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.
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.)
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)
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Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist: The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus
The Rathbones Folio Prize is unique in that nominations come from The Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, and any book written in English is eligible, so there’s nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction on this year’s varied shortlist of eight titles:
- Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young [essays]
- The Crossway by Guy Stagg [travel memoir]
- Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly [historical fiction]
- Milkman by Anna Burns [literary fiction]
- Ordinary People by Diana Evans [literary fiction]
- The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus [poetry]
- There There by Tommy Orange [literary fiction]
- West by Carys Davies [historical fiction]
I’m helping to kick off the Prize’s social media tour by championing the debut poetry collection The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (winner of the 2018 Geoffrey Dearmer Award from the Poetry Society), issued by the London publisher Penned in the Margins last year. Antrobus is a British-Jamaican poet with an MA in Spoken Word Education who has held multiple residencies in London schools and works as a freelance teacher and poet. His poems dwell on the uneasiness of bearing a hybrid identity – he’s biracial and deaf but functional in the hearing world – and reflect on the loss of his father and the intricacies of Deaf history.
I was previously unaware of the difference between “deaf” and “Deaf,” but it’s explained in the book’s endnotes: Deaf refers to those who are born deaf and learn sign before any spoken language, so they tend to consider deafness part of their cultural identity; deaf means that the deafness was acquired later in life and is a medical consequence rather than a defining trait.
The opening poem, “Echo,” recalls how Antrobus’s childhood diagnosis came as a surprise because hearing problems didn’t run in the family.
I sat in saintly silence
during my grandfather’s sermons when he preached
The Good News I only heard
as Babylon’s babbling echoes.
Nowadays he uses hearing aids and lip reading, but still frets about how much he might be missing, as expressed in the prose poem “I Move through London like a Hotep” (his mishearing when a friend said, “I’m used to London life with no sales tax”). But if he had the choice, would Antrobus reverse his deafness? As he asks himself in one stanza of “Echo,” “Is paradise / a world where / I hear everything?”
Learning how to live between two worlds is a major theme of the collection, applying not just to the Deaf and hearing communities but also to the balancing act of a Black British identity. I first encountered Antrobus through the recent Black British poetry anthology Filigree (I assess it as part of a review essay in an upcoming issue of Wasafiri literary magazine), which reprints his poem “My Mother Remembers.” A major thread in that volume is art as a means of coming to terms with racism and constructing an individual as well as a group identity. The ghazal “Jamaican British” is the clearest articulation of that fight for selfhood, reinforced by later poems on being called a foreigner and harassment by security staff at Miami airport.
The title comes from the name of the pub where Antrobus’s father drank while his son waited outside. The title poem is an elegant sestina in which “perseverance” is the end word of one line per stanza. The relationship with his father is a connecting thread in the book, culminating in the several tender poems that close the book. Here he remembers caring for his father, who had dementia, in the final two years of his life, and devotes a final pantoum to the childhood joy of reading aloud with him.
A number of poems broaden the perspective beyond the personal to give a picture of early Deaf history. Several mention Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife and mother were both deaf, while in one the ghost of Laura Bridgeman (the subject of Kimberly Elkins’s excellent novel What Is Visible) warns Helen Keller about the unwanted fame that comes with being a poster child for disability. The poet advocates a complete erasure of Ted Hughes’s offensive “Deaf School” (sample lines: “Their faces were alert and simple / Like faces of little animals”; somewhat ironically, Antrobus went on to win the Ted Hughes Award last month!) and bases the multi-part “Samantha” on interviews with a Deaf Jamaican woman who moved to England in the 1980s. The text also includes a few sign language illustrations, including numbers that mark off section divisions.
The Perseverance is an issues book that doesn’t resort to polemic; a bereavement memoir that never turns overly sentimental; and a bold statement of identity that doesn’t ignore complexities. Its mixture of classical forms and free verse, the historical and the personal, makes it ideal for those relatively new to poetry, while those who enjoy the sorts of poets he quotes and tips the hat to (like Kei Miller, Danez Smith and Derek Walcott) will find a resonant postcolonial perspective.
