The Story of My Life – Helen Keller
Helen Keller overcame the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of deafness and blindness to become an influential lecturer and social activist. Keller has become, in American culture, an icon of perseverance, respected and honored by readers, historians, and activists. Her autobiography The Story of My Life, published in the United States in 1903, is still read today for its ability to motivate and reassure readers. In her time, Keller was a celebrity and the publication to her autobiography was met with enthusiasm. The book was generally well received, and Keller later wrote a follow-up called Midstream, My Later Life in which she tells what happened in the twenty-five years after the publication of The Story of My Life.
Keller began working on The Story of My Life while she was a student at Radcliffe College, and it was first published in installments in Ladies’ Home Journal. Helping her was an editor and Harvard professor named John Albert Macy, who later married Keller’s first teacher and lifelong companion, Anne Sullivan. In the book Keller recounts the first twenty-two years of her life, from the events of the illness in her early childhood that left her blind and deaf through her second year at Radcliffe College. Prominent historical figures wander among the pages of The Story of My Life—She meets Alexander Graham Bell when she is only six and remains friends with him for years; she visits the acclaimed American poet John Greenleaf Whittier; and she exchanges correspondence with people like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mrs. Grover Cleveland.
I. Early Childhood: Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, a little town of Alabama in the United States of America. Her family originated in Switzerland. Her grandfather bought large tracts of land in Alabama and finally settled there. Her father, Arthur H. Keller, had been a captain in the Confederate Army. She was born in a tiny house near the homestead. It was completely covered with vines, climbing roses and honeysuckles. It was the favourite haunt of humming birds and insects. The old fashioned garden of “Ivy green” was the paradise of her childhood. The beginning of her life was very simple. The day she started walking, she was one year old. Those happy days did not last long. Then came the illness which closed her eyes and ears.
II. Illness that closed Keller’s Eyes and Ears: It was a mysterious disease. They called it acute congestion of the stomach and brain. The doctor thought that she would not live. The fever left her as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. But the rejoice was short-lived. No one, not even the doctor knew that she would never see or hear again. Except for some fleeting memories, all seemed very unreal and like a nightmare. Her hands felt every object and observed every motion. She felt the need of some communication with others and began to make crude signs. A shake of head meant “No” and a nod meant “Yes”. A pull meant “come” and a push meant “go”. In those days, Martha Washington, the child of her cook was her constant companion. She understood her signs better than the others. Her desire to express herself grew. Her failure to make herself understood through limited signs upset her. Her parents were deeply grieved and upset. It was very difficult to teach a deaf and blind child. Her mother’s only hope came from Dickens’s “American Notes”. She had read his account of Laura Bridgman who had been educated inspite of being a deaf and blind child. This led them to meet Dr. Alexander Graham Bell who advised Keller’s father to contact Mr. Anagnos, Director of the Perkins Institute in Boston. Within a week came a kind letter from Mr. Anagnos. He gave assurance that a teacher had been found for Helen Keller.
III. Advent of Miss Anne Sullivan: The arrival of Anne Mansfield Sullivan was the most important day in Keller’s life. It was the third of March, 1886, three months before she was seven years old. She stood on the porch dumb and expectant. She was like a ship in a dense fog at sea. “Light! give me light!” was the wordless cry of her soul. And the light of love shone on her in that very hour. Miss Sullivan held her close in her arms and gave her a doll presented by the blind children at the Perkins Institute. She slowly spelled into her hand the word “d-o-l-l”. Helen was at once got interested in her finger play and tried to imitate it. In the days that followed she learned to spell words like “pin”, “hat”, “cup” and a few verbs like “sit”, “stand” and “walk”. Gradually she understood that everything had a name and each name gave birth to a new thought.
IV. Learning to Read—A Slow and Often a Painful Process: Children who can hear can acquire language easily without any particular effort. But for a little deaf and blind child it was a very slow and painful process. Once Miss Sullivan touched her forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, “Think”. In a flash she knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in her head. After she learnt to spell a few words, Miss Sullivan gave her slips of carboard on which printed words in raised letters were written. She could arrange the words in little sentences. For example, “doll”, “is”, “on”, “bed”. It was her teacher’s genius and her loving tact which made the first years of her education so beautiful.
V. Learned to Speak: It was in the spring of 1890 that Helen Keller learned to speak. The impulse to utter audible sounds had always been very strong in her. She had known for a long time that people about her used a different method of communication from her. In 1890, Mrs. Lamson who had taught a deaf and blind child to speak in Norway came to see her. Then Miss Sullivan took her to Miss Sarah Fuller for advice and assistance. She offered to teach her. Her method was simple. She pressed her hand lightly over her face, and let her feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. Miss Fuller gave her eleven lessons in all. Helen Keller uttered her first connected sentence, “It is warm”. They were broken and stammering syllables but they were parts of human speech.
