Keller, Helen (1880–1968)

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Keller, Helen (1880–1968)

Socialist and advocate for the blind and deaf who was one of the 20th century's most celebrated Americans. Born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbria, Alabama; died on June 1, 1968, in Westport, Connecticut; daughter of Captain Arthur H. Keller (a U.S. marshal) and Kate (Adams) Keller; graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College (1904); never married; no children.

Stricken blind and deaf (1882); first learned to communicate (1887); had first writing published (1893); became a socialist (1909); Deliverance (biographical film) opened (1918); began work for American Foundation for the Blind (AFB, 1924); Annie Sullivan died (1936); toured Europe on behalf of AFB (1946); awarded honorary degree by Harvard University (1955); suffered stroke and retired from public life (1961).

Selected writings:

The Story of My Life (1903); Optimism (1903); The World I Live In (1908); Out of the Dark (1913); My Religion (1927); Midstream: My Later Life (1928); A Journal (1938); Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy (1955).

During a warm April day in 1887, a woman and a six-year-old girl stood at the water pump of a wellhouse on a small farm in rural Alabama. The woman, Annie Sullivan (Macy) , took the girl's hand and held it under the running water. Into the other hand, she spelled the word W-A-T-E-R, using a manual alphabet. She spelled it over and over as the child, Helen Keller, who had been deaf, blind, and without any knowledge of language since infancy, stood still, puzzling over the meaning of the hand motions. Suddenly, as Keller recorded later in her autobiography The Story of My Life, "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." This breakthrough was the first step in the development of a woman whose triumph over her handicaps would become an inspiration to millions worldwide.

Helen Keller had been born a normal, healthy baby in 1880. At 19 months, however, she was stricken with an undiagnosed illness. Though she recovered her health, the disease left her totally deaf and going blind. She soon forgot the few words she had learned and became mute. Her parents' inability to communicate with Helen left her completely uneducated, while their reluctance to discipline their disabled child turned her into what others called a "wild child." She was uncontrollable, often angry, and prone to tantrums. In 1887, with Helen's fits growing increasingly destructive, the Kellers in desperation took her to Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, known at the time for his work with the deaf (now best known for his invention of the telephone). Bell recommended that the Kellers contact the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, an institution recognized for its effective approaches to teaching. The head of the school, Michael Anagnos, arranged for Annie Sullivan, partially blind herself and a recent graduate of Perkins, to move to the Kellers' home in Alabama in March 1887 to serve as Helen's private teacher. This was to radically change the course of both women's lives.

Understanding that a child must be disciplined before she can be taught, Sullivan first worked to establish her authority over Helen. She would refuse to let the girl eat unless she did so quietly, seated at the table using utensils and a napkin, not groping her hands around in her plate as she was accustomed to doing. After a few weeks of a constant battle of wills, during which the Kellers thought seriously of dismissing Sullivan for being "harsh" with their daughter, Sullivan finally prevailed. Now firmly in control, she proceeded to teach Helen the manual alphabet, a system of hand positions signifying letters similar to sign language, by making the motions with Helen's hands clasped over her own. Several weeks later, during the session at the water pump, Helen finally grasped the concept that the hand motions signified the names of things.

In the days that followed this breakthrough, Helen proved to be an eager, inquisitive child of high intelligence. She learned hundreds of words, and soon Sullivan taught her how to read Braille (a method of writing for the blind in which letters are represented by patterns of raised dots punched in the paper). After Helen, now seven years old, mastered Braille, Sullivan taught her the square-hand alphabet, a written alphabet of non-curved letters developed for the blind that let them write for seeing readers. In the summer of 1887, Helen wrote her first letter, a remarkable achievement for a girl who only a few months previously could not communicate at all.