A favorite passage from “Echo” (I’m a sucker for alliteration):
the ravelled knot of tongues,
of blaring birds, consonant crumbs
of dull doorbells, sounds swamped
in my misty hearing aid tubes.
The winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize will be announced on May 20th.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
European Traveling and Reading
We’ve been back from our European trip for over a week already, but I haven’t been up to writing until now. Partially this is because I’ve had a mild stomach bug that has left me feeling yucky and like I don’t want to spend any more time at a computer than is absolutely necessary for my work; partially it’s because I’ve just been a bit blue. Granted, it’s nice to be back where all the signs and announcements are in English and I don’t have to worry about making myself understood. Still, gloom over Brexit has combined with the usual letdown of coming back from an amazing vacation and resuming normal life to make this a ho-hum sort of week. Nonetheless, I want to get back into the rhythm of blogging and give a quick rundown of the books I read while I was away.
But first, some of the highlights of the trip:
- the grand architecture of the center of Brussels; live jazz emanating from a side street café
- cycling to the zoo in Freiburg with our friends and their kids
- ascending into the mountains by cable car and then on foot to circle Switzerland’s Lake Oeschinensee
- traipsing through meadows of Alpine flowers
- exploring the Engadine Valley of southeast Switzerland, an off-the-beaten track, Romansh-speaking area where the stone buildings are covered in engravings, paintings and sayings
- our one big splurge of the trip (Switzerland is ridiculously expensive; we had to live off of supermarket food): a Swiss dessert buffet followed by a horse carriage ride
- spotting ibex and chamois at Oeschinensee and marmots in the Swiss National Park
- miming “The Hills Are Alive” in fields near our accommodation in Austria (very close to where scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed)
- the sun coming out for our afternoon in Salzburg
- daily coffee and cake in Austrian coffeehouses
- riding the underground and trams of Vienna’s public transport network
- finding famous musicians’ graves in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof cemetery
- discovering tasty vegan food at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Vienna that makes its own noodles
- going to Slovakia for the afternoon on a whim (its capital, Bratislava, is only 1 hour from Vienna by train – why not?!)
We went to such a variety of places and had so many different experiences. Weather and language were hugely variable, too: it rained nine days in a row; some mornings in Switzerland I wore my winter coat and hat; in Bratislava it was 95 °F. Even in the ostensibly German-speaking countries of the trip, we found that greetings and farewells changed everywhere we went (doubly true in the Romansh-speaking Engadine). Most of the time we had no idea what shopkeepers were saying to us. Just smile and nod. It was more difficult at the farm where we stayed in Austria. Thanks to Google Translate, we had no idea that the owner spoke no English; her e-mails were all in unusual but serviceable English. We speak virtually no German, so fellow farm guests, including a Dutch couple, had to translate between us. (The rest of Europe puts us to shame with their knowledge of languages!)
Train travel was, for the most part, easy and stress-free. Especially enjoyable were the small lines through the Engadine, which include the highest regular-service station in Europe (Ospizia Bernina, where we found fresh snowfall). The little town where we stayed in an Airbnb cabin, Lavin, was a request stop on the line, meaning you always had to press a button to get the train to stop and then walk across the tracks (!) to board. Contrary to expectations, we found that nearly all of our European trains were running late. However, they were noticeably more comfortable than British trains, especially the German ones. Thanks to train rides of an hour or more on most days, I ended up getting a ton of reading done.
On the journey out I finished The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. This is the first “classic” Tyler I’ve read, after her three most recent novels, and although I kept being plagued by odd feelings of ‘reverse déjà vu’, I really enjoyed it. This story of staid, reluctant traveler Macon Leary and how his life is turned upside down by a flighty dog trainer is all about the patterns of behavior we get stuck in. Tyler suggests that occasionally journeying into someone else’s unpredictable life might change ours for the good.
Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome was just what I expected: a very silly book about the travails of international travel. It’s much more about the luckless journey and the endurance of national stereotypes than it is about the Passion Play the travelers see once they get to Germany. It was amusing to see the ways in which some things have hardly changed in 125 years.
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, a novella set in the Austrian Alps, is the story of Andreas Egger – at various times a farmer, a prisoner of war, and a tourist guide. Various things happen to him, most of them bad. I have trouble pinpointing why Stoner is a masterpiece whereas this is just kind of boring. There’s a great avalanche scene, though.
The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood releases on August 9th. A new book club helps Ava cope with her divorce, her daughter Maggie’s rebelliousness, and tragic events from her past. Each month one club member picks the book that has mattered most to them in life. I thought the choices were all pretty clichéd and Ava was unrealistically passive. Although what happens to her in Paris is rather melodramatic, I most enjoyed Maggie’s sections.
Me and Kaminski was my second novel from Daniel Kehlmann. Know-nothing art critic Sebastian Zöllner interviews reclusive artist Manuel Kaminski and then accompanies the older man on a road trip to find his lost sweetheart. Zöllner is an amusingly odious narrator, but I found the plot a bit thin. This is a rare case where I would argue the book needs to be 100 pages longer.
About midway through the trip I finished another I’d started earlier in the month, This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick. The average American moves 11.7 times in their life. I’m long past that already. The book collects an interesting set of ideas about how to feel at home wherever you are: things like learning the place on foot, shopping and eating locally, and getting to know your neighbors. I am bad about integrating into a new community every time we move, so I picked up some good tips. Warnick uses examples from all over (though mostly U.S. locations), but also makes it specific to her home of Blacksburg, Virginia.
“A cabinet of fantasies, a source of knowledge, a collection of lore from past and present, a place to dream… A bookshop can be so many things.” In A Very Special Year by Thomas Montasser, Valerie takes over Ringelnatz & Co. bookshop when the owner, her Aunt Charlotte, disappears. She has the entrepreneurial skills to run a business and gradually develops a love of books, too. The title book is a magical tome with blank pages that reveal the reader’s destination when the time is right. Twee but enjoyable; a quick read.
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens is a taut thriller set during one woman’s experience of childbirth in New York City in 2004. Flashbacks to how the patient and her Caribbean nurse got where they are now add emotional depth. Another very quick read.
Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig is a psychologically astute novella in which a 12-year-old tries to interpret what’s happening between his mother and a fellow hotel guest, a baron he looks up to. For this naïve boy, many things come as a shock, including the threat of sex and the possibility of deception. This reminded me most of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. (On a hill above Salzburg we discovered a strange disembodied bust of Stefan Zweig, along with a plaque and a road sign.)
Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood (releases August 9th) was great fun. Thinking of the six-figure education debt weighing on her shoulders, she surveys various cases of people who faked their own death or simply tried to disappear. Death fraud/“pseudocide” is not as easy to get away with as you might think. Fake drownings are especially suspect. I found most ironic the case of a man who lived successfully for 20 years under an assumed name but was caught when police stopped him for having a license plate light out. I particularly liked the chapter in which Greenwood travels to the Philippines, a great place to fake your death, and comes back with a copy of her own death certificate.
Miss Jane by Brad Watson (releases July 12th) is a historical novel loosely based on the story of the author’s great-aunt. Born in Mississippi in 1915, she had malformed genitals, which led to lifelong incontinence. Jane is a wonderfully plucky protagonist, and her friendship with her doctor, Ed Thompson, is particularly touching. “You would not think someone so afflicted would or could be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries.” This reminded me most of What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins, an excellent novel about living a full life and finding romance in spite of disability.
I also left two novels unfinished (that’ll be for another post) and made progress in two other nonfiction titles. All in all, a great set of reading!
