Today is the birthday (1880) of Helen Adams Keller, an internationally celebrated deafblind U.S. author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree. The story of how Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become widely known through the dramatic depictions of the play and film “The Miracle Worker.” Her birthplace in West Tuscumbia, Alabama is now a museum and sponsors an annual “Helen Keller Day”. Her birthday is commemorated as Helen Keller Day in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania and was authorized at the federal level by presidential proclamation by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, the 100th anniversary of her birth.
Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her family lived on a homestead, Ivy Green, that her grandfather had built decades earlier. Keller was born with the ability to see and hear. At 19 months old, she contracted an illness described by doctors as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain,” which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat with Martha Washington, the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.
In 1886, Keller’s mother, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the successful education of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman, dispatched young Helen, accompanied by her father, to seek out physician J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore, for advice. Chisholm referred the Kellers to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school where Bridgman had been educated, which was then located in South Boston. Michael Anagnos, the school’s director, asked 20-year-old former student Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired, to become Keller’s instructor. It was the beginning of a 49-year-long relationship during which Sullivan evolved into Keller’s governess and eventually her companion.
Anne Sullivan arrived at Keller’s house in March 1887, and immediately began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with “d-o-l-l” for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present. Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. In fact, when Sullivan was trying to teach Keller the word for “mug”, Keller became so frustrated she broke the mug. Keller’s big breakthrough in communication came the next month, when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of “water”; she then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.
Starting in May 1888, Keller attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind. In 1894, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan moved to New York to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, and to learn from Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. In 1896, they returned to Massachusetts and Keller entered The Cambridge School for Young Ladies before gaining admittance, in 1900, to Radcliffe College, where she lived in Briggs Hall, South House. Her admirer, Mark Twain, had introduced her to Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers, who, with his wife Abbie, paid for her education. In 1904, at the age of 24, Keller graduated from Radcliffe, becoming the first deaf blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She maintained a correspondence with the Austrian philosopher and pedagogue Wilhelm Jerusalem, who was one of the first to discover her literary abilities.
Determined to communicate with others as conventionally as possible, Keller learned to speak, and spent much of her life giving speeches and lectures. She learned to “hear” people’s speech by reading their lips with her hands—her sense of touch had become extremely subtle. She became proficient at using braille and reading sign language with her hands as well. Shortly before World War I, with the assistance of the Zoellner Quartet she determined that by placing her fingertips on a resonant tabletop she could experience music played close by.
Anne Sullivan stayed as a companion to Helen Keller long after she taught her. Anne married John Macy in 1905, and her health started failing around 1914. Polly Thomson was hired to keep house. She was a young woman from Scotland who had no experience with deaf or blind people. She progressed to working as a secretary as well, and eventually became a constant companion to Keller. Keller moved to Forest Hills, Queens, together with Anne and John, and used the house as a base for her efforts on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind.
Anne Sullivan died in 1936 after a coma, with Keller holding her hand. Keller and Thomson moved to Connecticut. They traveled worldwide and raised funds for the blind. Thomson had a stroke in 1957 from which she never fully recovered, and died in 1960. Winnie Corbally, a nurse who was originally brought in to care for Thompson in 1957, stayed on after her death and was Keller’s companion for the rest of her life.
In 1911 Keller wrote:
The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all … The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands—the ownership and control of their livelihoods—are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.
She went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. She is remembered as an advocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes. She was a suffragist, a pacifist, an opponent of Woodrow Wilson, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter. In 1915 she and George Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization. This organization is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. In 1920 she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Keller traveled to over 40 countries with Sullivan, making several trips to Japan and becoming a favorite of the Japanese people. Keller met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. Keller and Twain were both considered radicals at the beginning of the 20th century, and as a consequence, their political views have been forgotten or glossed over in popular perception.
Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency. Before reading Progress and Poverty, Helen Keller was already a socialist who believed that Georgism was a good step in the right direction. She later wrote of finding “in Henry George’s philosophy a rare beauty and power of inspiration, and a splendid faith in the essential nobility of human nature.”
Newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence before she expressed her socialist views now called attention to her disabilities. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.” Keller responded to that editor, referring to having met him before he knew of her political views:
At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him. … Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which are trying to prevent.
