Authors Who Made History: Helen Keller

Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an incredible author – she became blind and deaf following an infection aged just 19months old and thus was also mute – until she developed some limited ability to speak, by lip-reading via touch and sensing the vibrations of a speakers voice. Until she was around seven years old, she lived captive to a world of silence and darkness, with no understanding of words or their meanings. She was a frustrated, angry child, with behavioural problems resulting from her inability to communicate and her family spoiling her. Her life was transformed by the teaching methods and devotion of her governess, Annie Sullivan, herself previously blind but her sight partially restored by an operation. Anne Sullivan remained Helen’s companion, teacher and aide until she died in 1936, after which Helen was assisted for the remainder of her lifetime by companion Polly Thompson. Helen Keller lived an active and inspiring life until she was very almost 88 years old.


This 1888 photo released by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston shows Helen Keller when she was eight years old, left, holding hands with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, during a summer vacation to Brewster, Mass., on Cape Cod. A staff member at the society discovered the photograph in a large photography collection recently donated to the society. When Sullivan arrived at the Keller household to teach Helen, she gave her a doll as a present. Although Keller had many dolls throughout her childhood, this is believed to be the first known photograph of Helen Keller with one of her dolls. (AP Photo/Courtesy of the Thaxter P. Spencer Collection, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, New England Historic Genealogical Society-Boston)

[Image above is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, caption as provided]

I decided to share some of Helen Keller’s writing with you, by way of recording my readings of extracts. The links here will direct to my transcripts of these readings (transcripts hosted at my blog, link will open in a new window). Part 1 is extracts from her 1903 essay ‘Optimism’:


Part 2 is extracts from her 1910 poem ‘Songs of the Stone Wall’:

(it’s my first reading of Keller’s work and my first public reading in a very long while, so I hope you forgive my shaky amateur performance!)

Resources for further reading and recommended audio-visual media are provided at the end of this post (and may be added to in the near future).

Aside from her published writings as a blind-deaf author, Helen Keller is famous for many reasons, including:

  • she was the first deaf blind student to graduate with a degree (in 1904);
  • she met every American President in office during her adult lifetime and campaigned and advocated for the disabled (generally, as well as deaf/blind/mute), for the poor and needy and other social and political causes;
  • she travelled internationally as a world renowned speaker to 39 countries;
  • she was gifted an Akita dog from Japan (and a replacement on his death) and is so credited with introducing this breed of dog to the U.S.
  • she was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 and elected to the Women’s Hall of Fame a year later in 1965; she was also honoured after her death with places named after her (streets in various countries, a school, a hospital) and was commemorated in America with the issue of a postage stamp, a coin and a public statue.
  • a number of film productions, a play, biographies and documentaries have been made about her life and work, some in which she featured personally- and of course coverage and mention in many news, magazine, journal and student articles and essays.
  • she was friends with Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain (who listed Helen as one of the two most important characters of the nineteenth century – the other being Napoleon) and acquainted with many notable prominent public figures; she also met with several world leaders such as Winston Churchill.
  • Helen Keller’s autobiography remains in print and has been translated into over fifty languages.
  • she was America’s first Goodwill Ambassador in 1948 and travelled to Japan to perform that role.

You can read comprehensive details including lists of her work at wikipedia; the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is an excellent resource, as is The AFB’s Helen Keller Kids Museum Online. From 1921, Helen Keller supported and worked for the AFB for over forty years. The AFB has samples to read online of some of the 475 plus pieces of Keller’s writing, including letters, speeches, poems and essays – she published twelve books in her lifetime. The Gutenberg Project has six files for Helen Keller in their archive – available to download for free in various formats eg plain text, Kindle, read-online etc (and there was one audio file, but I can’t seem to find it right now).

The AFB’s Helen Keller Archive has over 300 digitised artefacts, and over 80,000 physical items. Some archival material relating to Helen Keller was lost in the 2001 Twin Towers terrorist attack (9/11).

I struggled to get to grips with how Helen Keller could possibly have developed such refined and complex use of language until I watched the film “The Miracle Worker” (year 2000, starring Alison Elliott as Anne Sullivan and Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Helen Keller). If you haven’t ever seen it and might like to, it’s available in reasonable quality and full 90 minute (approx) length at you tube, here, and/or read details at wiki here.

Anne Sullivan’s biography is also of pertinent relevance to Helen Keller’s life and work.

I also recommend the following videos found online:

I know there are many other potentially good or even great resources yet to find and explore, so I’ll add any I come across.

How well do you know Helen Keller’s work? Did you study her writing in school or college? Did you learn about her in the 125th commemorations in 2012? Have you found any online articles or resources to share, or anything to add in discussion?

I hope you enjoyed this #authorstory; any #feedback most welcome. Thankyou for reading, (and listening, perhaps too) and until next time, have a great week ahead 🙂

#weekly feature  #guestfeature   #blogcast