Helen Keller's Story of My Life

IT is seldom that a book is greeted by such a chorus of superlatives as has welcomed the appearance of Miss Keller’s autobiography.1 It is still more seldom that the superlatives are so well justified. For the book is indeed unique. The story itself and the years of effort which have made its telling possible, the personality which it reveals, and the creation of that personality, — these are things which, even when pondered, are apt to seem little short of miraculous. So it is not surprising that the reviewers, in their eagerness to make generous acknowledgment of the greatness of the achievement, have not always been discriminating, and have not always wondered most at the strangest things.

The obvious facts are indeed strange enough. Here is the narrative of a young woman who has been deaf and blind from infancy, written in idiomatic English, and indicating the possession of a culture well above the level of that owned by the average college girl of her age. Such an achievement is a new thing in the world. When it is considered in detail, the marvel becomes both greater and more curiously interesting. The style, one finds, is not only idiomatic, but individual and rhythmical. The culture consists not merely in knowing the usual things in literature and art, but in reaching an intelligent enthusiasm about those phenomena within her reach which appeal to her temperament. Her education, though hampered and hindered by a thousand obstacles, has not only stored her mind, but has freed her spirit. So successfully has her imagination been nurtured that it has served as an irrigation system to water and make fertile the great barren spaces in her consciousness which the missing senses left desert. Thus, as one reads, one forgets to make allowances for limitations which are apt to slip out of sight, until a chance phrase recalls one with a start to the realization that the mind which deals so freely and so normally with the ordinary factors of human life dwells forever in silence and the dark.

Striking as all this is as an intellectual feat, the qualities which a close study of the case brings out as extraordinary are moral rather than mental. It is clear, to be sure, that Miss Keller had originally a good mind ; the shutting out of all distractions (which is the small compensation for her great deprivations) developed her power of concentration and her memory; and these, along with an emotional temperament unchilled by the gaze of the unsympathetic, and an exceptional power of language, account largely for the intellectual side of her achievement. But there remains the evidence of a courage and a tenacity of purpose well-nigh appalling, — the courage and the tenacity to face and to persist in the endless drudgery of learning, in spite of failure and discouragement and distrust, without the vision of the printed book or the sound of the teaching voice. In the possession of these qualities, and in their triumph, there is glory enough, and there is no need to claim for their possessor, as some have done, the quite different attribute of genius.

For if genius is to be spoken of here at all, it is when we turn to the other heroine of the book, her teacher, Miss Sullivan. Consider a moment the problem which fifteen years ago confronted her, and the manner of its solution. She had placed in her charge a child of seven, utterly undeveloped in mind or in affections, without an idea of the existence of language, almost brutish in her personality, and capable of being approached only through the avenues of touch and taste and smell. In two weeks she had tamed her and gained her affection. In four her pupil had grasped the conception of language, and was eager to name everything in her world. In three months she had learned over three hundred words, and a fortnight later was writing little childish letters to her relatives. By the end of the first year she had caught up with girls of her age in point of written expression, and very soon she surpassed them.

Nor was this the result of the skillful application of an established method. The system used by Miss Sullivan was the outcome of her own observation and reasoning, and was as different in its working as in its results from the ordinary devices for teaching language to the deaf. As it is described in her letters it seems as simple and obvious as most great discoveries after they are discovered. This is her account of it before she knew how it was to succeed: “ I asked myself, ' How does a normal child learn language ? ’ The answer was simple, ‘ By imitation.’ . . . He hears others speak, and he tries to speak. But long before he utters his first word, he understands what is said to him. I have been observing Helen’s little cousin lately. . . . These observations have given me a clue to the method to be followed in teaching Helen language. I shall talk into her hand as we talk into the baby’s ears. I shall assume that she has the normal child’s capacity of assimilation and imitation. I shall use complete sentences in talking to her, and fill out the meaning with gestures and her descriptive signs when necessity requires it; but I shall not try to keep her mind fixed on any one thing. I shall do all I can to interest and stimulate it, and wait for results.” The outcome of this method of constant spelling into her pupil’s hand, not detached words or formal definitions, but ordinary conversation, was that when Helen began to use language herself it had none of the stiff artificial character such as the language of the deaf usually has, but it was from the first natural, speedily became fluent and colloquial, and later acquired distinction and cadence.

Miss Keller’s own letters, which form one of the most interesting sections of the book, afford an illuminating exhibition of this growth of style. They begin with these words : “ helen write anna george will give helen apple simpson will shoot bird.” Then by almost undiscernible gradations they improve, until we meet with such sentences as this : “ I think only those who have escaped that death-in-life existence from which Laura Bridgman was rescued can realize how isolated, how shrouded in darkness, how cramped by its own impotence, is a soul without thought or faith or hope.” Apart altogether from the considerations of deafness and blindness, these letters form a most suggestive series of documents on the subject of the art of writing.

This, then, is the outcome of Miss Sullivan’s method. What the application of that method must have entailed, the infinite toil and pains, the thought required to invent devices to overcome new difficulties that appeared at every step, the tact and rare moral quality that moulded a character as well as a mind, — these things even the teacher’s candid yet reserved letters here printed hardly do more than suggest. This week-byweek record of a great experiment, carried out almost single-handed by a young girl with no equipment but a fair education and an intuition amounting to genius, holds one spell-bound. Nowhere does one read of a process so nearly approaching to the creation of a soul.

Of the significance of the achievement for the future of the teaching of the deaf-blind we cannot here speak ; but for all who are interested in the subject this book marks an epoch. To Miss Keller herself for her touching and eloquent telling of her own story ; to Miss Sullivan for permitting the publication of her fascinating letters, and to the editor, Mr. Macy, for the skill of his arrangement and selection of material, and the suggestiveness of his explanation and comment, both the special and the general public are under deep obligation.

William Allan Neilson.

  1. The Story of My Life. By HELEN KELLER. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1903.