Monday, May 05, 2008

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

It seems like I have always known about Helen Keller. I probably heard about her as an elementary school student many years ago. I may have seen The Miracle Worker (1962) with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke on television. What I had not done until last week was read The Story of My Life.

Of the many surprises the book had for me, first was how visually descriptive it seems. When Keller relates incidents, I can almost see them. I think this is because she puts everything into context, includes motion, length, depth, and position. I would know these qualities of a scene if I saw them. Keller knew them from sense of touch and the narration supplied by her companions, especially her teacher Anne Sullivan.

The second surprise was her eloquence and rich vocabulary. It is amazing to think that she began her education with only the memory of the word wawa for water remaining from her infancy. She relates that she was a vibrant child with advanced language before she went deaf and blind at the age of nineteen months. She claims to have lost all of the early learning, but I wonder if it really was the foundation of her revival.

The third big surprise for me was that Keller wrote her autobiography as a college student. She was only twenty-three when it was published. Already she had traveled extensively in the U.S. and Canada and met Alexandre Graham Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mark Twain. She had read their works as well as much history and classical literature. She read Latin, French, and German. The only subjects that she seemed to find difficult were geometry and calculus.

The Story of My Life was originally published in 1903. Keller lived until 1968, writing other books and articles. She was surprisingly active as a reformer, espousing the causes of women's rights, birth control, fair labor practices, socialism, and pacifism. A Gallup Poll taken in 1999 listed her fifth among most admired people of the Twentieth Century, behind Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr, John F. Kennedy, and Albert Einstein. I would move her up.

Obviously, The Story of My Life is a book that every public library should have. The restored edition from Modern Library, published on the centennial of the original edition, has a selection of Keller letters and other supplements.

Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. Modern Library. ISBN 0679642870

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