Samuel Clemens was rarely impressed with other people of note. But after meeting Helen Keller, he considered her to be the most remarkable woman he had ever met. She was both blind and deaf yet she was familiar with his life and his writing. Her behavior charmed and amazed him. Clemens was not alone. In her own time as well as the present, Helen Keller has been a foremost example of a severely disabled person who has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to live a life of significant achievement. She has been an inspiration to millions of people all over the world.
Many have learned about her early life from the memoir she wrote in her early 20s, the classic The Story of My Life, originally published in 1903 and still in print. Also informative is William Gibson's play The Miracle Worker, which dramatizes the unique early collaboration between Helen and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. To appreciate the enormity and depth of her achievements, however, it is best to comprehend her entire life.
Dorothy Herrmann, author of acclaimed biographies of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and S.J. Perelman, explores these achievements in detail in her new biography, Helen Keller: A Life. Herrmann, drawing on the extensive Helen Keller archives and many other sources, brings to life the complex young woman whose life was changed forever by an inexperienced yet brilliant teacher. As Alexander Graham Bell, who was one of Helen's best friends, put it, It is . . . a question of instruction we have to consider and not a case of supernatural acquirement. Herrmann helps us to appreciate the unusual bond that developed between the two quite different women. As [Annie] would . . . confess to a startled biographer, she and the adult Helen had such fundamentally different conceptions of life that they would have loathed one another had they met under ordinary circumstances. Yet they depended on each other until Annie died in 1936, with Helen holding her hand. Their many achievements and activities included Helen's cum laude Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe, books and lectures, vaudeville, movies, and many efforts on behalf of the deaf and blind throughout the world.
Helen came to accept religious and political beliefs quite different from those of her family and friends. Through John Hitz, Alexander Graham Bell's secretary, she learned of the well-known 18th-century scientist, philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. Helen became a devout Swedenborgian, finding comfort and peace in the beliefs of a man that Annie, who was agnostic, thought was a scientific genius who had descended into madness. Helen was especially attracted to the faith's belief in immortality. Herrmann points out that Helen felt sadness and rage about her limitations. These negative emotions, which she never permitted herself to express publicly, fearing that people would ignore or feel pity or disgust for her if she expressed hopelessness or anger, were channeled into her radical politics and activism. Helen was long a member of the Socialist Party. In part, Helen's leftist politics sprang from her continuing hunger to feel connected to the masses of people with whom she had little personal contact but with whom she felt a common bond. Herrmann does not shy away from discussing the various controversies that erupted from time to time about Helen and those around her. Even late in her life, the author writes, As she had her entire life, the luminous Helen inspired intrigues and power struggles, as her acquaintances and advisers fought with one another to gain possession of her. This enlightening and inspiring work deserves a large readership.