VI. Charge of Plagiarism: In the winter of 1892, Helen Keller wrote a little story called ‘The Frost King’ and sent to Mr. Anagnos of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. When the story was finished, she read it to her teacher. At dinner, it was read to the assembled family. Mr. Anagnos was delighted with “The Frost King” and published it in one of the reports of Perkins Institute. Later on it was discovered that a story similar to ‘The Frost King’ called ‘The Frost Fairies’ by Miss Margaret Canby had appeared even before she was born. The two stories were so much alike in thought and language. It was evident that Miss Canby’s story had been read to Helen. Her story was – a plagiarism. Mr. Anagnos suspected that Miss Sullivan and Helen had deliberately stolen the bright idea of another. The matter was brought before a court of investigation. Helen Keller was questioned and cross-questioned.
VII. Visits to Niagara and the World’s Fair: In March, 1893 they went to Niagara. It was difficult to describe Helen Keller’s emotion when she stood on the point which overhangs the American Falls. She felt the air vibrate and the earth tremble. Many people were surprised. They asked how she should be impressed by the wonders and beauties of Niagara. But Helen could fathom the beauty and music of Niagara as she could fathom or define love or religion or goodness. During the summer of 1893, Miss Sullivan and Helen Keller visited the World’s Fair with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. There she could see the marvels of invention, industry and all the activities of human life actually passed under her finger tips. The President of the World’s Fair gave her the permission to touch the exhibits.
VIII. Preparation for Radcliffe College: Even when Helen was a child, she surprised her friends by declaring that she would go to Harvard. The thought of going to college became an earnest desire. She entered the Cambridge School to prepare for Radcliffe. She had a good start in English and French but suffered serious drawbacks to her progress. It was very difficult to have textbooks embossed in time. Each day Miss Sullivan went to the classes with her and spelled into her hand with infinite patience all that the teachers said. She took her preliminary examinations for Radcliffe in July 1897. She passed in everything and received “honours” in German and English. She began her second year at the Gilman School. She was full of hope and determination to succeed. Her preparation for college went on without interruption. She took her final examinations in June 1899 for Radcliffe College. At last, her struggle for admission to college ended but she entered Radcliffe only in the fall of 1900.
IX. Reading: A Pleasure for Helen Keller: Helen had a passion for reading. She depended on books for pleasure and wisdom. She read her first story in 1887 when she was just seven years old. At first she had only a few books in raised print. She read “Our World”. Sometimes Miss Sullivan read to her spelling into her hand little stories and poems. The fascinating child’s story “Little Lord Fauntleroy” was his favourite. During the next few years she read “Greek Heroes, ‘Fables’, ‘Bible Stories’”, Tales from Shakespeare’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Heidi’. ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Wild Animals’ also attracted her. She preferred Homer to Virgil. In German she liked Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and in French she admired Moliere and Racine best.
X. Pleasures and Amusements: Reading was not her only pleasure. Helen Keller’s amusements and pleasures were many and varied. She had love for the country and out-of-door sports. She learned to row and swim when she was just a child. She enjoyed canoeing on moon light nights. Sailing was her favourite amusement. Having leisurely walks in the countryside thrilled her. She had a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters. Blindness and deafness did not rob her of this gift. She had a soul sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one. Cycling was also one of her favourite pastimes. She loved the company of her dogs. During the rainy days, she amused herself indoors and liked to knit and crochet. She loved to frolic with children. Museums and art stores were also sources of pleasure and inspiration for her. Going to the theatre was a rare pleasure to her.
XI. Men who Shaped and Influenced Helen Keller’s Life: Helen Keller showed her gratitude to her friends, acquaintances and people who helped in shaping and moulding her life. No doubt, the everlasting influence on her was of her teacher Miss Sullivan. She gave a new meaning, direction and purpose to her life. Bishop Brooks impressed upon her mind two great ideas–the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Dr. Edward Hale was one of her very oldest friends. She had known him since she was eight. He had taught love for the country and kindness to the poor. Dr. Graham Bell had the art of making every subject he touched interesting. He impressed Helen Keller by his humour and poetic side. Bell’s dominating passion was his love for children. He was never so happy as and when he had a little deaf child in his arms. In New York she met Mr and Mrs. Laurance Hutton. They introduced Helen to many of their literary friends like Howells and Mark Twain. Mark Twain had his own way of thinking, saying and doing everything. All these friends, acquaintances and great figures made the story of her life and turned her limitations into beautiful privileges and opportunities.