The following year, Keller gained her first taste of fame when a report published by the Perkins School for the Blind detailed her rapid progress and newspapers and magazines took up the story. While some were disbelieving that a child blind and deaf since infancy could actually read Braille and write letters, most readers were fascinated by her achievements. Her celebrity was such that in June 1888, Captain Keller took his daughter and Annie Sullivan to Washington D.C., where they met President Grover Cleveland. That fall, Annie and Helen lived at the Perkins School, where Sullivan began teaching

Macy, Anne Sullivan (1866–1936)

American teacher and activist for the blind. Name variations: Anne or Annie Sullivan; Anne Mansfield Sullivan. Born Joanna Sullivan in Feeding Hill, Massachusetts, on April 14 (some sources cite April 13), 1866; died in Forest Hills, New York, on October 20, 1936; daughter of Thomas (an Irish immigrant farmer) and Alice (Cloesy) Sullivan; married John Macy (a writer, Harvard professor, and Helen Keller's literary agent), on May 2, 1905 (separated 1914); no children.

Anne Sullivan Macy is best known as the lifelong teacher and companion of Helen Keller, the deaf and blind woman who became one of the 20th century's most celebrated Americans. Born into extreme poverty in 1866, Annie Sullivan was the daughter of Thomas Sullivan and Alice Cloesy Sullivan , immigrants who had settled in Massachusetts after fleeing Ireland during the potato famine. It was an unhappy family; her mother suffered from tuberculosis, and her father was an abusive alcoholic. When her eyesight began to fail during an early childhood illness, Annie learned the manual alphabet. When she was eight, her mother died; two years later, her father deserted her and her two siblings. Annie and her lame brother were sent to the state poorhouse in Tewksbury where her brother died soon after. The unsanitary conditions there exacerbated the degenerative eye disease called trachoma which Annie had contracted earlier; her eyesight was to fail gradually over the next few decades.

In 1880, after four years at Tewksbury, Annie was fortunate to be allowed to enter the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. Although at first temperamental and hostile towards her teacher, Annie matured at Perkins into an insightful young woman eager to serve others. During her stay there, a series of operations helped regain much of her sight, and she graduated in 1886 at the head of her class. The following year, fascinated by the case of Laura Bridgman , Annie Sullivan traveled to Tuscumbria, Alabama, hired as governess to the unruly seven-year-old girl known as Helen Keller , who had been stricken blind and deaf in infancy. Undisciplined, lacking the ability to hear or see, Helen was a formidable challenge. But Annie was determined to break through to Helen's sealed-off mind using a manual alphabet by which words were spelled out into Helen's hand; after many weeks, she was successful in teaching Helen that the movements she felt in her hand were the names of objects. Annie's pupil then progressed rapidly under her dedicated efforts; soon the wild, angry child was transformed into a sweet, intelligent girl who was as devoted to her "Teacher" as her teacher was to her. Publicity about Annie's unprecedented success in teaching a deaf-blind child soon led to national fame for the two. However, throughout their lives, Helen would always garner more attention than Annie, a situation which both women resented, for both believed theirs was an equal partnership.

Although Annie married John Macy, a Harvard professor and editor of several journals, in 1905, the marriage was doomed because Annie's primary commitment was always to Helen. Teacher and student together formed, as Samuel Clemens commented, "a complete and perfect whole," making it impossible for others to share fully in that bond, especially as Annie and Helen always shared a home. John and Annie separated in 1914, though the women continued to support him out of their income from Helen's books and from the lectures they gave.

In 1919, Helen and Annie began performing a successful vaudeville act, reenacting Annie's education of Helen, which took them across the country. In 1924, they agreed to work for the American Foundation for the Blind, holding meetings to solicit donations and public support for the foundation's work. However, Annie was almost completely blind by this time (she was nearly 60 years old), and she suffered from numerous other physical ailments. Despite spending several years traveling abroad with Helen and their assistant Polly Thomson in an effort to get well, her health continued to fail rapidly. Anne Sullivan Macy died in 1936. In death, she received more recognition for her life's accomplishments than she had in life, for her ashes were placed in a special vault at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., an exceptional honor which was also granted to Helen Keller, whose ashes were placed, as she wished, next to Annie's.


