Chapter I: Helen Keller finds that the task of writing a biography is a difficult one. She tries to present in a ‘series of sketches’ the episodes that seem to her to be the most ‘interesting and important’.
The family on her father side came from Switzerland and settled in Maryland, U.S.A. Her grandfather bought large tracts of land in Alabama and finally settled there. Her grandmother Keller was the daughter of one of Lafayette’s aids, Alexander Moore. She was also second cousin of General Robert E. Lee. Her father, Arthur H. Keller, was a captain in the Confederate Army. Her mother, Kate Adams, was his second wife and many years younger. Her father built a small house when he married her mother. It was completely covered with vines, climbing roses and honeysuckles. It was the ‘favourite haunt of humming birds and bees’. Even before her teacher came, Helen could feel the hedges and smell of the first violets and lillies. The climbing roses filled the whole air with fragrance. In the morning they felt so soft washed in the dew.
Helen Keller writes that the beginning of her life was simple and much like the life of every other little child. She was the first baby of the family. She was named after her grandmother and called Helen Adams. While still very young, Helen tried to do and imitate what others did. At the age of six months she could utter ‘‘How d’ ye’’ and ‘Tea’. In those early months she also learnt to pronounce ‘‘water.’’ She started walking the day she was a year old. Unfortunately, those happy days didn’t last long. ‘Then, in the dreary months of February came the illness’. The illness closed her eyes and ears.The doctors called it ‘acute congestion of the stomach and brain.’ She survived the illness but only never to see or hear again. It all looked very unreal, like a nightmare. But during the first nineteen months of her life she had caught ‘glimpses of broad green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers. The darkness that followed could not wholly blot out those glimpses.
Chapter II: Helen Keller can’t recall the first few months after her illness. She only knows that she was always either in the lap of her mother or clung to her dress. But she had her own way of knowing things. Her hands ‘felt’ every object and ‘observed’ every motion.
But soon she felt the need of communicating with others. She started with making some crude signs. A shake of her head meant ‘‘No’’ and a nod meant ‘‘Yes’’. A pull meant ‘‘Come’’ and a push meant, ‘‘Go’’. Her mother made her understand a great deal. At the age of five she could distinguish her clothes from the rest. She waved hands to the guests. The sounds of doors indicated the arrivals and departures. It is difficult to tell when she first realised that she was different from others. She noticed that others talked while she made only the signs. She stood between two persons who were conversing and touched their lips.
She couldn’t understand and was vexed. She moved her lips but with no result. This made her very angry. She kicked and screamed until she was exhausted.
In those days, a little coloured girl, Martha, the child of their cook was her constant compainion. Martha Washington understood her signs. She seldom had any problem with her. She generally submitted to Helen’s ‘tyranny’. Helen always had her own way. They spent a great deal of time in the kitchen. They used to feed hens and turkeys. They wandered through the sheds, the stable and the yard where cows and horses were kept.
The two girls indulged in childish mischiefs. Once Martha seized the scissors and cut off one of Helen’s curls. She would have cut them all off but for her mother’s timely interference. Belle, her dog was another companion. She tried hard to teach Belle her sign language, but she was dull and inattentive. Many incidents of those early years are still fixed in her memory, isolated but clear and distinct. They made that ‘silent, aimless, dayless life all the more intense’.
Once her old nurse saved Helen from being badly burnt while she was trying to dry her apron before the fire. Helen soon learnt the use of a key. Once she locked her mother up in the pantry for three hours before she could come out. Once her teacher Miss Sullivan had to be taken out through the window. Helen produced the key months after. They moved to a large new house from the little vine-covered house. Helen’s father was ‘most loving and indulgent’. He was devoted to his home and seldom left it except in the hunting season.
He was a great hunter. Next to his family, he loved his dogs and guns. He loved entertaining guests. He raised finest watermelons and strawberries. His ‘special pride’ was his big garden. He was a wonderful storyteller. In the summer of 1896, Helen heard the news of her father’s death. This was her first great sorrow- her first personal experience with death.
For a long time Helen considered her little sister as an ‘intruder’. She ceased to be the ‘only darling’ of her mother. It filled her with jealousy. She loved her litle doll Nancy and her cradle. She guarded both doll and cradle with the most jealous care. Once she found her little sister sleeping peacefully in the cradle. She grew angry and overturned the cradle. The baby might have been killed had her mother not caught her as she fell.
Chapter III: As Helen Keller starts growing her desire to express herself grows. No doubt she does make signs to express herself but they prove inadequate. Her failure is followed by outburst of passions. She feels tied down by invisible hands. She makes frantic efforts to free herself but fails. But the spirit of resistance is very strong in her. Her inability to express herself leads to breaking down into tears and physical exhaustion.
Helen’s parents are ‘deeply grieved and perplexed’. It is very difficult to find a teacher for a child who is both deaf and blind. Her mother’s only hope was Dickens’s ‘’American Notes’’.
When Helen is about six years old, her father decides to take her to an eminent oculist in Baltimore. He has solved many hopeless cases. They are received by Dr. Chisholm very kindly in Baltimore. He advises her father to consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell of Washington. Her father is dejected but Helen enjoys moving from place to place.
