Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Special Friendship: He Treated Me Not as a Freak, But as a Person Dealing with Great Difficulties


Some­times it can seem as though the more we think we know a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, the less we actu­al­ly do. Helen Keller? We’ve all seen (or think we’ve seen) some ver­sion of The Mir­a­cle Work­er, right?—even if we haven’t actu­al­ly read Keller’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy. And Mark Twain? He can seem like an old fam­i­ly friend. But I find peo­ple are often sur­prised to learn that Keller was a rad­i­cal social­ist fire­brand, in sym­pa­thy with work­ers’ move­ments world­wide. In a short arti­cle in praise of Lenin, for exam­ple, Keller once wrote, “I cry out against peo­ple who uphold the empire of gold…. I am per­fect­ly sure that love will bring every­thing right in the end, but I can­not help sym­pa­thiz­ing with the oppressed who feel dri­ven to use force to gain the rights that belong to them.”

Twain took a more pes­simistic, iron­ic approach, yet he thor­ough­ly opposed reli­gious dog­ma, slav­ery, and impe­ri­al­ism. “I am always on the side of the rev­o­lu­tion­ists,” he wrote, “because there nev­er was a rev­o­lu­tion unless there were some oppres­sive and intol­er­a­ble con­di­tions against which to rev­o­lute.” While a great many peo­ple grow more con­ser­v­a­tive with age, Twain and Keller both grew more rad­i­cal, which in part accounts for anoth­er lit­tle-known fact about these two nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can celebri­ties: they formed a very close and last­ing friend­ship that, at least in Keller’s case, may have been one of the most impor­tant rela­tion­ships in either figure’s life.


Twain’s impor­tance to Keller, and hers to him, begins in 1895, when the two met at a lunch held for Keller in New York. Accord­ing to the Mark Twain Library’s exten­sive doc­u­men­tary exhib­it, Keller “seemed to feel more at ease with Twain than with any of the oth­er guests.” She would lat­er write, “He treat­ed me not as a freak, but as a hand­i­capped woman seek­ing a way to cir­cum­vent extra­or­di­nary dif­fi­cul­ties.” Twain was tak­en as well, sur­prised by “her quick­ness and intel­li­gence.” After the meet­ing, he wrote to his bene­fac­tor Hen­ry H. Rogers, ask­ing Rogers to fund Keller’s edu­ca­tion. Rogers, the Mark Twain Library tells us, “per­son­al­ly took charge of Helen Keller’s for­tunes, and out of his own means made it pos­si­ble for her to con­tin­ue her edu­ca­tion and to achieve for her­self the endur­ing fame which Mark Twain had fore­seen.”

Twain wrote to his wealthy friend, “It won’t do for Amer­i­ca to allow this mar­velous child to retire from her stud­ies because of pover­ty. If she can go on with them she will make a fame that will endure in his­to­ry for cen­turies.” There­after, the two would main­tain a “spe­cial friend­ship,” sus­tained not only by their polit­i­cal sen­ti­ments, but also by a love of ani­mals, trav­el, and oth­er per­son­al sim­i­lar­i­ties. Both writ­ers came to live in Fair­field Coun­ty, Con­necti­cut at the end of their lives, and she vis­it­ed him at his Red­ding home, Storm­field, in 1909, the year before his death (see them there at the top of the post, and more pho­tos here). Twain was espe­cial­ly impressed by Keller’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, writ­ing to her, “I am charmed with your book—enchanted.” (See his endorse­ment in a 1903 adver­tise­ment, below.)


Twain also came to Keller’s defense, ten years lat­er, after read­ing in her book about a pla­gia­rism scan­dal that occurred in 1892 when, at only twelve years old, she was accused of lift­ing her short sto­ry “The Frost King” from Mar­garet Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” Though a tri­bunal acquit­ted Keller of the charges, the inci­dent still piqued Twain, who called it “unspeak­ably fun­ny and owlish­ly idi­ot­ic and grotesque” in a 1903 let­ter in which he also declared: “The ker­nel, the soul—let us go fur­ther and say the sub­stance, the bulk, the actu­al and valu­able mate­r­i­al of all human utterance—is pla­gia­rism.” What dif­fers from work to work, he con­tends is “the phras­ing of a sto­ry”; Keller’s accusers, he writes pro­tec­tive­ly, were “solemn don­keys break­ing a lit­tle child’s heart.” (The exquis­ite­ly-word­ed let­ter is well worth read­ing in full at Let­ters of Note).