Braddy, Nella. Anne Sullivan Macy. NY: Doubleday, 1933.

Keller, Helen. Teacher. NY: Doubleday, 1955.

Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher. NY: Delacorte Press, 1980.


Papers of Anne Sullivan Macy, located at the Perkins Institution, Watertown, Massachusetts.

Letters of Anne Sullivan Macy, located at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts

Laura York , Riverside, California

her pupil French, Greek, and some Latin. Keller impressed others as a sweet, sympathetic girl, very affectionate and eager to please, traits which she would not outgrow.

Sullivan continued to teach Keller at her home in Alabama until the autumn of 1889, when they returned to Perkins for Helen to study as a regular student. Since Keller could not hear the lectures as could most of the students, Sullivan had to sit with Keller and translate every lecture into the manual alphabet. The next year, Helen began speech lessons in addition to her studies. The two remained at Perkins through the 1890–91 school year, after which they returned to Alabama because the Kellers could no longer afford to keep Helen in school. In January 1893, Captain Keller, Annie, and Helen traveled to Washington, D.C., once more, where they attended the second inauguration of Grover Cleveland, after which they continued to Chicago for the World's Fair. Keller attracted much attention in Chicago even though she was only a visitor to the fair; her written account was published in December 1893 by the youth magazine St. Nicholas. The enthusiastic response of the public to her article made Keller, now 13, decide to become a writer. In September of that year, the philanthropist William Wade, who was interested in helping the disabled, made it possible for Keller, accompanied by Sullivan as always, to study in Pennsylvania under the classicist John Irons.

I have often tried to analyze what it is in Helen Keller that so awakens the better part of our natures. … It is not pity—not emotion—it must be the great soul within her.

—Moses Charles Migel

The next fall, Keller and Sullivan moved to New York City, where Helen enrolled as a student at the new Wright-Humason School for deaf children. Though she was the only student who was also blind and sometimes felt isolated because of it, she remained there for two school years and recalled her time there as a pleasant one. While in New York, she met the celebrated writer Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who was very impressed with her; afterwards, the two began a correspondence which lasted many years. In 1896, Keller entered the Gilman School for Young Ladies, a college preparatory school, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her intent was to prepare to enter Radcliffe College, the women's school attached to the all-male Harvard University. Her expenses and Sullivan's were covered by donations from a group of philanthropists, including Alexander Graham Bell and Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan (Frances Louisa Morgan ). Although Keller proved an apt student and progressed rapidly in her studies, Sullivan came into conflict with the school's dean in 1897.

Through her special connection and history with Helen, Annie Sullivan had become Helen's surrogate mother. Keller always referred to her as "Teacher." Because Annie was unwilling to let school administrators decide how best to teach Helen, the Gilman dean eventually acted to have Sullivan removed from the school. Keller, feeling betrayed, withdrew from Gilman permanently. Instead, she finished her preparatory work with private tutors paid for by philanthropic friends. During this period, Helen showed her first interest in world politics when she became absorbed in the Spanish-American War and issues of American imperialism. By the fall of 1900, Keller had passed all her entrance examinations and was admitted to Radcliffe College. As always, Annie made her studies possible by translating lectures as well as books into the manual language. Keller's benefactors provided some of her required books in Braille, but most had to be "read" to her manually, a very lengthy process. She continued to develop increasingly more liberal attitudes towards the issues of racial and sexual equality as well as to pacifism. She excelled in her courses, but despite this she suffered from feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem.