Dr. Bell’s tenderness and sympathy impresses the little Helen. He understands her signs and she loves him at once. Dr. Bell advises her father to contact Mr. Anagnos, the Director of the Perkins Institute in Boston. Within a few weeks a letter comes from Mr. Anagnos assuming that a teacher for Helen Keller has been found. It is the summer of 1886 but Miss Sullivan arrives only in the following March. The arrival of Miss Sullivan, her teacher is like the arrival of Moses. Her inner voice seems to say: “Knowledge is love and light and vision.”
Chapter IV: The arrival of her teacher Miss Sullivan is the most important day in the life of Helen Keller. She is amazed at the contrasts between the two lives which it connects.
It is the third of March, 1887, three months before Helen is seven years old. On the afternoon of this eventful day, Helen stands on the porch, ‘dumb and expectant’. The afternoon sun falls on her upturned face penetrating the bunch of honeysuckle flowers .She doesn’t know what the future holds for her. Helen is like that ship that moves on in a dense fog. She is tense and anxious. “Light! give me light!” is the wordless cry of her soul. She stretches out her hand and someone takes it. Helen is held close in arms by one who has come to reveal all things to her. More than all things else to love her.
Miss Sullivan leads her into her room and gives her a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institute have sent it. The teacher slowly spells into her hand the word “d-o-l-l”. Helen is at once interested in the finger play and imitates it. When succeeded in making the letters correctly, she is flushed with pleasure and pride. She goes on moving her fingers in monkey like imitation. Within a few days Helen learns to spell words like ‘pin’, ‘hat’ and ‘cup’. She also learns a few verbs like ‘sit’, ‘stand’ and ‘walk’. At last, she understands that everything has a name. One day the teacher puts a big doll in Helen’s lap and spells “d-o-l-l”. She tries to make her understand that the word “d-o-l-l” applies to both. Similarly Miss Sullivan tries to impress it upon her that “m-u-g” is mug and “w-a-t-e-r” is water. Helen becomes impatient and dashes the doll upon the floor. The cause of her discomfort is removed.
When the teacher asks her to wear her hat, Helen knows she is going out in warm sunshine. She realises that ‘a wordless sensation may be called a thought’. It makes her hop and skip with pleasure.
In the well-house, someone is drawing water. Her teacher places Helen’s hand under the cool stream and spells “w-a-t-e-r”. Suddenly she feels a misty consciousness and somehow the mystery of language is revealed to her. She realises that everything has a name, and each name gives birth to a new thought. Then she picks up the broken pieces of the doll. And for the first time she feels repentance and sorrow. She learns the words ‘mother, father’, sister etc. This makes the world blossom for her.
Chapter V: The summer of 1887. Then followed Helen Keller’s soul’s sudden awakening.
She just started exploring with her hands and learnt the name of every object that she touched. The more she learnt the names and uses, the more joyous and confident she became. Miss Sullivan took her by the hand across the fields to the banks of the Tennessee River. Sitting on the warm grass, she had her first lessons in the ‘beneficence of nature’. She learnt how the sun and the rain make to grow trees out of the ground.
She learnt how birds build their nests and how all creatures find food and shelter. As her knowledge of things grew Helen felt more and more the ‘delight of the world’, she was in.
Miss Sullivan had taught Helen to find beauty in woods, in every blade of grass and in the curves and dimples of her baby sister’s hand. But she was soon to learn that nature is not always kind. One day she climbed a wild cherry tree with her teacher’s assistance.
Miss Sullivan proposed having their luncheon there. She went to the house to fetch it.
Suddenly a change passed over the tree. She realised that the sky had turned black. A thunderstorm could be expected at anytime. The immense and unknown fear gripped her. A chill terror crept over her. She longed for her teacher’s return. She wanted to get down from the tree. The tree swayed and strained. Then came Miss Sullivan for her rescue.
She seized her hand and helped her down. She had learnt a lesson. ‘Nature wages open war against children, and under softest touch hides treacherous claws’. After that the mere thought of climbing a tree filled her with terror.
Helen Keller finally overcame her fear of climbing a tree. A mimosa tree was in full bloom.
She became aware of a wonderful fragrance in the air. It seemed as if the spirit of spring had passed through the summer-house. She felt her away to the mimosa tree. She had never experienced anything so beautiful in the world before. It seemed to her as if ‘a tree of paradise had been transplanted to earth’. She pulled herself up into the tree and kept on climbing higher and higher until she reached the top. She sat there for so long and felt like a fairy on a rosy cloud. After that she spent many happy hours in her ‘tree of paradise’ ‘thinking fair thoughts and dreaming bright dreams’.
Chapter VI: Children who can hear acquire language without any particular difficulty or effort. The words that come out from others’ lips, they catch on wings. For a deaf child acquiring language becomes a slow and often painful process. But, however slow and painful the process, the result is wonderful. It starts from naming the objects. And then advancing step by step one can comprehend ‘the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare’. And now Helen Keller had ‘the key to all language’.
