A fever took Helen Keller’s sight and hearing at the age of one-and-a-half. On March 3, 1887, when Keller was six, a teacher, Anne Sullivan, came to stay at her house. Sullivan taught Keller language by spelling into her hand. Keller wrote about the first word that she understood1:
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! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
Sullivan conveyed to Keller the meaning of concepts, like “love” and “think”:
“You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play.”
The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.’
Keller wrote about her teacher:
She realized that a child’s mind is like a shallow brook which ripples and dances merrily over the stony course of its education and reflects here a flower, there a bush, yonder a fleecy cloud; and she attempted to guide my mind on its way, knowing that like a brook it should be fed by mountain streams and hidden springs, until it broadened out into a deep river, capable of reflecting in its placid surface, billowy hills, the luminous shadows of trees and the blue heavens, as well as the sweet face of a little flower.
Keller went to a school for the blind, where a teacher came to her and taught her how to speak:
Miss Fuller’s method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound.
I shall never forget the surprise and delight I felt when I uttered my first connected sentence … My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and all faith.
Keller visited Niagara:
It is difficult to describe my emotions when I stood on the point which overhangs the American Falls and felt the air vibrate and the earth tremble.
It seems strange to many people that I should be impressed by the wonders and beauties of Niagara. They are always asking: “What does this beauty or that music mean to you? You cannot see the waves rolling up the beach or hear their roar. What do they mean to you?” In the most evident sense they mean everything. I cannot fathom or define their meaning any more than I can fathom or define love or religion or goodness.
Keller learned to use sign language, read Braille and type. In 1890 she entered Radcliffe College, from which she graduated cum laude:
I began my studies with eagerness. Before me I saw a new world opening in beauty and light, and I felt within me the capacity to know all things. …
But college is not the universal Athens I thought it was. …I do not mean to object to a thorough knowledge of the famous works we read. I object only to the interminable comments and bewildering criticisms that teach but one thing: there are as many opinions as there are men. But when a great scholar like Professor Kittredge interprets what the master said, it is “as if new sight were given the blind.” He brings back Shakespeare, the poet.
Keller tried not to dwell on her isolation:
Sometimes, it is true, a sense of isolation enfolds me like a cold mist as I sit alone and wait at life’s shut gate. Beyond there is light, and music, and sweet companionship; but I may not enter. Fate, silent, pitiless, bars the way. Fain would I question his imperious decree, for my heart is still undisciplined and passionate; but my tongue will not utter the bitter, futile words that rise to my lips, and they fall back into my heart like unshed tears. Silence sits immense upon my soul. Then comes hope with a smile and whispers, “There is joy in self-forgetfulness.” So I try to make the light in others’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness.
Keller recognized inequality in society:
I had once believed that we are all masters of our fate – that we could mould our lives into any form we pleased. I had overcome deafness and blindness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life’s struggle. But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment. Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.
The above quotes are from Keller’s Story of My Life (1903)x1, a book which cemented her fame. She went on to write and speak for social justice.
Keller wrote about American democracy (1911)x3:
Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
For women’s rights (1913)x6:
Rights are things we get when we are strong enough to make good our claim to them. Men spent hundreds of years and did much hard fighting to get the rights they now call divine, immutable and inalienable. Today women are demanding rights that tomorrow nobody will be foolhardy enough to question.
Some persons like to imagine that man’s chivalrous nature will constrain him to act humanely toward woman and protect her rights. Some men do protect some women. We demand that all women have the right to protect themselves and relieve man of this feudal responsibility.
When Keller began to express radical political views, the press said she was being used by others. She responded (1913)x2:
They seem to think that one deaf and blind cannot know about the world of people, of ideas, of facts. … I can read. … I have the advantage of a mind trained to think, and that is the difference between myself and most people, not my blindness and their sight.
Keller wrote for workers’ rights (1914)x7:
You tell me these men out of work are unfit. Under socialism they will not be unfit because they will not be overtaxed. With the idle rich and the idle poor working and the work day four hours long their bodies will grow strong again and their minds sane.
There are so many in prison who should be out with their minds and bodies given a chance to grow straight. There are so many out of prison who more deserve to be inside. There are those who enslave men and women and little children, paying wages that will not let them live.
Keller spoke against the U.S. entering World War I (1916)x5:
Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the United States. It is planning to protect the capital of American speculators and investors in Mexico, South America, China and the Philippine Islands. Incidentally this preparation will benefit the manufacturers of munitions and war machines.
About American education (1916)x4:
‘… there were a dozen chapters on war where there were a few paragraphs about the inventors, and it is this overemphasis of the cruelties of life that breeds the wrong ideal. Education taught me that it was a finer thing to be a Napoleon than to create a new potato.’
Keller and her secretary took out a marriage license, but when the press broke the story, her family whisked her back home to Alabama. (~1916)x2:
The brief love will remain in my life, a little island of joy surrounded by dark waters. I am glad that I have had the experience of being loved and desired. The fault was not in the loving, but in the circumstances.
The IWW is pitted against the whole profit-making system. It insists that there can be no compromise so long as the majority of the working class lives in want, while the master class lives in luxury. … the workers in their collectivity must own and operate all the essential industrial institutions and secure to each laborer the full value of his produce. I think it is for this declaration of democratic purpose, and not for any wish to betray their country, that the IWW members are being persecuted, beaten, imprisoned and murdered.
For good government to New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (1930)x12:
This period of depression will not be all to the bad if it makes us stop and think. Only through the power of thought can we mould our national life nearer to the ideal of a united, free and enlightened people.
On security (1940)x9:
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. … Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. … Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.
Keller spoke for the blind to a Congressional committee (1944)x11
What I ask of you is to use your influence to revise the Social Security Act so that it may minister generously to the hardest pressed and the least cared-for among my blind fellows. If you do, the sight and liberty you enjoy will be all the sweeter to you.
About the media (1947)x10:
What a disaster threatens us when as today the radio and the film tend to desecrate the spoken word by perverting it from true teaching to the dictator! The mightiest spoken fiat, “Let there be light,” remains for to create a civilization in which … multitudes arise to think and speak, not by rote but by spontaneous self-expression in the harmony of a progressive world commonwealth.
Keller wrote for birth control (1952)x13:
Now a tide of enlightenment, slow but sure, shall lift its healing waves from one end of the world to the other until every child has a chance to be well born, well fed and fairly started in life — and that is woman’s natural work as the creator of the human race.