The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (#NovNov Nonfiction Buddy Read)

For nonfiction week of Novellas in November, our buddy read is The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903). You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg here if you’d still like to join in.

Keller’s story is culturally familiar to us, perhaps from the William Gibson play The Miracle Worker, but I’d never read her own words. She was born in Alabama in 1880; her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army. An illness (presumed to be scarlet fever) left her blind and deaf at the age of 19 months, and she describes herself in those early years as mischievous and hot-tempered, always frustrated at her inability to express herself. The arrival of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, when Helen was six years old transformed her “silent, aimless, dayless life.”

I was fascinated by the glimpses into child development and education. Especially after she learned Braille, Keller loved books, but she believed she learned just as much from nature: “everything that could hum or buzz, or sing, or bloom, had a part in my education.” She loved to sit in the family orchard and would hold insects or fossils and track plant and tadpole growth. Her first trip to the ocean (Chapter 10) was a revelation, and rowing and sailing became two of her chief hobbies, along with cycling and going to the theatre and museums.

Helen Keller with Annie Sullivan. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

At age 10 Keller relearned to speak – a more efficient way to communicate than her usual finger-spelling. She spent winters in Boston and eventually attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in preparation for starting college at Radcliffe. Her achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that smell and touch – senses we tend to overlook – were her primary ones. While she used a typewriter to produce schoolwork, a teacher spelling into her hand was still her main way to intake knowledge. Specialist textbooks for mathematics and multiple languages were generally not available in Braille. Digesting a lesson and completing homework thus took her much longer than it did her classmates, but still she felt “impelled … to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear.”

It was surprising to find, at the center of the book, a detailed account of a case of unwitting plagiarism (Chapter 14). Eleven-year-old Keller wrote a story called “The Frost King” for a beloved teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. He was so pleased that he printed it in one of their publications, but it soon came to his attention that the plot was very similar to “The Frost Fairies” in Birdie and His Friends by Margaret T. Canby. The tale must have been read to Keller long ago but become so deeply buried in the compost of a mind’s memories that she couldn’t recall its source. Some accused Keller and Sullivan of conspiring, and this mistrust more than the incident itself cast a shadow over her life for years to come. I was impressed by Keller discussing in depth something that it would surely have been more comfortable to bury. (I’ve sometimes had the passing thought that if I wrote a memoir I would structure it around my regrets or most embarrassing moments. Would that be penance or masochism?)

This short memoir was first serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Keller was only 23 and partway through her college degree at the time of publication. An initial chronological structure later turns more thematic and the topics are perhaps a little scattershot. I would attribute this, at least in part, to the method of composition: it would be difficult to make large-scale edits on a manuscript because everything she typed had to be spelled back to her for approval. Minor line edits would be easy enough, but not big structural changes. (I wonder if it’s similar with work that’s been dictated, like May Sarton’s later journals.)

Helen Keller in graduation cap and gown. (PPOC, Library of Congress. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Keller went on to write 12 more books. It would be interesting to follow up with another one to learn about her travels and philanthropic work. For insight into a different aspect of her life – bearing in mind that it’s fiction – I recommend Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan. In a couple of places Keller mentions Laura Bridgman, her less famous predecessor in the deaf–blind community; Kimberly Elkins’ 2014 What Is Visible is a stunning novel about Bridgman.

For such a concise book – running to just 75 pages in my Dover Thrift Editions paperback – this packs in so much. Indeed, I’ve found more to talk about in this review than I might have expected. The elements that most intrigued me were her early learning about abstractions like love and thought, and her enthusiastic rundown of her favorite books: “In a word, literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends.”

It’s possible some readers will find her writing style old-fashioned. It would be hard to forget you’re reading a work from nearly 120 years ago, given the sentimentality and religious metaphors. But the book moves briskly between anecdotes, with no filler. I remained absorbed in Keller’s story throughout, and so admired her determination to obtain a quality education. I know we’re not supposed to refer to disabled authors’ work as “inspirational,” so instead I’ll call it both humbling and invigorating – a reminder of my privilege and of the force of the human will. (Secondhand purchase, Barter Books)

 

Also reviewed by:

Cathy

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

21 responses

  1. […] has written a much more in-depth review here and there is still time to take part in this week’s buddy read if you are interested as The Story […]

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  2. […] The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (Rebecca at Bookish Beck) […]

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  3. I found this quite fascinating too Rebecca. Found myself having to stop and remember that she couldn’t see or hear yet could still experience and describe the world so fully.