At first when Helen’s teacher introduced a new thing, she asked very few questions. Her ideas were vague and vocabulary inadequate. Gradually her knowledge of things grew and she learnt more and more new words. Her field of enquiry enlarged. Helen remembers when she first asked Miss Sullivan the meaning of the word ‘love’, she had brought a few early violets to the teacher. The teacher kissed Helen and put her arm gently round her and spelled into her hand, “I love Helen”. Again Helen asked, “What is love?” The teacher drew closer. She pointed to her breasts and said, “It is here”. She became conscious of the beats of her heart for the first time. The words puzzled her as she couldn’t understand anything unless she touched it. She smelt the violets and asked if love meant the sweetness of flowers. The answer was “No”. Then Helen pointed towards the warm sun shining on them and asked: “Is this not love?” Again the answer was “No”. Helen was greatly puzzled and disappointed as the teacher couldn’t show her “love”. Q One day Helen was putting beads of different sizes—two large and three small ones, and so on. She had made many mistakes. Finally, she noticed a very obvious error in the sequence. Miss Sullivan touched her forehead and spelled with ‘decided emphasis’, “Think”. And in a flash Helen Keller knew that “Think” was the name of the process that was going on in her head. This was Helen’s first perception of an abstract idea. Then suddenly the sun broke forth in all its glory. She asked: “Is this not love?” She replied that love is like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out. One can’t touch the clouds but can feel the rain that gladdens the flowers and the thirsty earth. Similarly, one can’t touch love either but can feel ‘the sweetness it pours into everything. The beautiful truth burst upon Helen’s mind. She felt that there were ‘invisible lines stretched’ between her spirit and the spirit of others.
Miss Sullivan continued the process for several years. A deaf child learns not in a month or a year. She learns from constant repetition and imitation. This problem is compounded if the child is deaf as well as blind.
Chapter VII: The next major step in Helen’s education was learning how to read. As she spelled a few words, her teacher gave her slips of cardboards. They had printed words with raised letters. She soon learnt that every printed word stood for an object, or a quality.
She found slips of paper that represented, for example, “doll”, “is”, “on”, “bed”. Thus she learnt making a sentence out of words. At the same time she succeeded in carrying out the idea of the sentence with the things themselves. The game delighted her. She played it for hours with Miss Sullivan. Then from the printed slip she moved another step, to the printed book. For a long time she had no regular lessons. It looked more like play than work. Everything her teacher taught her, she illustrated it by a beautiful story or a poem. Miss Sullivan had peculiar sympathy with Helen’s pleasures and desires. They read and studied out of doors, preferring the ‘sunlight woods to the house’. All her early lessons had in them “the breath of the woods”. Indeed everything that could hum, or buzz, or sing, or blood had a part in her education. Noisy-throated frogs, crickets and little chickens trilled their ready notes for her. She felt the bursting cotton-balls. She could feel the gentle breeze and the silky rustling of the leaves.
The orchard was another favourite haunt of Helen. The large peaches would reach themselves into her hand. The apples tumbled at her feet. Their favourite walk was to the Keller’s Landing, a lumber wharf on the Tennessee River. There she spent hours building dams of pebbles all for fun. She never liked the study of arithmetics and the science of numbers. Miss Sullivan tried to teach her counting by stringing beads in groups.
She studied Zoology and Botany in the same leisurely manner. Similarly, she learnt of fossils and the strange creatures that formed them. When a beautiful shell was given to her, she learned how a tiny mollusk had built the lustrous coil for his dwelling place.
She also felt the blooming of a lily. She could also feel the frisking of tadpoles in a glass set. Thus she learned from life itself. When Miss Sullivan came, everything about Helen breathed of love and joy and full of meaning. It was her teacher’s genius, her love and sympathy that made her education so beautiful. She realised that a child’s mind is like a shallow brook. It ripples and dances merrily over the stony course. Miss Sullivan was so near to her that Helen scarcely thought of herself apart from her. Her being was inseparable from her teacher. Helen writes: “All the best of me belongs to her.” Chapter VIII: The first Christmas after Miss Sullivan came to Tuscumbia was very special to Helen. She and Helen prepared surprises for everybody. They kept up the game of guessing. This grew more and more exciting as Christmas approached. On Christmas Eve the Tuscumbia school children invited Helen. In the centre stood a beautiful tree ablaze and shimmering in soft light. She danced around the tree in an ecstasy. She was highly impatient for the real Christmas gifts. That night she lay awake a long time pretending to be asleep. She was keeping alert to see what Santa Claus would do when he came. Next morning she found surprises not only in the stocking only but everywhere in the room. When Miss Sullivan presented Helen with a canary, her “cup of happiness overflowed.” Her teacher taught her how to take care of the new pet. Everyday she prepared his bath, made his cage clean and filled his cups with fresh seeds and water. One morning she left the cage and went to fetch water for his bath. She left a big cat brush past her as she opened the door. She knew that she would never see her sweet little Tim sing again.
Chapter IX: Another important event in Helen’s life was her visit to Boston in May, 1888.
She was accompanied by her mother and Miss Sullivan. This journey was quite different that she had undertaken to Baltimore two years ago. This time she sat quietly with Miss Sullivan. She took eager interest in all that her teacher told her about what she saw out of the car window. She told about Tennessee River, the great cotton fields, the hills and the woods and the crowd of the people. She had her doll Nancy in her arms. Nancy had a sad experience after their arrival in Boston. She was covered with dirt. The laundress at the Perkins Institute secretly carried her off to give Nancy a bath. This was too much for poor Nancy. When Helen saw her doll again, Nancy was a formless heap of cotton. She could not have recognised her at all except for her two bed eyes.