In her junior year at Radcliffe, Keller finished her first full-length book, an autobiography published as The Story of My Life, which was simultaneously published in the U.S. and Britain, and found a wide audience in both countries. Later in 1903, a small collection of Keller's essays entitled Optimism was also published to positive reviews and strong sales. Keller, despite her heavy courseload and the manuscripts which demanded most of her time, still made an effort to work as an advocate for the education of the deaf and blind through her writing and correspondence; she also let agencies use her now well-known name in their fundraising. In June 1904, Keller received her Bachelor of Arts degree, awarded with honors, from Radcliffe. She and Annie purchased a house in Wrentham, Massachusetts, with Keller's book royalties. The inseparable pair continued to live together even after Sullivan married Keller's literary agent, John Macy, in 1905 (the couple would separate in 1914, partly due to Sullivan's primary commitment to serving Keller's needs).

Keller continued writing after graduation; her book of essays The World I Live In, published

in 1908, explained how Helen "viewed" the world, how her remaining senses compensated for the two she had lost. Reviewers praised the book for offering rare psychological insights into the world of the blind and deaf. Keller also wrote poetry and kept up a steady correspondence with admirers, family members, and philanthropists. In 1908 and 1909, her articles on the need for work opportunities for the blind appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, which had also serialized The Story of My Life. Keller was instrumental in establishing the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind in 1908 and served as its representative.

The year 1909 saw another step in Keller's development, when, influenced by John Macy, she joined the American Socialist Party. Through her advocacy for government to aid the disabled, she had come to believe that the state was the key to helping all citizens improve their lives. (At this time, the Socialist Party was an important American political party, boasting millions of members from all walks of life and social classes, and running its own candidates for major offices.) She also came out for women's suffrage. (Annie Sullivan, more conservative by nature, declined to follow Keller's political lead.) The next year, Keller began writing and speaking on behalf of the Socialists and related economic issues.

As royalties from Keller's books began to decrease, she and Sullivan went on lucrative lecture tours; they traveled across the U.S. and Canada for several years relating the story of Helen's remarkable education. Audiences were awestruck by Keller's accomplishments, and her fame spread even wider. Some of the most no-table figures of the time came to hear her, including former President William Howard Taft, Thomas Edison, Maria Montessori , and Henry Ford. During these years, however, Sullivan's primary contribution as Keller's teacher was often overlooked by listeners; this neglect was to become a trend in their career, one which Sullivan deeply resented and which Keller tried desperately to amend.

In 1913, Out of the Dark, a collection of previously published material on social issues, was published. It did not find a wide audience, evidence that Keller's personal history was more agreeable to her readers than her political positions. Throughout Keller's life, book and lecture audiences preferred to hear her own story rather than her political arguments; Keller was often criticized by the conservative media when she chose to speak on social issues. This criticism was often cast in patronizing tones, implying that Keller, despite her accomplishments, could not possibly have the awareness and knowledge needed to form political opinions due to her handicaps. However, she did find acceptance among American liberals, suffragists, and other Socialists. She joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant union which eventually split off from the Socialist Party, because they advocated "direct action" over the more moderate political methods of the mainstream Socialists. Her affiliation with the IWW cost Keller some of her admirers; many could not reconcile their image of the sweet, affectionate blind and deaf girl with the radical socialist woman she had become. During this period, she embraced a myriad of liberal causes, including anti-child labor legislation, birth-control advocacy, and anti-capital punishment legislation in addition to her pro-suffrage stance.

In the fall of 1916, Keller and Sullivan experienced their first major separation since 1887. Now 50 years old and diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis), Annie traveled to Puerto Rico to recover her health under the care of Polly Thomson (a Scottish woman who had become an aide and companion to both Sullivan and Keller). Annie and Helen were separated for five months, a time in which Keller, who had returned to her family home in Alabama, came to realize just how much she depended on Sullivan to take care of her. Annie was a surrogate mother and caretaker, but she was also Helen's primary contact with the outside world, a constant daily companion for more than 25 years. However, Keller did not cease her political involvement. She wrote in support of equal rights for black Americans and donated money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), despite her conservative Southern family's shock and disapproval.

