The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Keller, Helen Adams

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Keller, Helen Adams

KELLER, Helen Adams, blind author, b. in Tuscumbia, Ala., 27 June, 1880, daughter of Capt. Arthur H. and Kate (Adams) Keller. One of her paternal ancestors was a Caspar Keller, a native of Switzerland, who was the first teacher of the deaf in Zurich and was the author of books on their education. Her family is also related to those of Robert E. Lee and of Dr. Edward Everett Hale. Her father was a paymaster in the Confederate army in the Civil War. Later he became an editor and at the time of Miss Keller's earliest childhood lived the life of a Southern country gentleman. Miss Keller was born a normal, healthy child and at the age of one could already walk and utter a few words. But when nineteen months old she was stricken by a severe illness; congestion of the stomach and the brain, as it was described by the attending physician. Quite contrary to expectation, she recovered, but she had lost the use of her eyes and ears, being both blind and deaf. Then followed that blank period of living unconsciousness, which lasted until the beginning of her education, at the age of six, so graphically described by Miss Keller in her books and magazine articles, which are of such intense interest, not only to the general reader, but to men of science as well. Living out of the world as they did, her parents were puzzled as to whom to turn for advice. Her mother had felt quite hopeless, until she read Dicken's “American Notes,” in which she read the account of Laura Bridgman. Finally, when Miss Keller was six, her father took her to a Dr. Chisholm, in Baltimore. He, however, could do nothing, but advised Captain Keller to go to Washington, and consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Dr. Bell became interested in the blind and deaf child, and, on his recommendation, Captain Keller wrote to Mr. Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institute in Boston, the institution in which the famous Dr. Howe had labored so efficiently for the blind. As a result of this correspondence Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan was installed in the Keller household especially to develop the senses remaining to the blind and deaf girl, so that they could perform the functions of those that were missing. Her success has been one of the wonders of the science of education. Miss Sullivan had herself been a pupil of the Perkins Institute, having become almost blind at an early age, but when she became Miss Keller's teacher her sight had been partially restored. During six years of her school life she had lived with Laura Bridgman, the pupil of Dr. Howe, but it was she herself who discovered the way to teach language to the deaf-blind. Within a few weeks after her arrival Miss Sullivan had taught her pupil the elements of touch spelling, and so gradually taught her the names of objects by associating their touch with the spelling. Thus, little by little, she entered into communication with the child's dormant mind, and awakened in it a consciousness of the outside world. No regular lessons were given, the instruction being incidental to the activities of their daily life together. Within a year she had also taught her to read the embossed letters in books for the blind, and before she was eight Miss Keller could read consecutive narrative in simple language. In 1890, when Miss Keller was only ten years of age, she received her first instruction in speech. Being deaf, this must naturally be imparted to her by special means. The initial lessons, eleven in all, were given by Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Mann School. Miss Fuller began by passing the child's hand lightly over her face, allowing her to feel the position of her tongue and lips when she uttered a sound. In a few lessons she had learned the six elements of speech: M. P. A. S. T. I. Before the eleven lessons were concluded the pupil could already utter words herself, although at first so indistinctly as hardly to be understood. But enough had been accomplished to enable Miss Sullivan to continue her tuition by means of constant practice. Gradually she learned to articulate distinctly enough to make herself understood, until today she speaks with a very slight and only occasional lisp or mispronunciation of words. Meanwhile, she had also been learning to write by the method employed in the schools for the blind, a grooved board under the paper which enables the pupil to write in a straight line. Later on this was supplanted by the typewriter, the method by which Miss Keller expresses her thoughts on paper today, quite as rapidly and as freely as any normal person. How rapidly Miss Keller's education progressed may be judged from her own description of her visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893, when she was only thirteen. In her book, “The Story of My Life,” she says: “I liked to visit the Midway Plaisance. It seemed like the Arabian Nights, it was crammed so full of novelty and interest. Mr. Higinbotham, president of the World's Fair, kindly gave me permission to touch the exhibits, and with an eagerness as insatiable as that with which Pizarro seized the treasures of Peru, I took in the glories of the Fair with my fingers. It was a sort of tangible kaleidoscope, this white city of the West. Everything fascinated me, especially the French bronzes. They were so lifelike, I thought they were angel visions which the artist had caught and bound in earthly form. At the Cape of Good Hope exhibit I learned much about the process of mining diamonds. Whenever it was possible I touched the machinery while it was in motion, so as to get a clear idea how the stones were weighed, cut, and polished.” In October, 1896, Miss Keller entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, to be prepared for Radcliffe College. To a large extent, the tuition was accomplished through Miss Sullivan's interpretation, she also attending the classes. But many difficulties arose, which could not be met in this way, though eventually they were all overcome, largely through Miss Keller's own preseverance. Her studies during the first year were English history, English literature, German, Latin, arithmetic, Latin composition. Already she had made some progress in French and German. “Each day,” says Miss Keller, in her autobiography, describing this period of her experiences, “Miss Sullivan went to the classes with me and spelled into my hand with infinite patience all that the teachers said. In study hours she had to look up new words for me, and read, and reread, notes and books I did not have in raised print. The tedium of that work is hard to conceive. That year I finished arithmetic, reviewed my Latin grammar, and read three chapters of Caesar's ‘Gallic War.’ In German I read, partly with my fingers and partly with Miss Sullivan's assistance, Schiller's ‘Lied von der Glocke’ and ‘Taucher,’ Heine's ‘Harzreise,’ Freytag's ‘Aus dem Staat Friedrichs des Grossen,’ Riehl's ‘Fluch der Schönheit,’ and Goethe's ‘Aus meinem Leben.’ ” In the summer of 1897 she successfully took the preliminary examinations for Radcliffe, passing in all subjects and receiving “honors” in German and English. In the following year a disagreement between the head of the school and Miss Sullivan caused a change to private tutors. But the final examination for entrance into college were passed successfully, in spite of the fact that the college authorities insisted on another interpreter than Miss Sullivan, her place being taken by Eugene C. Vining, one of the instructors at the Perkins Institute, with whom Miss Keller had had no previous acquaintance. The greatest difficulty was in geometry and algebra. In studying the former subject it had been necessary to arrange the diagrams specially for Miss Keller by means of wires spread over a soft cushion. Finally, in 1900, Miss Keller was enrolled as a regular student of Radcliffe College, no special favors having been shown her, and in due time, in 1904, she was graduated with the degree of A.B. Miss Keller is remarkable, not only in having accomplished with only three senses what others accomplish with the full five, but also in having done vastly more than that, for she has developed herself far beyond the limits attained by most normal people, even of the intellectual classes. A fluent writer, she has a pleasing and distinct style of her own, so that as an author alone she would have attracted attention. Mark Twain, who was personally acquainted with her, once said that the two most interesting characters of the nineteenth century were Napoleon and Helen Keller. The admiration with which she is now universally regarded is more than justified by what she has done She has written: “The Story of My Life” (1902); “Optimism” (1903); “The World I Live In” (1908); “The Song of the Stone Wall” (1910); and “Out of the Dark” (1913).