At the Perkins Institute for the Blind, she began to make friends with the little blind children. They knew the manual alphabet. It was a great joy to talk with other children in her own language. It took Helen some time to appreciate the fact that her new friends were blind. She remembered with surprise when they read books with their fingers. They were so happy and contented that she lost all sense of pain in the pleasure of their companionship. She felt thoroughly at home in her new environment. She regarded Boston as the beginning and the end of creation.
While they were in Boston, they visited Bunker Hill and her first lesson in history. The next day they went to Plymouth. It was her first trip on the ocean and first voyage in a steamboat. ‘How full of life and motion it was’? She touched the great Plymouth Rock with her own hand. She thought of the pilgrims, those bravest and most generous men who sought a home in a strange land. In Boston she made friendship with William Endicott and his daughter. She also came to know of the great ships that were bound to Europe.
She called Boston “The City of Kind Hearts”.
Chapter X: Helen and her teacher Miss Sullivan were to spend their vacation with their good friend Mrs. Hopkins at Cape Cod. The most vivid recollection of their stay at Cape Cod was the ocean. Helen had an intense desire to touch the mighty sea and feel it roar.
She was excited as her long cherised wish was at last to be realised. She was helped into her bathing suit. He jumped out on the warm sand and fearlessly plunged into the cool water. The buoyant motion of water filled her with exquisite and quivering joy. Suddenly her joy was turned into terror. Her feet struck against a rock and the next moment the water rushed over her head. She thrust her water to grab some support but all her frantic efforts were in vain. The waves tossed her playing a game with her. The good and firm earth had slipped from her feet. At last, the sea threw her back on the shore. The very next moment Helen clashed her teacher’s arm. She asked Miss Sullivan: “Who put salt in the water?” After she had recovered from her first experience in water, she thought it a great fun feeling wave after wave dashing against the rock. The air throbbed with their pulsations. The tang of the fresh and free seawaves was really fascinating. She could feel the ‘dash and roar of the rushing sea.’ One day Miss Sullivan captured a great horseshoe crab. It suddenly occured to Helen that he might make a beautiful pet. She seized him by the tail and carried him home. It was put in a trough near the well. But Q the next morning, he had disappeared. Nobody knew where he had gone or how he had escaped. Helen was disappointed. But soon she realised her mistake. It was not kind or wise to take that poor dumb creature out of his element. She was happy that he had returned to the sea.
Chapter XI: Helen returned to her Southern home from Cape Cod in autumn. She was full of joyous memories. In the North she had enjoyed at the richness and variety of her experiences. She had a new and beautiful world at her feet. Her life was full of motion.
She met many people who talked with her by spelling into her hand. She spent the autumn with her family at their summer cottage on a mountain. It was 14 miles from Tuscumbia.
It was called Fern Quarry. Three frolicing little streams ran through it. The opening was filled with ferns. The rest of the mountain was thickly wooded with great oaks. Vines stretched from tree to tree. The place was always full of butterflies and buzzing insects.
Their cottage was on the top of the mountain among oaks and vines. Many visitors came to Fern Quarry. In the evening men played cards and whiled away the hours talking and telling stories of fishing and hunting. She could feel the deep breathing of the dogs and the hunters as they lay on their beds. She could hear the stamping of the horses and their neighing loudly. Later in the evening they made preparations for a barbecue. Meat was hung over big sticks over the fire. The savoury odour of the meat made her hungry long before dinner.
The hunting party made its appearance in twos and three hot and weary. Everyman declared of seeing at least one deer but couldn’t kill it.
Forgetting their disappointment, the party sat down to a feast of veal and roast pig.
On some morning Helen and her teacher rambled in the woods, trees and vines. They always returned to the cottage with armfuls of ferns and flowers. They also went nutting.
She enjoyed breaking the shells of hickory nuts and walnuts. At the foot of the mountain there was a rail road. The children watched the trains whiz by. Her little cousin Mildred would cry: “I see the train!” Helen felt the hot breath from the engine on her face. The smoke and the ash almost choked them. They reached home long after dark. They found the cottage empty. The family were all out searching for them.
Chapter XII: After her first visit to Boston, Helen spent almost every winter in the North.
Once she visited a New England village with its frozen lakes and vast snow fields. She could enjoy ‘the treasures of snow’ for the first time. The trees and bushes were bare.
The birds had flown. Their empty nests were filled with snow. All life seemed to have ebbed away. The earth seemed benumbed by the icy touch. Then the chill air portended a snow storm. A snowy night covered the village. In the morning everything was white.
One could hardly recognise a feature of the landscape. Only a vast expanse of snow and nothing else. In the evening they sat around the great fire and told merry tales. They were totally shut in from all communication with the outside world. On the third day the snow eased and the sun came out. Helen put on her cloak and hood and went out. The air stung her cheeks. They succeeded in reaching a pine grove. The rays of the sun fell upon the trees and the twigs sparkled like diamonds. The drifts were gone. Another storm came. The lake lay frozen and hard beneath the sun.
Their favourite pastime during the winter was tabogganing. Plunging through drifts and leaking hollows, they could shoot across lake’s gleaming surface to the opposite bank.
“What a joy!” “What a thrilling madness!” They felt themselves ‘divine’.
