Helen Keller may be the world’s most famous supercrip. Very few people can claim to have “overcome” disability so thoroughly and spectacularly. A blind and deaf wild child at the age of 7, she became, by the time she published The Story of My Life at 22, one of Radcliffe’s most successful and polished students, fluent in Latin, Greek, German, French and (not least) English–not to mention three versions of Braille (English, American, New York Point) and the manual alphabet in which her renowned teacher Anne Sullivan first communicated with her. But let me dispense with the scare quotes for a moment. Helen Keller is famous–and justly so–precisely because she did, in many respects, overcome the physical impairments of deafness and blindness, as well as the formidable social obstacles facing people with disabilities at the end of the nineteenth century. Her story retains its power to startle and inspire even now, just as Anne Sullivan’s story remains among the most startling and inspiring tales in the history of pedagogy.
Keller’s story is also a member of the genre of disability autobiographies in which the writing of one’s life story takes on the characteristics of what the philosopher J.L. Austin called “performative” utterances: The primary function of The Story of My Life, in this sense, is to let readers know that its author is capable of telling the story of her life. The point is hardly a trivial one. Helen Keller was dogged nearly all her life by the charge that she was little more than a ventriloquist’s dummy–a mouthpiece for Anne Sullivan, or, later, for the original editor of The Story of My Life, the socialist literary critic John Macy, who married Sullivan in 1905. And even for those who know better than to see Helen Keller as disability’s Charlie McCarthy, her education and her astonishing facility with languages nevertheless raise troubling and fascinating questions about subjectivity, individuality and language. Roger Shattuck and Dorothy Herrmann’s new edition of The Story of My Life–supplemented as it is with Anne Sullivan’s narrative, John Macy’s accounts of the book and of Keller’s life, Keller’s letters and Shattuck’s afterword–not only restores Keller’s original text but highlights questions about originality and texts–questions that defined Keller’s relation to language from the age of 12, when she published a story titled “The Frost King.”
The episode is largely forgotten now, but in 1892 it was a national scandal of Jayson Blair proportions; and just as Blair’s detractors opportunistically parlayed his story into an indictment of affirmative action, so too did Keller’s critics take the “Frost King” incident as proof of the fraudulence of claims that deaf and blind children could be taught just like anyone else. Keller and Sullivan had become famous within a year of Sullivan’s arrival at Keller’s house in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1887, and Keller’s remarkable achievements had already been blown out of all proportion, as if she had spontaneously learned to speak and write fluently the moment Sullivan spelled “w-a-t-e-r” into little Helen’s hand at the Kellers’ water pump. When, therefore, the miracle girl published a darling little story about King Jack Frost, the fairies and the precious stones that created the colors of autumn, it was something of a sensation–and a still greater sensation when the nation learned that the story included extended passages from a story written years earlier by Margaret Canby.
Fully half of John Macy’s sixty-page account of Keller is devoted to the “Frost King” scandal; his discussion includes not only Keller’s story, printed side by side with Canby’s, but also passages from Keller’s letters, in which the then-9-year-old girl unwittingly yet accurately cribs from yet another Canby story and a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes. I don’t have the space to convey an adequate idea of what Keller did with the minute details of Canby’s stories, so you’ll have to take my word for it: Keller’s achievement–and it was an achievement–is nothing short of eerie. Apparently she memorized, by way of the manual alphabet, the precise language of short stories read to her by a friend in the summer of 1888; she then forgot that she had ever heard of the stories, and quite sincerely believed “The Frost King” to be her own when she published it four years later.