Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. The story of Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was made famous by Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, and its adaptations for film and stage, The Miracle Worker. Her birthplace in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, is now a museum and sponsors an annual “Helen Keller Day”. Her June 27 birthday is commemorated as Helen Keller Day in Pennsylvania and, in the centenary year of her birth, was recognized by a presidential proclamation from US President Jimmy Carter.
A prolific author, Keller was well-traveled and outspoken in her convictions. A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, antimilitarism, and other similar causes. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971 and was one of twelve inaugural inductees to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame on June 8, 2015.
EARLY CHILDHOOD AND ILLNESS
Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her family lived on a homestead, Ivy Green, that Helen’s grandfather had built decades earlier. She had four siblings: two full siblings, Mildred Campbell (Keller) Tyson and Phillip Brooks Keller, and two older half-brothers from her father’s prior marriage, James McDonald Keller and William Simpson Keller.
Her father, Arthur Henley Keller (1836–1896), spent many years as an editor of the Tuscumbia North Alabamian and had served as a captain in the Confederate Army. The family were part of the slaveholding elite before the war, but lost status later. Her mother, Catherine Everett (Adams) Keller (1856–1921), known as “Kate”, was the daughter of Charles W. Adams, a Confederate general. Her paternal lineage was traced to Casper Keller, a native of Switzerland. One of Helen’s Swiss ancestors was the first teacher for the deaf in Zurich. Keller reflected on this irony in her first autobiography, stating “that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.”
At 19 months old, Keller contracted an unknown illness described by doctors as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”, which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. She lived, as she recalled in her autobiography, “at sea in a dense fog”.
At that time, Keller was able to communicate somewhat with Martha Washington, the two-years older daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs;:11 by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family, and could distinguish people by the vibration of their footsteps. She tyrannized over the African-American servants.
In 1886, Keller’s mother, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the successful education of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman, dispatched the young Keller, accompanied by her father, to seek out physician J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore, for advice.
Chisholm referred the Kellers to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school where Bridgman had been educated, which was then located in South Boston. Michael Anagnos, the school’s director, asked a 20-year-old alumna of the school, Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired, to become Keller’s instructor. It was the beginning of a nearly 50-year-long relationship during which Sullivan evolved into Keller’s governess and eventually her companion.
Sullivan arrived at Keller’s house on March 5, 1887, a day Keller would forever remember as my soul’s birthday. Sullivan immediately began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with “d-o-l-l” for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present. Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. In fact, when Sullivan was trying to teach Keller the word for “mug”, Keller became so frustrated she broke the mug. But soon she began imitating Sullivan’s hand gestures. “I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed,” Keller remembered. “I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation.”
Keller’s breakthrough in communication came the next month when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of “water”. Writing in her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Keller recalled the moment: “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the 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. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!” Keller then nearly exhausted Sullivan, demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.
Helen Keller was viewed as isolated but was very in touch with the outside world. She was able to enjoy music by feeling the beat and she was able to have a strong connection with animals through touch. She was delayed at picking up language, but that did not stop her from having a voice.