Chapter XIII: It was in the spring of 1890 that Helen Keller learned to speak. The urge to utter audible sounds had always been strong. She used to make noises keeping one hand on her throat and the other felt the movements of her lips. Before she lost her sight and hearing, she was fast learning to talk. But after her illness she had ceased to speak because she could not hear. There was, however, one word the meaning of which she still remembered. It was ‘water’. She pronounced it “wa – wa”. She had known for a long time that the people used a method of communication that was different from hers. She had to depend on the manual alphabet. She felt always a sense of dissatisfaction and restraint. She persisted using her lips and voice. Once she heard the story of Ragnhild Kaata. It resulted in breaking down of that great barrier.
In 1890, Mrs. Lamson returned from a visit to Norway and Sweden. She told Helen the story of a deaf and blind girl Ranghild Kaata in Norway. She had actually been taught to speak. Helen was on fire with eagerness. She resolved that she, too, would learn to speak.
Miss Sullivan took her to Miss Sarah Fuller, the principal of Horace Mann School. She offered to teach Helen herself. Miss Fuller’s method was simple. She passed her hand lightly over her face and let Helen feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. Helen was eager to imitate every motion. In an hour she had learnt six elements of speech. M, P, S, T, I. Miss Fuller gave her eleven lessons in all. When she uttered her first connected sentence: “It is warm”, she was highly surprised and delighted. No doubt, they were broken and stammering syllables but she was out of the bondage now.
It would be wrong to think that she could really talk in this short time. She had only learnt the ‘elements of speech’. Miss Fuller and Miss Sullivan could understand her but not the other people. It was Miss Sullivan’s genius and untiring patience and devotion that led Helen towards natural speech. She laboured night and day before she could be understood even by her most intimate friends. She needed Miss Sullivan’s help in her efforts to articulate each sound clearly and combine all sounds in a thousand ways. In reading her teacher’s lips Helen was wholly dependent on her fingers. She had to use the sense of touch in catching the vibrations of the throat, the movements of the mouth and the expressions of the face. Many a time she was discouraged. But her work was ‘practice, practice, practice’. She used to repeat ecstatically, “I am not dumb now”. Constant practice makes the fingers very flexible. At last the happiest of happy moments arrived. She had made her homeward journey, talking to Miss Sullivan. The train stopped at the Tuscumbia station. And the whole family was there on the platform. Her mother pressed her close to her heart when she uttered the first syllables. Little Mildred kissed her hands and danced. Her father expressed his pride and affection in a big silence.
Chapter XIV: In the winter of 1892, Helen Keller wrote a little story called “The Frost King”. She sent it to Mr. Anagnos, of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. She wrote the story when she was at home and after she had learnt to speak. Her thoughts flowed freely and easily and she felt a joy in the composition. At that time she ‘eagerly absorbed everything she read without a thought of authorship. When finished the story was read to the teacher and later to the assembled family. They were surprised that Helen could write so well. She sent it to Mr. Anagnos who published it in one of the Perkins Institutes’ reports. But Helen’s happiness was short-lived. It was discovered that a similar story “The Frost Fairies” by Miss Margaret T. Canby had appeared before her ‘The Frost King’ in a book. The two stories were very much alike in thought and language. It was evident that Miss Canby’s story had been read to her and her story was a plagiarism. When she understood it, she was grieved. She had disgraced herself. Mr. Anagnos was deeply troubled but he seemed to believe her. But one of the teachers laid her conclusions that Helen’s story was an imitation of “The Frost Fairies”. Mr. Anagnos felt deceived. He suspected that Helen and her teacher, Miss Sullivan had deliberately stolen the bright thoughts of Miss Canby’s story to win his admiration. She was brought before a court of investigation composed of teachers and officers of the institution. She was questioned and crossquestioned. The judges wanted her to acknowledge that Miss Canby’s story was read to her. She wept that night. She imagined that she should die before morning. Q Miss Sullivan had never heard of “The Frost Fairies” or of the book in which the story was published. Later on it was found out that perhaps Mrs. Hopkins might have read it to Helen when she was on a vacation. In her trouble Helen received many messages of love and sympathy. Miss Canby herself wrote kindly, “Some day you will write a great story out of your own head”. But that kind prophecy was never fulfilled. She was so conscious that while writing sentences even to her mother she would check if she had not read them in a book. The habit of assimilating what others wrote and giving it out again as her own was common in her early writings. When she wrote about the old cities of Greece and Italy, she borrowed her glowing descriptions from various sources. Those early compositions were mental gymnastics. Like all inexperienced persons she was learning writing by assimilation and imitation of ideas. It is only after years of practice that even great writers learn to write every word by way of their minds. Helen thought that ‘trying to write is very much like trying to put a Chinese puzzle together. We have a pattern in mind which we wish to work out in words’. She quotes Stevenson: “There is no way to become original, except to be born so”. The sad experience might have done her good and set her thinking on some of the problems of composition seriously. Her only regret was that she lost one of her dearest friends, Mr. Anagnos.