Reunited in 1917, Annie, Polly, and Helen moved to a new home in Forest Hills, New York. Due to U.S. involvement in World War I, the opportunities to make money on the lecture circuit dwindled dramatically. Needing new sources of income, Keller and Sullivan sold the movie rights for their life story to a Hollywood filmmaker and traveled to California to participate in the production. Though a commercial failure, the film Deliverance opened in 1918 to enthusiastic reviews. The movie, in which Helen, Annie, and members of Helen's family appeared as themselves, was directed as a series of tableaux with symbolic, often mythical scenes. Used to the standard narrative film, audiences found Deliverance too unusual to enjoy, and box-office sales fell quickly. Disappointed, Keller and Sullivan returned to New York.

They did not stay long. In 1919, the two women and Thomson set out on another commercial venture. For the next year, they appeared in vaudeville halls across the country. Their act, unusual for the vaudeville circuit, consisted of the same material they had given during lectures, only in a more theatrical style. They told the story of Keller's education, reenacting scenes such as the famous "W-A-T-E-R" episode, and closed with Keller answering questions from the audience (through Sullivan's translation). The act became very popular. Though Sullivan found road tours stressful, they returned to the lecture circuit in 1921 and 1922.

Between 1923 and 1926, Helen and Annie traveled widely speaking on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). They had a contract to speak at fundraising events, soliciting donations to the newly formed Helen Keller Endowment. Keller's name proved a successful fundraising tool, and they gathered thousands of dollars in gifts. In 1927, My Religion was published. In the book, Helen explained the principles of Swedenborgism, a sect of Christianity emphasizing a view of the world as a battle between good and evil which Keller had embraced years earlier. It went through several editions and sold quite well. The next year, another autobiographical work, Midstream: My Later Life, was published, another commercial and critical success.

Keller's newfound prosperity was marred by Sullivan's failing health and vision. Sullivan had been partially blind since childhood, but, as she neared old age, her eyesight began to fail altogether. By the late 1920s, Polly Thomson had taken over most of Sullivan's former duties in caring for Keller and had to care for Annie now as well. In 1930, the three enjoyed their first trip together abroad when they visited Great Britain. They returned to Europe twice in the next two years, the first year to Britain, the second year traveling to France, Germany, and Yugoslavia. Each country received them enthusiastically and treated them as "official guests" of the government. Also in 1931, Keller was a major organizer of an international conference of workers for the blind in Washington, D.C., in the course of which she dined at the White House as the special guest of President Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover .

Helen, Annie, and Polly took another trip to Europe, in 1933, to escape from the pressures of advocating for the blind on behalf of the AFB, which they had taken up again in 1932. The trio returned to the United States in fall 1933 but did not remain at home long; Sullivan was more ill than ever, and her doctors recommended that

she travel to get the rest she needed. Accordingly, her committed student and assistant spent the next three years of their lives traveling with her, from as far north as New York state to as far south as Jamaica. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain, for Sullivan died after their return to the United States in October 1936. Her ashes were placed in a vault at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., a privilege offered only to those who had made a significant contribution to the country. Thus in death, Sullivan finally received the recognition she and Keller had sought for her in life. Polly and Helen, both bereft, continued to travel after Sullivan's death to escape the painful memories of their home in Forest Hills. At the end of 1936, they once again visited England and Scotland. The next year, they traveled to Japan for the first time, to promote Japanese-American goodwill and to speak on education issues and on the need for peace; Keller was popular with the Japanese, and the trip was considered a success.