Keller joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, known as the Wobblies) in 1912, saying that parliamentary socialism was “sinking in the political bog”. She wrote for the IWW between 1916 and 1918. In Why I Became an IWW, Keller explained that her motivation for activism came in part from her concern about blindness and other disabilities:
I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness.
The last sentence refers to prostitution and syphilis, the former a frequent cause of the latter, and the latter a leading cause of blindness.
When Keller was young, Anne Sullivan introduced her to Phillips Brooks, who, in turn, introduced her to Christianity, Keller famously saying: “I always knew He was there, but I didn’t know His name!” Her spiritual autobiography, My Religion, was published in 1927 and then in 1994 extensively revised and re-issued under the title Light in My Darkness. It advocates the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Christian revelator and theologian who gives a spiritual interpretation of the teachings of the Bible and who claims that the second coming of Jesus Christ has already taken place.
Keller described the progressive views of her belief in these words:
But in Swedenborg’s teaching it [Divine Providence] is shown to be the government of God’s Love and Wisdom and the creation of uses. Since His Life cannot be less in one being than another, or His Love manifested less fully in one thing than another, His Providence must needs be universal . . . He has provided religion of some kind everywhere, and it does not matter to what race or creed anyone belongs if he is faithful to his ideals of right living.
Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1961 and spent the last years of her life at her home. In September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States’ two highest civilian honors. In 1965 she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair.
Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, at her home, Arcan Ridge, located in Easton, Connecticut, a few weeks short of her eighty-eighth birthday. A service was held in her honor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and her ashes were placed there next to her constant companions, Anne Sullivan and Polly Thomson.
Helen Keller fondly recalled many foods from her childhood in her autobiography, The Story of My Life. These were: ice cream, bread and butter, raisins, Christmas cakes/cookies. Her father grew grapes, berries, watermelons, and strawberries in his garden. He always brought Helen the first grapes and choicest berries. Helen loved her family’s orchard which grew peaches and apples. She was also a great lover of hot dogs, but since I have already devoted two posts to them, let me switch gears and talk about ice cream.
My wife was a huge fan of ice cream, and she and I spent years perfecting our own recipes. By the time of her death we owned 5 ice cream makers of various sorts. Our favorite was an old hand-cranked model of the bucket with salt and ice variety, although the others were less labor. The thing about hand cranking is that you can vary the speed of churning – slowing down as the ice cream freezes to produce a smoother finished product. My wife also loved ice creams that were drowning in butterfat, but it took us years for us to get it right. We found that the more heavy cream we used the gummier the ice cream was. Then we found a magazine article by Gaston Lenôtre who advocated adding butter to the custard. Voilà !! Problem solved. Here’s our recipe for vanilla ice cream from memory. Make sure you use the best vanilla pods you can find. We mail ordered Madagascar beans. Perhaps later I’ll talk about our other favorite flavors. For now I recommend serving this one with a fresh fruit salad to honor Keller.
©Vanilla Ice Cream
6 egg yolks
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
1 cup whipping cream
1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter
2 vanilla beans split open lengthwise
Heat the milk in a heavy saucepan, stirring constantly, until it starts to bubble. Stir in the sugar until it is dissolved, then add the vanilla beans. Remove from the heat.
Whisk the egg yolks until they are pale yellow. Add a little hot milk slowly to the egg yolks whilst whisking. Pour this mixture back into the saucepan containing the rest of the milk.
Cook the custard over low heat, stirring constantly. This is a critical step. You must cook it until it coats a spoon such that if you draw your finger through it on the back of the spoon, the custard does not flow back immediately. Do not overcook otherwise it will become scrambled egg and you will have to start again. Constant stirring prevents sticking. Sometimes I use a double boiler which prevents sticking or burning, but will not prevent curdling.
Remove from the heat and add the cream and butter. Whisk until smooth and the butter has melted. Remove the vanilla pods and scrape the inner vanilla flecks into the custard.
Chill the custard in the refrigerator until it is as cold as you can get it. Then churn in the ice cream maker of your choice. When finished it will be soft, but delectable. If you can resist eating it all at that point, pack it into a ziplock bag, squeeze the air out, seal it, and place it in the freezer for several hours. Do not keep it more than a day or two because without stabilizers and other chemical junk, ice crystals will form, ruining the texture.