Chapter XV: Helen Keller spent a year after the “Frost King” incident with her family in Alabama. She was very happy. “The Frost King” was forgotten. Helen Keller started writing a sketch of her life. She was still very cautious. The thought what she wrote might not be absolutely her own troubled her thoughts. Sometimes she said to herself: “Suppose it should be found that all this was written by someone long ago”. Miss Sullivan helped and consoled her in every way she could think of. She was then twelve years old. She wrote ‘timidly, fearfully, but resolutely’. Now her thoughts turned inward and she could see and think things invisible. In 1893 she made a trip to Washington and visited Niagra and the World’s Fair. It was quite difficult to describe Helen’s emotions when she felt the air vibrate and the earth tremble at the Falls. Miss Sullivan and Helen visited the World’s Fair with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. There she could see the India of her books with its Shivas and elephant – gods. There were also the Pyramids. At a little distance was a model of the Santa Maria, the famous ship of Columbus. The President of the World’s Fair gave her permission to touch the exhibits. Everything fascinated her. At the Cape of Good Hope exhibit, she learnt about the mining of diamonds and cutting and polishing of precious stones. Dr. Bell accompanied her everywhere and described to her the objects of greatest interest. All these experiences added many new words and terms to her vocabulary.
Chapter XVI: Before October, 1893, Helen Keller had studied various subjects by herself.
She studied the histories of Greece, Rome and the United States. She had a French grammar in raised print. She knew some French and enjoyed using new words. Gradually she acquired the sufficient knowledge of French to read La Fontaine’s “Fables” and other books. She gave considerable time to the improvement of her speech. She recited passages from her favourite poets to Miss Sullivan. She corrected her pronunciation. She learnt Latin and Latin grammar from Mr. Irons in Pennsylvania. She found arithmetic quite boring. She learnt for the first time reading an author critically. At first she didn’t take interest in studying Latin grammar and analysing every word. But as she got deeper into subject, the beauty of Latin language delighted her. She started enjoying reading Latin passages and trying to make sense. There is nothing more beautiful than the fleeting images and sentiments expressed by a language. Miss Sullivan spelled into her hands whatever Mr. Irons said. Helen was just beginning to read Caeser’s “Gallic War” before she went to her home in Alabama.
Chapter XVII: In the summer of 1894, Helen Keller attended the meeting at Chautauqua of the American Association to promote the teaching of speech to the deaf with Miss Sullivan. The school was chosen especially for obtaining the highest advantage in vocal culture and training in lip-reading. Her German teacher Miss Reamy used the manual alphabet while teaching German. Within a year, Helen could read “Wilhelm Tell” with pleasure. She made more progress in German and found French more difficult. Helen’s progress in lip-reading and speech was not what her teachers had hoped and expected it would be. They aimed too high and the disappointment was inevitable. She still avoided and disliked arithmetic. But she pursued her other studies, especially physical geography, with great interest. The two years in New York were happy ones and looked back to them with genuine pleasure. She especially remembered the walks they all took together every day in Central Park. It was beautiful in all its aspects. In the spring they sailed on the Hudson River and wondered about on its green banks. But her bright days in New York were darkened by a great sorrow. Mr. John P. Spaulding of Boston died in February, 1896.
He was very kind and tender to Helen Keller and Miss Sullivan. His death left a vacancy in their lives that had never been filled.
Chapter XVIII: In October 1896 Helen Keller entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. The thought of going to college took root in her heart. Going to the Cambridge School was the nearest approach she could get to Harvard. In this way, she could fulfil her childish declaration. At the Cambridge School, Miss Sullivan attended the classes with her and interpreted to her the instructions given. The instructors had no experience of teaching the blind and the deaf. Her only means of conversing with them was reading their lips. She had been well trained in English by Miss Sullivan. She had a good start in French and received six months instruction in Latin. But she was most comfortable in German. Inspite of those advantages, her progress was not smooth. Miss Sullivan could not spell out in her hand all that the books required. Her instructors soon became familiar with her imperfect speech to answer her questions and correct mistakes. Each day Miss Sullivan went to the school and spelled into Helen’s hand whatever the teachers said. It required a lot of patience. The German teacher gave her special lessons twice a week.
She finished arithmetic, reviewed her Latin grammar and read three chapters of Caeser’s “Gallic War”. In German she read, partly with her fingers and partly with Miss Sullivan’s assistance. She read Schiller, Heine, Riehl and Goethe. In English she read Shakespeare, Burke and Macaulay’s “Life of Samuel Johnson”. She was impressed with Burke’s masterly speech and eloquence.
At the Cambridge school, Helen enjoyed the companionship of seeing and hearing girls of her age. She joined them in many of their games, took long walks with them and discussed books with them. Some of the girls learnt to speak to her and Miss Sullivan didn’t have to repeat their conversation. At Christmas, Helen’s mother and her little sister spent the holidays with her. It made her most happy in sharing happy hours with them.
She took her preliminary examination for Radcliff in July 1896. She passed in everything, and received “honours” in German and English.
It was though advisable to have her examinations in a room by herself. The noise of the type writer could disturb others. If she passed with higher credit in the preliminaries than in the finals, there were two reasons. In the finals no one read her work over to her. Secondly, in preliminaries she offered subjects which she was quite familiar with.