I’m supposed to be making my way through just the books we already own for the rest of the summer, but when I got back of course I couldn’t resist volunteering for a few new books available through Nudge and The Bookbag. Apart from a few blog reviews I’m bound to, my summer plan will be to give the occasional quick roundup of what I’ve read of late.
What have you been reading recently?
Review: The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck
We often resent books we’re forced to read in school, but The Scarlet Letter wasn’t like that for me. Even though it was assigned reading for high school, I could instantly sense how important it was in the history of American literature. The tragic story of Hester Prynne and her judgmental community is one that stays with me half a lifetime later. I reread it in college for a Hawthorne & Melville course, for which I also read The Blithedale Romance, The House of the Seven Gables, and several of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best short stories.
My more-than-average interest in Hawthorne, combined with my love of historical fiction about “famous wives” (see my BookTrib articles on the subject, including one specifically about the Hemingway and Fitzgerald wives) meant that I was eager to read Erika Robuck’s latest. She’s made a name for herself with novels about some of history’s famous women, including Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay and one of the Hemingway wives, but somehow I’ve never read anything by her until now.
“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.”
(one of Robuck’s epigraphs, from Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun)
The novel is from the first-person perspective of Sophia Peabody, later the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Peabodys were an artistic, intellectual family who encouraged Sophia to cultivate her talent as a painter and sculptor, but illness often held her back: she suffered from debilitating headaches and turned to morphine and mesmerism for relief. The story begins and ends in the spring of 1864, when Nathaniel, suffering from a stomach ailment, sets off on a final journey without Sophia. In between these bookends, the novel spans the 1830s through the 1860s, taking in Sophia’s sojourn in Cuba as a young woman, her and Nathaniel’s courtship, and the challenges of parenthood and making a living from art.
My favorite portions of the novel were set in Concord, Massachusetts, that haven for writers and Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville all play minor roles. It’s especially amusing to see Melville, Hawthorne’s ardent admirer, overstep the boundaries of polite society and become an irksome stalker. What I did not realize from previous biographical reading about the Hawthornes is that they nearly always struggled for money. They rented Emerson’s uncle’s house in Concord but were evicted when they fumbled to make payments. Nathaniel’s jobs in the Custom House and as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool (appointed by President Franklin Pierce, who was a personal friend and whose biography he wrote) were undertaken out of financial desperation rather than interest.
The Hawthornes’ time in Europe was another highlight of the novel for me. They encounter the Brownings and finally get a chance to see all the Italian art that has inspired Sophia over the years. Their oldest daughter, Una, also falls ill with malaria, which provides some great dramatic scenes in later chapters. I warmed to this late vision of Sophia as a devoted mother, whereas I struggled to accept her as a vibrant young woman and a randy wife. Her constant complaints about headaches are annoying, and I wasn’t convinced that the Cuba chapters were relevant to the novel as a whole; Robuck tries to link Sophia’s observations of slavery there with the abolitionist sentiments of the 1860s, but Sophia’s devotion to the antislavery cause was only ever half-hearted, so I didn’t believe the experience in Cuba could have affected her that deeply. Her unconsummated lust for Fernando is also, I suppose, meant to prefigure her abiding passion for Nathaniel – which is described in frequent, cringe-worthy sex scenes and flowery lines like “In his gaze, I feel our souls rise up to meet each other.”
Ultimately, my disconnection from Sophia as narrator meant that I would prefer to read about the Hawthornes in biographies, of which there are plenty. Two novels I would recommend that incorporate many of the same historical figures are Miss Fuller by April Bernard and What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins (about the deaf-blind Laura Bridgman – who has a tiny cameo here). Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo uses a Cuba setting to better effect in telling the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s last holiday. I preferred all three of these to The House of Hawthorne. However, I’m certainly up for trying more of Robuck’s fiction.
I received early access to this book through the Penguin First to Read program.