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.
Now, my 11-year-old son, Jamie, despite his developmental disability, can recite whole stretches of Shrek, Galaxy Quest and both Harry Potter movies, complete with appropriate gestures and sound effects. So I’m not easily impressed by this kind of thing. But Helen Keller’s powers of recall were almost beyond belief. Margaret Canby herself said as much, writing, “Under the circumstances, I do not see how any one can be so unkind as to call it a plagiarism; it is a wonderful feat of memory.” This is a fair and judicious response, much fairer and more judicious than the bizarre abreaction of Keller’s earliest and strongest supporter, Michael Anagnos, who was undone by the “Frost King” episode and eventually declared that “Helen Keller is a living lie.” And yet it raises a profound question: What if all Helen Keller’s utterances amounted to wonderful feats of memory? What if Helen Keller’s education, focused as it was on the skills of reading and writing, amounted to a kind of program for an artificial intelligence–an intelligence designed to understand, memorize and generate language?
James Berger points out in a recent issue of Arizona Quarterly that these questions hover over Richard Powers’s 1995 novel Galatea 2.2, in which a computer named Helen is programmed to pass an MA exam in English literature. The idea of Helen Keller as an AI–not a supercrip, but a cyborg–is an unsettling one, but Keller’s letters (also included in this edition) render it plausible: Once Anne Sullivan had given her the tools, Keller went from writing “Helen will write mother letter papa did give helen medicine mildred will sit in swing mildred did kiss helen” in July 1887 to writing “Mon cher Monsieur Anagnos, I am sitting by the window and the beautiful sun is shining on me Teacher and I came to the kindergarten yesterday” in October 1888. Sullivan, to her credit, believed firmly that children learn language by imitation, and so decided from the outset to use full sentences when conversing with Helen, regardless of whether she would understand every word. (Sullivan’s criticisms of rote pedagogical exercises are among the highlights of the book, as pertinent now as in 1903.) For “what would happen,” Sullivan asks in an 1888 letter, “if some one should try to measure our intelligence by our ability to define the commonest words we use? I fear me, if I were put to such a test, I should be consigned to the primary class in a school for the feeble-minded.”
The fascinating result is that Helen learned by imitating all the forms of language she encountered, and filling in the gaps as best she could–as when her mother told her that her grandfather was dead, and she replied, “Did father shoot him? I will eat grandfather for dinner.” “So far,” Sullivan explains, “her only knowledge of death is in connection with things to eat. She knows that her father shoots partridges and deer and other game.” At these early stages, Helen’s miscues sound more like program errors than like the gropings of a child.
And as she grew, Helen was increasingly haunted by the possibility that her subjectivity consisted of a string of textual citations. She never really got over “The Frost King.” “Indeed,” she writes, “I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book…. It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read become the very substance and texture of my mind.” Referring to her writing as a “crazy patchwork” and a “Chinese puzzle,” Keller pushes herself further and further toward an odd, proto-deconstructionist argument about the role of “iterability” in language, just as John Macy, in his remarks, flirts with the proposition that people are spoken through by linguistic forms. (No, he doesn’t sound like a turn-of-the-century Derrida, but he does suggest that “the medium calls forth the thing it conveys, and the greater the medium the deeper the thoughts.”) It does not help matters, to say the least, that Keller’s writing is so deliberately and widely allusive: Describing her empathy for Homer, she calls him “a man acquainted with sorrow,” drawing on Isaiah 53:3; referring to her childhood before Sullivan’s arrival, she writes of living in the “shadows of the prison-house.” The phrase comes from Wordsworth’s ode: “Intimations of Immortality,” but (as Shattuck notes) Keller bends it to her own purpose: Where Wordsworth refers to the process by which conventional adult life gradually numbs the child who had entered the world trailing clouds of glory, Keller suggests that she was led out of the prison-house of her early childhood and into the adult world–most important, the world of human language, which, contrary to what you may have heard elsewhere, turns out to be no prison-house at all.
Indeed, by the time she was 22, Keller’s accomplishments in language had surpassed those of most of her fellow humans, not least because she had by then become acquainted with such a rich variety of writers in the modern and ancient languages. All too often, Keller’s intellectual legacy has been treated as a matter of debits and credits: points for her advocacy of socialism and her ability to inspire; points off for her advocacy of eugenics and her opposition to sign-language education for deaf children. But it can also be said that Keller’s life, together with her life’s writing, testifies to the power–and the utility–of an education dedicated to reading the world’s most challenging writers. She began by memorizing and imitating the treacly Little Lord Fauntleroy and children’s stories about frost fairies, and she wound up weaving a crazy patchwork of sensations and expressions from Homer and the Bible, Molière and Goethe, Carlyle and Schiller, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Keller’s is more than just the story of a precocious supercrip; it is one of world literature’s most extraordinary narratives about disability, education and language. Perhaps The Story of My Life derives its power from its author’s distinctiveness, or perhaps its distinctiveness lies in its acute awareness that we are all, to one degree or another, derivative. Either way, it is a story worth committing to our collective memory.