Chapter XIX: Helen Keller began her second year at the Gilman school with hope and determination to succeed. Mr. Gilman wanted her to study mathematics that year. She had physics, algebra, geometry, astronomy, Greek and Latin. She lacked important apparatus for some of her studies and faced a lot of difficulties. The classes were very Q large and teachers could not give her special instruction. Miss Sullivan was obliged to read all the books to her and interpret for the instructors. For the first time in eleven years ‘it seemed as if her dear hand would not be equal to the task’. She could not solve problems in physics, algebra and geometry until they bought a brail writer. She encountered a lot of difficulties. Sometimes she lost all courage. Little by little, Helen’s difficulties began to disappear. The embossed books and other apparatus arrived. She threw herself into the work with renewed confidence. Algebra and geometry continued to defy her efforts. Actually, she had no aptitude for mathematics. The different points were not explained to her as fully as she wished. Mr. Gilman realised that she was overworked and should remain at his school three years longer. Helen didn’t like the idea as she wanted to enter college with her class. The difference of opinion between Gilman and Miss Sullivan resulted in Helen’s withdrawal from the Cambridge school.
She continued her studies under a tutor, Mr. Merton Keith of Cambridge. For eight months Keith gave her lessons five times a week in Boston. In this way’ her preparation for the college continued uninterrupted. She enjoyed her work and got on faster and did better work than she ever did in school. She didn’t find algebra and geometry not even half as easy as languages and literature. But Mr. Keith made even mathematics interesting.
He taught her to reason clearly and logically. Helen Keller took her final examinations for Radcliffe College in June 1899. The college authorities didn’t allow Miss Sullivan to read the examination papers to her. The braill didn’t work well in geometry and algebra.
She had always done her work in braille or in her head. The administrative board of Radcliffe didn’t realise how difficult they were making her examinations. Nor did they understand the peculiarities of a deaf and blind student. They put many obstacles in her way. But Helen was determined to succeed. At last, she overcame all obstacles. She earned her admission to Radcliffe College.
Chapter XX: Helen’s struggle for admission to Radcliffe College ended successfully. She could now enter Radcliffe whenever she pleased. It was thought best that she should study another year under Mr. Keith. Therefore, her dream of going to Radcliffe was realised only in the fall of 1900. She was excited on the first day at Radcliffe. She had tried her strength by the standards of those who could see and hear. She began her studies with eagerness. She could feel within herself the capacity to know all things. She was entering a new world of ‘beauty and light’. The professors were the embodiment of wisdom and knowledge. But Helen soon realised that ‘the college was not quite the romantic lyceum’ she had imagined. The lack of time was a big hurdle. In college, there was no time to commune with one’s thoughts. ‘One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think’. She studied French, German, history, English composition and English literature. She studied Corneille, Moliere, Racine and Sainte-Beuve in French. She read Goethe and Schiller in German. She studied history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the 18th century and Milton in English literature. She couldn’t make notes during the lectures as her hands were busy listening. She could only jot down what she could remember at home.
Unfortunately, very few of the books required in the various courses were printed for the blind. She was obliged to have them spelled into her hand. Actually, she needed more time to prepare her lessons than other girls. While other girls laughed, sang and danced, she spent hours reading a few chapters. It made her rebellious but she gained her confidence and composure. She made her way in a zig-zag manner slipping back many times. But she was determined to succeed. She got more eager and went on climbing higher and higher. Her vision was broadened.
Last year at Radcliffe Helen studied English composition, the Bible, the governments of America and Europe, Horace and Latin comedy. She relished English because the teacher brought before her ‘literature in all its original freshness and power’. The last year was the happiest year as she was studying subjects that especially interested her. But Helen realised that ‘college is not the universal Athens’ she thought it was. No doubt, one met the great and the wise in college but they seemed to be ‘mummified’. She thought that literature ‘depends more upon the depth of our sympathy than upon our understanding’.
She felt like the proverbial bull in a china shop when she thought of her overburdened mind. A thousand odds and ends of knowledge came crushing her head like hailstones.
Helen Keller thought that the examinations were the chief bugbears of her life. She faced them successfully many times, yet they rose again with vengeance. It is rather disgusting that just at the moment when she needed her memory and sense of discrimination, those faculties flew away.
During her stay at Redcliffe, there was the ‘transition from romantic to actual’. She learnt many things there. Knowledge is not only ‘power’ but is ‘happiness’ too. One can’t be deaf to the great throbs of humanity. Nor can one be ‘deaf to the harmonies of life’.
Chapter XXI: Helen Keller depended on books not only for pleasure and for wisdom but also for the knowledge. She first read a story in May, 1887 when she was just seven years old. At first, she had only a few books in raised print like “Our World”. She read them over and over. Sometimes Miss Sullivan spelled into her hands little stories and poems. Actually Helen began to read in right earnest when she was in Boston. She spent a lot of time in the Institution library and took down whatever book her fingers lighted upon. The words themselves fascinated her. Her impressionable mind retained many words and sentences.
“Little Lord Fauntleroy” was the first book of any consequence that she ‘read understandingly’. It was a fascinating child’s story. At first the reading was constantly interrupted as she didn’t know many words. Miss Sullivan came to her help and guidance.
Later on, at her request, Mr. Anagnos had the story embossed and Helen read it again and again.
During the next two years she read many books at her home or her visit to Boston. Some of them were “Greek Heroes”, La Fontaine’s “Fables”, Hawthorne’s “Wonder Book”, “Bible Stories”, Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare”, Dickens, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, and “Robinson Crusoe”. Stories in which animals are made to talk and act like human beings never appealed to her very strongly. But she felt geniune interest in ‘The Jungle Book’ and “Wild Animals” because they were real animal stories and not caricatures of men. Helen enjoyed antiquity, Ancient Greece excercised a mysterious fascination for her. She liked the pagan gods and goddesses walking on earth and talked face to face with men. ‘The Iliad’ was her favourite. Great poetry whether written in Greek or in English needed no interpreter than a ‘responsive heart’. The finest passages of ‘The Iliad’ lifted her soul. She forgot her physical limitation. Her liking for ‘The Aeneid’ was not as great as that for ‘The Iliad’.
