Sunday, 20 June 2010

Helen Keller

I've just finished reading Helen Keller's The Story of My Life. What's really interesting about this book is that it's not very interesting. Or to put it another way, the remarkable thing about this book is its existence, not its content.

For those who don't know about Helen Keller, she was born in Alabama in 1880, the daughter of reasonably well-off landowning parents. When she was two an illness (probably either scarlet fever or meningitis) left her without either sight or hearing. Thanks to the efforts of a young live-in tutor called Anne Sullivan and support from quite a few prominent people including Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain and the owner of Standard Oil, she ended up becoming the first deaf and blind person to earn a university degree. She was a celebrity in her youth, vilified in mid-life for her commitment to socialism, and lionised as a cultural icon in her old age.

The Story of My Life was and remains her most famous and most widely read book. She wrote it in her early 20s (it was published in 1903) and it mainly describes her education and her process of learning about the world. It's hard to know how to approach it. Is it harsh to judge it by the same standards as any other book, given the extreme disability of its author? Or is it patronising to approach it any other way?

The author certainly comes across as immature - more immature than many 20 year olds I know. She has a kind of wide-eyed innocence that is not at all surprising given her protected life. Her one foray into politics is laughably naive. After describing her experience of meeting urban poor people and her sadness at their hard lives, she exclaims, "Oh, would that men would leave the city, its splendour and its tumult and its gold, and return to wood and field and simple honest living!"

Probably the most interesting and revealing parts of the story are when she describes her process of learning. For instance, she attempts to learn to speak, instructed by a woman called Sarah Fuller. "Miss Fuller's method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. I was eager to imitate every motion and in an hour had learned six elements of speech." Of course it was not that easy. "I laboured night and day before I could be understood even by my most intimate friends...I needed Miss Sullivan's assistance constantly in my efforts to articulate each sound clearly and to combine all sounds in a thousand ways. Even now she calls my attention every day to mispronounced words". Apparently she never really learned to speak clearly, but it's remarkable that she learned at all when she could neither hear these sounds nor watch people making them, and shows both her intelligence and her iron will.

The same applies to all her educational efforts - her learning to communicate by hand signing, where words are spelled onto the person's hand in a form of sign language; her learning to lip-read by holding her fingers to the lips of the speaker; and most of all her mastery of braille and her love of literature.

For all this, much of the book is flat. For one thing, although she expresses gratitude to the various people who have helped her, she shows no insight into how this has come about. How did Bell and Twain come to take an interest in her? How was she given a special showing at the World's Fair in New York by the manager himself, and allowed to touch all the exhibits? Who was paying the expenses of this education? All these matters are skated over while she describes walks in the country, and spring, and other such pastoral delights.

This is the other problem with the book. When she talks about her education, you know that she can't see or hear. Yet there are passages like this one, where a favourite tree of hers is blown down in a storm: "We went out to see the hero that had withstood so many tempests, and it wrung my heart to see him prostrate...." Or this: "When the ground was strewn with the crimson and golden leaves of autumn, and the musk-scented grapes that covered the arbor at the end of the garden were turning golden-brown in the sunshine...." Or this one: "A snowy night closed upon the world, and in the morning one could scarcely recognise a feature of the landscape. All the roads were hidden, not a single landmark was visible, only a waste of snow with trees rising out of it....The rafters creaked and strained, and the branches of the trees surrounding the house rattled and beat against the windows."

Irrespective of her disability, Keller's language is clumsy and overwritten, full of flowery description and breathless adjectives. Yet her continual use of visual and auditory images is perplexing at a deeper level. We know she never saw or heard the things she describes. She would have felt, smelt or tasted things related to them, but we only occasionally hear about that. It is almost as if, when she is not describing the parts of her life that directly relate to her disability, she is trying to make us forget she has it.

There may also be another explanation. When she was twelve, she had her first publication - a short story published in the journal of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, a school she attended from time to time. She was soon embroiled in a controversy about plagiarism when it turned out the story was almost identical to one that had probably been read to her. Bizarrely, considering she was a child at the time, this was used against her throughout her life, even though she quite reasonably explained that she had forgotten hearing the story and believed she had invented it.

She says herself, "if words and images come to me without effort, it is a pretty sure sign that they are not the offspring of my own mind, but stray waifs...even now I cannot be quite sure of the boundary line between my ideas and those I find in books". Aint that the same for all of us? Deprived of a lot of the sensory stimulation we take for granted, she has substituted literary stimulation from books written by hearing and sighted readers. When she comes to write her own book, she uses their language and images, even though she can only have a very hazy idea what they mean. This makes them wooden and unconvincing. Yet for her, or for anyone, the alternative would be immeasurably more difficult. She would have had to invent a whole new way of writing, using only the three senses left to her. The world would only be presented in touch, taste and smell. We would enter into her world, with all its confusion, and learn to navigate it the way she did.

That would have been a remarkable book, an act of breathtaking literary genius. Helen Keller was a highly intelligent woman, prepared to work hard and unprepared to treat any task as impossible. The achievements of her life are amazing, but literary genius is not among them.


Andrew said...

I read a biography of Anne Sullivan to my class every year. As much as I appreciate Helen's achievements, I find the life of her teacher a much better tale.

Luke said...

Good review, it's a pity the book wasn't consistent in quality.

Jon said...

I think maybe consistency is bit much to ask of a 20 year old. It would be interesting read some of her later writings and see how her abilities developed.