The Story of
The Restored Classic
Roger Shattuck, Editor
(Norton)Professor Shattuck has brought together in one volume Helen Keller's complete Story of My Life --- the 1903 edition --- along with the letters of Anne Sullivan and the writings of their early assistant John Macy.
I had been looking for this one for years. Several years ago, I found an older edition at my local public library. It had been printed in what looked to me to be three-point type. I figured that the publisher had wanted me to experience at first hand the problems that the visually-impaired had with reading. Since my vision is already on a par with Sartre's or Joyce's --- the lesson was not lost on me, and I returned the book to the library unread.
This new edition, let me assure you, is nicely packaged, easy to read, and is --- if I may use a phrase from my disreputable past --- a mind-blower. We begin with Keller's story written, presumably, in her own words --- and her writing is supple, poetic, Biblical in the King James sense. This on her earliest childhood:
These happy days did not last long. One brief spring, musical with the song of robin and mocking-bird, one summer rich in fruit and roses, one autumn of gold and crimson sped by and left their gifts at the feet of an eager, delighted child. Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness which closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a new-born baby.
§ § §
From what Sullivan writes of her first impression of Keller, we know that she was a hell-raiser --- the kind of child that a hundred years later would be placed on a daily dose of Ritalin. She delighted in locking people up, sticking her fingers in everything, throwing temper tantrums, dumping her little sister out of her cradle, destroying her dolls.
This is Keller's version of the arrival of Miss Sullivan:
I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.
And, then, of course --- the most famous passage in the literature of the blind: Sullivan tapping words into the child's hand, the discovery that everything in creation has its own word.
As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. 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. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!...
Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.
§ § §
Miss Sullivan was a realist. Keller had been raised in a wealthy family, which catered --- destructively so --- to her every whim. Sullivan had grown up in the Tewksbury Poorhouse, and, when very young, suffered from trachoma (which meant that she was too, for a time, blind ... and only partially-
sighted when she went to work for the Kellers.) Sullivan was also one of those rare teachers who did nothing by the book. She scorned the rote method of most schools, and like most great instructors, had her student teach her how to teach.
Sullivan became Keller's eyes and ears; the two of them were the Gemini: one a child with astronomical abilities to learn (she entered Radcliffe in 1900 already able to read English, French, German, and Latin in Braille); and her friend, teacher, and helpmeet ... a gentle soul who led her into what she called "the wonderland of the mind."
Sullivan showed her not only how to put words to objects, but to give up the violence that had early on made her family once consider putting her in an institution. This is Sullivan's letter about the first breakfast in Keller's home:
Helen's table manners are appalling. She puts her hands in our plates and helps herself, and when the dishes are passed, she grabs them and takes out whatever she wants. This morning I would not let her put her hand in my plate. She persisted, and a contest of wills followed. Naturally the family was much disturbed, and left the room. I locked the dining-
room door, and proceeded to eat my breakfast, though the food almost choked me. Helen was lying on the floor, kicking and screaming and trying to pull my chair from under me. She kept this up for half an hour, then she got up to see what I was doing. I let her see that I was eating, but did not let her put her hand in the plate. She pinched me, and I slapped her every time she did it... After a few minutes she came back to her place and began to eat her breakfast with her fingers. I gave her a spoon, which she threw on the floor. I forced her out of the chair and made her pick it up. Finally I succeeded in getting her back in her chair again, and held the spoon in her hand, compelling her to take up the food with it and put it in her mouth. In a few minutes she yielded and finished her breakfast peaceably. Then we had another tussle over folding her napkin. When she had finished, she threw it on the floor and ran toward the door. Finding it locked, she began to kick and scream all over again. It was another hour before I succeeded in getting her napkin folded.
Another hour to get the napkin folded! Where you and I would have thrown in the towel and taken the next train back to Boston, Sullivan got the Kellers to let the two of them live in a small cottage together so that for a few weeks, she could teach Helen the very necessary "obedience and love."
This volume is a goldmine of the theory and practice of what we used to call "child rearing." Sullivan and Keller are both pigheaded; both are brilliant, and, I suspect, Sullivan is as much a child as her protégé. Indeed, in one passage, Keller says, "Whenever anything delighted or interested me she talked it over with me just as if she were a little girl herself."
§ § §
There is one thing that haunted Sullivan and it was the one place, I suspect, where she failed. This period in American life was the time of freaks being put on show. Tom Thumb. The Fat Lady. The Siamese Twins. The Bearded Lady. Anne wanted to protect Helen from being displayed as a "prodigy." But her personality, and the need for money, made it so that before her eighth year, she had been written up in the public press. She quickly went out in the world, insisting on kissing all those she met, delighting people with her curiosity, her agile mind, and her "luminosity."
Helen met with and was befriended by many of the political, scientific, literary, and theatrical stars of the day: Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Dean Howells, Edward Everett Hale, Oliver Wendell Holmes:
There was an odor of print and leather in the room which told me that it was full of books, and I stretched out my hand instinctively to find them. My fingers lighted upon a beautiful volume of Tennyson's poems, and when Miss Sullivan told me what it was, I began to recite:
Break, break, break
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
But I stopped suddenly. I felt tears on my hand. I had made my beloved poet weep, and I was greatly distressed.
She was on display her whole life, but because of her generous personality, and the generous love that flowed between the two of them, she was almost always in good spirits. Even her description of those times when she was sad carry not only a lovely melancholy, but one that inevitably ends in joy:
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.--- L. W. Milam