Virgil is ‘serene and lovely like a marble’. Homer is a beautiful animated youth in the full sunlight.
Helen began to read the Bible much before she could understand it. The stories of Greeks were so full of charm for Helen but those of the Bible were devoid of any interest. She had read the Bible for so many years with joy and inspiration. She loved it as she loved no other book. She wished that the literature of the past might be purged of all that is ugly and barbarous in it. She liked the simplicity and ‘terrible directness of the book of Esther’.
She also liked the story of Ruth for her oriental charms. ‘Macbeth’ of Shakespeare impressed her most. For a long time the ghosts and witches haunted her in her dreams.
She read ‘King Lear’ after ‘Macbeth’. The two other characters that she liked very much were of Shylock and Satan. But she could never hate them completely. Shakespeare’s songs and sonnets were as wonderful and fresh as his dramas. Q Helen Keller loved history next to poetry. She had read every historical work that she had been able to lay her hands on. Green’s ‘History of the English People’ and Freeman’s ‘History of Europe’ impressed her. In her college reading she became familiar with French and German literature. The Germans put strength before beauty, and truth before convention, both in life and in literature. Goethe and Schiller were her favourite German writers. She liked Moliere and Racine best among the French writers. She also admired Balzac and Victor Hugo. She liked the American writer Mark Twain. Literature was Helen’s ‘utopia’.
Chapter XXII: Helen Keller tries to explain that she has many other pleasures and amusements other than reading books. She has a great attraction for the country and out-of-door sports. She learnt to row and swim at a very early age. She can’t guide the boat very well. Someone usually manages the rudder while she rows. She loves to contend with wind and wave. She also enjoys canoeing on moonlight nights. She loves touching a little fish or a pond lily. But her favourite amusement is sailing. In the summer of 1901, she visited Nova Scotia and Halifax. It was really so interesting, so beautiful! Once they went in a sail-boat to watch the races. They faced the fury of a storm. The boat was driven down by the gigantic waves. Down came the main sail. At last cold, hungry and tired, they reached their pier. She visited Wrentham, one of the loveliest villages in New England. She had a special attraction for the ‘king-tree’ which stood there 800 or 1000 years. Some people think that all sensations reach us through the eye and the ear. They forget that her whole body is alive to the conditions about her. She can also feel the grinding of heavy wagons and machinery.
Several times she visits the narrow, dirty streets where the poor live. She ‘grows hot and indignant’. She realises that the sun and the air are God’s free gifts to all. She is pained to realise that the poor are forced to live in such inhuman and dirty surroundings.
She enjoys cycling next to a leisurely walk. Most of the time her dog accompanies her on a walk or ride or sail. When she is indoors, she likes to knit and crochet. She also plays game or two of checkers or chess with a friend. If alone, she plays a game of solitaire.
She loves to frolic with children. Museums and art stores are also sources of her pleasure and inspiration. She can feel the heart-throbs of the ancient Greeks in their marble gods and goddesses. Going to the theatre is another pleasure of Helen Keller. She enjoys having a play described to her while it is being acted on the stage. She has met a few great actors and actresses like Miss Ellen Terry, Sir Henry Irving and Jefferson who played ‘Rip Van Winkle’. Sometimes a sense of isolation enfolds her like a cold mist when she sits alone.
‘Then comes hope with a smile and whispers, “There is a joy in self-forgetfulness”. So she tries to make the light in others’ eyes her sun and the music in others’ ears her symphony. She tries to make the smile on others’ lips her own happiness.
Chapter XXIII: Helen Keller describes men and women who contributed to make her life happy and meaningful. They were men of letters, scientists, priests, editors and friends who sweetened and ennobled her life. One of such persons was Bishop Brooks. As a child she loved to sit on his knee while Miss Sullivan spelled into her hand beautiful words about God and the spiritual world. Very often when she was puzzled to know the multiplicity of so many religions, he said: “There is only one religion—the religion of love”. Bishop Brooks believed in the ‘fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man’. Helen Keller found no creed more soul-satisfying than Bishop Brook’s creed of love.
Helen remembers Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. She met Dr. Holmes many times and she loved the man as well as the poet. Dr. Edward Hale was one of Helen’s very old friends.
She had known him since she was eight and her love for him increased with her years.
He was very helpful and kind to her and Miss Sullivan in times of trial and sorrow. He has been ‘a prophet and inspirer of men’.
Helen Keller had spent so many happy days with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. She spent hours listening to what he had to tell her about her experiments. He was very humorous and poetic too. His dominating passion was his love for children. He was never so happy as and when he had a little deaf child in his arms.
During his two years in New York, Helen met many distinguished people. It was a great privilege to meet Mr. and Mrs. Hutton.
William Dean Howells and Mark Twain were special favourites of Helen Keller. Mark Twain had his own ways of thinking, saying and doing everything. There were host of other interesting people she met in New York. Those were the people who had made the story of her life. They were the people who had turned her limitations into beautiful privileges and opportunities.