary Magazine


Helen and Teacher, by Joseph P. Lash

Two Lives

Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy.
by Joseph P. Lash.
Delacorte. 811 pp. $17.95.

When she was seven or so, Helen Keller returned from a drive in the country and in sign language proceeded to give her family an enthusiastic description of the scenery. “I don’t see how anyone is ever to know,” wrote Anne Sullivan, who served as the eyes and ears of her deaf, mute, and blind pupil, “what impression she did receive or the cause of her pleasure in what was told her about it. . . .” It was a question that was to recur repeatedly in one form or another throughout Helen Keller’s lifetime, asked by skeptics and admirers alike. What, actually, was the nature of the sense impressions about which Helen Keller discoursed with facility and with so much seeming pleasure—the real meaning to her of the “muted hoof of the wild deer in the woods,” the gorgeous vistas and colors invoked in the reports of her travels and much else she wrote?

This question, which might justifiably have been asked of not a few Victorian writers with their faculties intact, was an inescapable one in the case of Helen Keller, blind and deaf since her nineteenth month. However much Helen basked in the world’s admiration, as she did virtually from girlhood to the end of her life, controversy about her real capacities continued throughout her career as a writer, a lecturer (in time and by dint of enormous effort, her muteness was partially overcome), and a public figure. Her prose was thick with imagery, invented or repeated from all that she had read, all that had been told her. When she referred, in a ripe prose passage, to “the shoulder of the moon that turned pink,” one literary critic wondered what pink could possibly mean to one who had never seen the color. And when she insisted on the deep pleasure she derived from music, to which she “listened” by means of vibrations transmitted through her fingertips, even friendly observers concluded that Helen had become a dupe of words and that her aesthetic enjoyment was largely a matter of self-suggestion.

Helen Keller had an answer to these doubts, as did a number of experts who had studied her case: empathy, intuition, and insight, they averred, allowed her to “see” in a way that was not merely different from but—inevitable corollary—also superior to that of normal sighted persons. No doubt Helen Keller was, in addition to being an emblem of hope to the world at large, a boon to that body of opinion which is ever ready to uncover proof of the ways in which the infirm are superior to the healthy.

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Helen Keller’s transformation from an unruly child, constrained to live in near total isolation, to an articulate and celebrated figure is a story too well known to recount here. Yet Helen Keller herself remains a subject shrouded in mystery—one about which little can ever be known, perhaps, and one, certainly, on which Joseph Lash sheds no light—that mystery being what the real nature was of the inner world that was her whole world.

Of the face shown to the outside, we know much: she was steadfastly sunny, her temper uncomplaining, her enthusiasms limitless, her political ideals the highest. She wrote about these ideals voluminously and in so doing revealed more about herself than do all the pages of her autobiography. An activist and deeply autocratic, she waged a fierce campaign against advocates of military preparedness prior to World War I—a program she described as a J.P. Morgan plot. A proud sympathizer with the radicalism of her era, she embraced the socialists, the Bolsheviks—and also the cause of Francis Bacon as the true author of the plays that history had benightedly assigned to Shakespeare. Her public jibes at Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller as war-mad and bloodthirsty gangsters, her rousing speech at a New York City rally in which she declared that the working men of America had no reason to fight for the flag and had nothing to gain from the war but “a change of masters,” brought down on her the wrath of a number of editorialists. The New York Herald commented acidly that since talking was a newly discovered art to Helen Keller, it mattered little that she talked of things about which she knew nothing. In a similar vein, Life magazine pointed out that Helen Keller and Henry Ford—who had organized a peace ship called the Oscar II—were both imperfectly equipped to see the whole of life. With a crudity that was the equal of Helen’s, Life observed that as a blind leader of the blind, she belonged with Henry’s crew.

Such hostile journalistic response was, to be sure, not the kind of treatment to which Helen Keller was accustomed. She had made conquests of all who met her and of those who had only heard of her. Even during a visit to Japan on the eve of World War II, when that country was an armed camp bristling with hostility to Westerners, she managed to captivate the Japanese. Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell were devoted to her, and Andrew Carnegie pleaded for the honor of providing her and her teacher with funds, a request Helen refused with some hauteur on the grounds that her socialist conscience would not permit her to accept money from plutocrats. (It was a decision she would think better of shortly, when money became a problem. At that point she asked for and received a sizable donation from Carnegie.) All told, the only notable who failed to be impressed by Helen Keller was—perhaps not surprisingly—that other agitator for socialist ideals and brotherhood, George Bernard Shaw, who grudgingly consented to receive her in England and then greeted her with the insulting observation that not only she but all Americans were deaf, blind, and dumb.

Throughout her life, the sole relationship of depth and endurance was the one she had with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who first taught her the meaning of words and then goaded her on to the academic and literary accomplishments which were Helen’s earliest claim to fame. Proponents of affirmative-action programs today might well study the section in Lash’s book on Helen’s entry to Radcliffe, whose officials, concerned to insure that it was Helen Keller’s merit as a scholar, and that merit alone, which was being judged, saw to it that she enjoyed no special benefits as a result of her infirmities. College authorities even objected to having the entrance examination read to Helen by her teacher, thus forcing Helen to struggle through the exam on her own, part of it in a new Braille notation which she had had just two days to learn.

After she entered Radcliffe, the dean hired two proctors to oversee Helen’s exams, one to proctor the student and the other to proctor the first proctor. Whatever her difficulties in meeting the school’s rigorous standards, she carried a full schedule, excelling in some courses and succeeding in fulfilling the requirements of a Radcliffe degree, a triumph that strengthened her and reinforced the habit of striving. This habit, which was constantly being stimulated and abetted by Anne Sullivan, her exacting, ambitious teacher and alter ego, provides a key to the enormous enthusiasm that was the hallmark of her public career, and perhaps of her soul as well. In rendering the relationship between these two, Lash has illuminated two of the more memorable lives of the age.

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