Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Adventure classics -- "Everything had a name"

The Story of My Life

by Helen Keller


I couldn’t have been older than middle-school age when I read Helen Keller’s 1903 memoir, The Story of My Life. Keller herself was only a student at Radcliffe College when she wrote the book that would give the hearing and sighted entry into the world of a brilliant mind shut in darkness and silence.

I realized as I turned the pages recently that the version I first read was heavily abridged, leaving me to be amazed anew by Roger Shattuck’s 2003 edition.  This restores sections deleted by later twentieth century verions, from Keller's beloved  “Teacher” -- Annie Sullivan -- and Harvard college instructor John Macy who helped Keller and Sullivan meet deadlines for the book’s original monthly serialization.

I was particularly interested in Macy’s account of how Keller actually transcribed her Braille notes to her typed pages. And Sullivan’s accounts, including her own version of the “water” scene, are almost as wrenching as Keller’s. But the commentaries, intentionally or not, dispel any fears that either Sullivan or Macy ghostwrote for Keller. Quite simply, neither of them possessed the magic she brought to her pages.

(Sullivan would marry Macy two years after the publication of The Story of My Life, but the marriage foundered against the sometimes stormy devotion between “Teacher” and Keller. Macy eventually left, declaring he had married an “institution.”)

After more than a century, Keller’s story deserves a short recap. Born in a small Alabama town in 1880, before she was a year old, a raging fever destroyed both her vision and hearing. As she grew, Keller’s frustration at her condition led to tantrums and mischief. Her family was on the verge of placing her in an institution for the mentally retarded when they found teacher Annie Sullivan, who managed to communicate with Helen through a manual alphabet developed for the deaf. Keller would become the first blind-deaf person to receive a college degree and an internationally-famed advocate for the disabled.

The moment in which she first understood language as a seven-year-old became the pivotal scene of The Miracle Worker, a dramatized version of Keller’s story. But no one tells it better than Keller herself.

“Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that ‘m-u-g’ is mug and that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ is water, but I persisted in confounding the two,” Keller wrote. “Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. . . 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. . . Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.”

Neither Keller’s nor Sullivan’s accounts mention any speech by Keller at the pivotal moment, unlike the dramatized version, which has her uttering a childish “wah-wah.” (Keller was never able to speak fluently, despite her skill in following conversations by touch.)

Among many biographies of Keller and Sullivan, Helen and Teacher, by Joseph P. Lash, is outstanding for its wealth of information from the archives of the American Foundation for the Blind. Both The Story of My Life and Helen and Teacher are available on Amazon. The Story of My Life is also available as a free e-book from

Next Wednesday, Adventure classics looks at a very different memoir, Temple Grandin’s Emergence: Labeled Autistic.

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