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'The Story of My Life' - Helen Keller's Certain Slant

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Her books tell us in great detail about the facts of her life—indeed, her life is as inseparable from her books as books were inseparable from her life—but a quick biographical sketch may help spur the uninitiated to delve into her marvelous life-works:

During a severe illness, Keller lost her sight and hearing at the age of nineteen months, and she lived with her family in Alabama as a kind of domestic savage until, after years of searching for either a teacher or a cure, the Kellers contacted Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, who referred them to Boston’s Perkins Institute for the Blind. Modern science and psychology believe that most of our personality and linguistic capacity are intact (or at least engaged and initiated) before the age of two, and Keller’s case seems to confirm this. As anyone with sight and hearing does when growing up surrounded by other people, the toddler had acquired rudimentary spoken and symbolic language by the time she was stricken with her sickness, and even though it was five years before her family’s efforts resulted in the Perkins Institute sending Anne Sullivan to help her develop her dormant skills, she retained the ability to use simple signs and gestures to indicate her needs. Most interesting (and also oddly literary, in light of the experience that brought language back to life for her) is that she remembered how to make the sound signifying “water” (“wah-wah”) and continued to use this sound during the years before she learned how to spell the word.

Then came the justifiably famous “miracle at the well” (which was actually in an enclosed cistern-house): On April 5th, 1887, after less than a month of using the manual alphabet to teach Keller words, which the girl somewhat apishly learned and repeated back to her, Sullivan signed the word “water” into Keller’s hand while well-water rushed over her other hand, and suddenly the six-year-old lit up. She’d been having trouble distinguishing between the meanings of the words for “mug” and “water,” which to her mind were the same thing, and when she suddenly realized that “water” was a distinct entity and that “w-a-t-e-r” was its linguistic symbol, it became clear to her that “everything has a name, and that the manual alphabet is the key to everything she wants to know” (Sullivan’s words and italics). Her progress grew rapidly from this moment. She soon learned how to write with a pencil, and after two and a half months she wrote and mailed her first letter:

“helen write anna george will give helen apple simpson will shoot bird jack will give helen stick of candy doctor will give mildred medicine mother will make mildred new dress”

She soon learned to write in Braille (and eventually with a typewriter), and the following year she was not only writing in full idiomatic English, but was peppering her letters with the French and Greek phrases that she’d learned from friends, and in one letter she even explained the Latin etymology for the word “astronomer.” At age seven she had an audience with President Grover Cleveland; at age eight she was corresponding with her favorite poets; and soon afterward she was immersed in French, German, Latin, and Greek. She read Paradise Lost on a trainride when she was twelve, and her mastery of language eventually allowed her to graduate cum laude with a B.A. in English from Radcliffe and to write fourteen books throughout her lifetime. She wrote her first book, The Story of My Life, while she was a sophomore at Radcliffe, and it’s this book that contains the best document of the mind that grew so rapidly from the big bang of “w-a-t-e-r” to encompass universal dimensions.

The Story of My Life is in fact three books in one—an autobiography, a collection of Keller’s letters, and a compilation of letters and documents written by Sullivan and Keller, the latter two parts of the book edited and commented upon by their friend (and future husband to Sullivan) John Macy. The book was originally published in 1903, but throughout the twentieth century many editions have comprised just the autobiography or just the autobiography and Keller’s letters, leaving out the valuable documentary evidence that surrounds her brilliant written account of herself.

In 2003, two different restored centennial editions were published, once again giving us the fuller volume that the original book contained, but even though Sullivan’s brilliantly illuminating letters (and much of Macy’s commentary) are invaluable to understanding the entire story of Helen Keller, it’s Keller’s writing itself that’s supreme and that stands as one of the greatest records of living human experience.

Written in serial form for magazines and then meticulously revised and woven together into a seamless tapestry, The Story of My Life tells not just the remarkable story of a remarkable young woman in remarkable circumstances; it shows us life on earth as lived by that most remarkable of creatures: human beings. Keller's supremacy as a writer is in many ways comparable to Vladimir Nabokov’s, and the main similarity between the two writers is that English was always something of a foreign language that they explored from both within and without. Keller became perfectly fluent in all of the nuances of the living language, but she also never stopped seeing it as an object to be manipulated to achieve amazing effects, just the way that Nabokov would do later in the century when he stopped writing in Russian and began writing in English.

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