In 1938, Keller's sixth book, A Journal, was published, an edited collection of her diary entries for the previous few years; reviewers praised its style and its intimacy, preferring it over her earlier publications, and it sold well. Helen immediately began work on her next book, a biography of "Teacher." During the late 1930s and throughout World War II, she also occupied herself with more work on behalf of the blind and deaf. Her efforts were in part responsible for the inclusion of the blind as recipients of federal aid in the Social Security Act of 1935, after which she came to be on intimate terms with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt . Among other projects, Helen lobbied Congress to include aid for diagnosis and treatment for the blind in the bill known as Title X, and she pressured the president into authorizing funds for recorded books to be made by the Library of Congress for the blind. Also during the war, Keller fulfilled a self-described need by visiting wounded soldiers at military hospitals. Her victory over her own handicaps was an inspiration, and she was a popular figure in the hospital wards. After the war, Keller and Thomson returned to Europe, visiting the sick in military hospitals across the Continent and doing fundraising events for the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind (AFOB). Each country she visited treated her as a visiting dignitary; among other highlights, in Italy, she had an interview with Pope Pius XII, and in England she met privately with Queen Elizabeth II . Helen and Polly returned home briefly in 1947 but spent the better part of the next four years overseas, despite Keller's advancing age (she was 67 in 1947). Their world tour included Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, France, and Israel (where they were guests of Golda Meir , later prime minister).

In 1952, The Unconquered, another film based on Keller's life opened. Though it failed commercially, the documentary received positive reviews and spurred Keller to finish her biography Teacher, which was published in 1955. Keller's biography of Annie Sullivan seems almost protective in what was covered and not covered; even after Sullivan's death, Keller felt it important to defend Annie from those who had criticized her control of Helen's life. That year, Keller was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. Two years later, 77-year-old Keller and Polly Thomson took their last trip abroad, visiting Iceland and Scandinavia. Also in 1957, Keller's last book appeared. Called The Open Door, it was a collection of previously published essays which enjoyed moderate sales.

The year 1959 saw the opening on Broadway of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke , which was based on that early battle of wills between Sullivan and a six-year-old Keller. The play received rave reviews, played across the country to packed houses, and saw scores of revivals and regional productions. Keller was pleased with the work, which she considered a tribute to Sullivan's life. In March 1960, Keller suffered a second great loss when her longtime companion and assistant Polly Thomson died after enduring poor health for many years. "Our sweet Polly has left me," Keller wrote a friend. "I thank God that [her] years of anguish are over." Yet despite her love for Thomson and her gratitude for Polly's years of selfless service, Keller tried to stop plans for Polly's ashes to be placed with Annie's at the National Cathedral, where Helen's own ashes would be placed. Why Helen refused to honor Polly in this way is unclear, though biographer Joseph Lash speculates in Helen and Teacher that "so far as the world was concerned, Helen wanted it to realize that she and Teacher were bound to each other in a way that admitted no others."

Although Keller of necessity had caretakers for the remaining few years of her life, she never formed a close relationship with anyone else after the deaths of her two companions. In October 1961, age 81, Keller suffered a stroke, after which she retired from public life. She remained at her home in Westport, Connecticut, seeing very few visitors and venturing forth only rarely. Helen Keller died at her home on June 1, 1968, at the age of 88. As planned, her ashes were deposited next to those of her beloved "Teacher," Annie Sullivan, after a memorial service at the National Cathedral.


Keller, Helen. Midstream: My Later Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1930.

——. The Story of My Life. NY: Andor Press, 1976.

Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. NY: Delacorte Press, 1980.

suggested reading:

Gibson, William. The Miracle Worker: A Play for Television. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Keller, Helen. Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy. NY: Doubleday, 1955.

——. A Journal. NY: Doubleday, 1938.

related media:

The Miracle Worker opened in Broadway at The Playhouse on October 19, 1959, starring Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke, Patricia Neal , and Beah Richards , produced by Fred Coe, directed by Arthur Penn.

The Miracle Worker (107 min. film), starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, and Inga Swenson , directed by Arthur Penn, produced by Playfilms/United Artists, 1962.


Helen Keller Scrapbooks located at the Perkins Institution, Watertown, Massachusetts; Helen Keller Archives located at the American Foundation for the Blind, New York City, New York; Helen Keller Archives located at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, Washington, D.C.

Laura York , freelance writer in medieval history and women's history, Riverside, California

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Keller, Helen (1880–1968)

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