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    1. We picked out a lot of the same elements and both used the words “fascinating” and “humbling”! It’s really amazing all she perceived and achieved.

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  4. I’m sure I read this pre-blog but can’t find it in the records – maybe pre-reading journal (shock!). It’s so hard to get your head around how she managed, and all the detail does help with that, I think.

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    1. It was the same with Kika & Me (from the Barbellion Prize shortlist, by a blind author) — I loved reading about the nitty-gritty of how she managed. It would be easy to become isolated, but she loved people and ideas and pursued breadth of experience.

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  5. At senior school, we used to have inspirational books read to us in Assembly. This was one, probably abridged to fit into a week’s worth of assemblys. We were all spellbound by her achievements.

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    1. Your experience must have been very common in the past, Annabel. As I mentioned in a comment on Cathy’s blog I read this or a similar account in a Reader’s Digest condensed version as a teenager; then I rather bucked against my parents’ desires to have me read inspirational and improving stories which I saw as an attempt at guilt-tripping me. Now I’m a little more grown-up I’m less of a twerp and can appreciate her determination and zest for living overcoming her disabilities. Better late than never perhaps!

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    2. How interesting. I can’t imagine children sitting and listening politely these days! Or getting on well with her pious outlook.

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  6. After I read this a few years ago I became quite fascinated with Keller and wanted to read more by and about her. I was also surprised by the amount of space given to the Frost King scandal; it made more sense to me when I learned that there were actually quite a few people who thought Keller and Sullivan were committing fraud, and were unfriendly and unsupportive. The treatment of Keller, essentially putting a young girl with her challenges on trial, was unbelievably cruel and insensitive. For further reading I highly recommend Keller’s book The World I Live In (still old fashioned, but more mature writing), and Dorothy Hermann’s biography.

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    1. She must have felt she needed to clear her name in case the plagiarism accusation was all people remembered about her. Thank you for the recommendation of another book of hers to read.

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  7. A lovely review, Rebecca. I’ve not read this but I can’t believe there’s so much to write about in 75 pages! I will have to give this a try, perhaps putting it on my second Classics Club list (when I finish my first one!)

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    1. The chapters are very short and she moves between subjects quickly. Again, I imagine the form was somewhat determined by her process: typing up a manuscript and then having someone hand-spell it back to her so she could make any line edits. You’d be grateful to have it as an option beside any chunksters on your next list 😉

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  8. I was fascinated by Helen Keller when I was little. I couldn’t imagine such a life. And, honestly, it’s still very hard to imagine. Your last line sums it up nicely – her story shows the incredible strength of the human will.

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    1. Things that we take for granted took her so many times longer. I was amazed at how much she still managed to do, and how kind people were in helping her — actors allowing her to touch their faces so she could follow the action of a play, for instance.

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  9. […] My Life is the short nonfiction pick for Novellas in November. As always, please refer to Cathy and Rebecca for more thorough […]

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  10. I think I read this when I was younger but the plagiarism incident doesn’t sound familiar to me, so now I’m wondering if I’ve simply picked up parts of her story elsewhere! Either way, I definitely don’t remember this, so it would be worth reading even if I did read it once before.

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    1. I think she’s one of those historical figures where we’re so familiar with the life story we might think we’ve read her own words even if we haven’t (e.g. I never actually finished reading Anne Frank’s diary when I was young and keep meaning to read it as an adult).

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  11. I saw a mini-series when I was very young (likely Naomi and I were inspired by the same stuff…there wasn’t much on Canadian TV at that time LOL) and was fascinated too. In another kind of reading year, I’d’ve jumped at the chance to read this one and it’s good to know you enjoyed it.

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    1. It was a surprisingly good read.

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