We also have Twain—not play­wright William Gib­son—to thank for the “mir­a­cle work­er” title giv­en to Keller’s teacher, Anne Sul­li­van. (See Keller, Sul­li­van, Twain, and Sullivan’s hus­band John Macy above at Twain’s home). As a trib­ute to Sul­li­van for her tire­less work with Keller, he pre­sent­ed her with a post­card that read, “To Mrs. John Sul­li­van Macy with warm regard & with lim­it­less admi­ra­tion of the won­ders she has per­formed as a ‘mir­a­cle-work­er.’” In his 1903 let­ter to Keller, he called Sul­li­van “your oth­er half… for it took the pair of you to make com­plete and per­fect whole.”

Twain praised Sul­li­van effu­sive­ly for “her bril­lian­cy, pen­e­tra­tion, orig­i­nal­i­ty, wis­dom, char­ac­ter, and the fine lit­er­ary com­pe­ten­cies of her pen.” But he reserved his high­est praise for Keller her­self. “You are a won­der­ful crea­ture,” he wrote, “The most won­der­ful in the world.” Keller’s praise of her friend Twain was no less lofty. “I have been in Eden three days and I saw a King,” she wrote in his guest­book dur­ing her vis­it to Storm­field, “I knew he was a King the minute I touched him though I had nev­er touched a King before.” The last words in Twain’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, the first vol­ume anyway—which he only allowed to be pub­lished in 2010—are Keller’s; “You once told me you were a pes­simist, Mr. Clemons,” he quotes her as say­ing, “but great men are usu­al­ly mis­tak­en about them­selves. You are an opti­mist.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Only Footage of Mark Twain: The Orig­i­nal & Dig­i­tal­ly Restored Films Shot by Thomas Edi­son

Mark Twain Writes a Rap­tur­ous Let­ter to Walt Whit­man on the Poet’s 70th Birth­day (1889)

Helen Keller Speaks About Her Great­est Regret — Nev­er Mas­ter­ing Speech

Helen Keller & Annie Sul­li­van Appear Togeth­er in Mov­ing 1930 News­reel

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • sambasivarao says:

    this piece about Mark Twain and Helen Keller is a trea­sure to be guard­ed with your life

  • Jacqueline says:

    I love His­to­ry.
    Thank you.
    They all fas­ci­nate me.

  • schm0e says:

    This isn’t “his­to­ry”. It’s his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism.

  • Gavin Blair says:

    Wow I’m sur­prised about that!

  • ruthi says:

    I love his­to­ry. This is AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!:)

  • Bruce Keller says:

    Scm0e, you crazy.

  • Hellen keller says:

    I love all of you guys

  • Mak says:

    This was enchant­i­ng. First get­ting to know that both of these two intel­li­gent and inde­pen­dent per­son­ages were able to be known unto most of all mankind, and sec­ond, know­ing that both of these to leg­endary peo­ple came togeth­er and become known as amaz­ing and tremen­dous­ly good friends. I think this tells our his­to­ry to unite and become one before it’s too late.

  • Gary says:

    This sub­lime arti­cle reminds me of how much our soci­ety has lost in much less than the blink of an eye. The dullards of the mod­ern arts can­not fath­om the gen­uine­ness, courage and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty that infused their lit­er­ary works. Every­thing is spec­ta­cle with no sub­stance. Please do not get me start­ed on our polit­i­cal cul­ture which is arguably worse. What they left us can return us to our human­i­ty and decen­cy. Pray it is not too late.

  • Mick Berry says:

    This is all too ter­rif­ic! Yes, Helen Keller and Twain serve as guid­ing lights of bril­liance past that can once again illu­mi­nate the world. Let us go forth with the inspi­ra­tion of these two. Yes!!!!!!

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