A New Massive Helen Keller Archive Gets Launched: Take a Digital Look at Her Photos, Letters, Speeches, Political Writings & More

Take an innocu­ous state­ment like, “we should teach chil­dren about the life of Helen Keller.” What rea­son­able, com­pas­sion­ate per­son would dis­agree? Hers is a sto­ry of tri­umph over incred­i­ble adver­si­ty, of per­se­ver­ance and friend­ship and love. Now, take a state­ment like, “we should teach chil­dren the polit­i­cal writ­ing of Helen Keller,” and you might see brawls in town halls and school board meet­ings. This is because Helen Keller was a com­mit­ted social­ist and seri­ous polit­i­cal thinker, who wrote exten­sive­ly to advo­cate for eco­nom­ic coop­er­a­tion over com­pe­ti­tion and to sup­port the caus­es of work­ing peo­ple. She was an activist for peace and jus­tice who opposed war, impe­ri­al­ism, racism, and pover­ty, con­di­tions that huge num­bers of peo­ple seem devot­ed to maintaining—both in her life­time and today.

Keller’s mov­ing, per­sua­sive writ­ing is elo­quent and uncom­pro­mis­ing and should be taught along­side that of oth­er great Amer­i­can rhetori­cians. Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, the pas­sage below from a let­ter she wrote in 1916 to Oswald Vil­lard, then Vice-Pres­i­dent of the NAACP:

Ashamed in my very soul I behold in my own beloved south-land the tears of those who are oppressed, those who must bring up their sons and daugh­ters in bondage to be ser­vants, because oth­ers have their fields and vine­yards, and on the side of the oppres­sor is pow­er. I feel with those suf­fer­ing, toil­ing mil­lions, I am thwart­ed with them. Every attempt to keep them down and crush their spir­it is a betray­al of my faith that good is stronger than evil, and light stronger than dark­ness…. My spir­it groans with all the deaf and blind of the world, I feel their chains chaf­ing my limbs. I am dis­en­fran­chised with every wage-slave. I am over­thrown, hurt, oppressed, beat­en to the earth by the strong, ruth­less ones who have tak­en away their inher­i­tance. The wrongs of the poor endure ring fierce­ly in my soul, and I shall nev­er rest until they are lift­ed into the light, and giv­en their fair share in the bless­ings of life that God meant for us all alike.

It is dif­fi­cult to choose any one pas­sage from the let­ter because the whole is writ­ten with such expres­sive feel­ing. This is but one doc­u­ment among many hun­dreds in the new Helen Keller archive at the Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion for the Blind (AFB), which has dig­i­tized let­ters, essays, speech­es, pho­tographs, and much more from Keller’s long, tire­less career as a writer and pub­lic speak­er. Fund­ed by the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, the archive includes over 250,000 dig­i­tal images of her work from the late 19th cen­tu­ry to well into the 20th. There are many films of Keller, pho­tos like that of her and her dog Sieglinde at the top, a col­lec­tion of her cor­re­spon­dence with Mark Twain, and much more.

In addi­tion to Keller’s own pub­lished and unpub­lished work, the archive con­tains many let­ters to and about her, press clip­pings, infor­ma­tive AFB blog posts, and resources for stu­dents and teach­ers. The site aims to be “ful­ly acces­si­ble to audi­ences who are blind, deaf, hard-of-hear­ing, low vision, or deaf­blind.” On the whole, this project “presents an oppor­tu­ni­ty to encounter this renowned his­tor­i­cal fig­ure in a new, dynam­ic, and excit­ing way,” as AFB writes in a press release. “For exam­ple, despite her fame, rel­a­tive­ly few peo­ple know that Helen Keller wrote 14 books as well as hun­dreds of essays and arti­cles on a broad array of sub­jects rang­ing from ani­mals and atom­ic ener­gy to Mahat­ma Gand­hi.”

And, of course, she was a life­long advo­cate for the blind and deaf, writ­ing and speak­ing out on dis­abil­i­ty rights issues for decades. Indeed, it’s dif­fi­cult to find a sub­ject in which she did not take an inter­est. The archive’s sub­ject index shows her writ­ing about games, sports, read­ing, shop­ping, swim­ming, trav­el, archi­tec­ture and the arts, edu­ca­tion, law, gov­ern­ment, world reli­gions, roy­al­ty, women’s suf­frage, and more. There were many in her time who dis­missed Keller’s unpop­u­lar views, call­ing her naïve and claim­ing that she had been duped by nefar­i­ous actors. The charge is insult­ing and false. Her body of work shows her to have been an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly well-read, wise, cos­mopoli­tan, sen­si­tive, self-aware, and hon­est crit­i­cal thinker.

Two years after the NAACP let­ter, Keller wrote an essay called “Com­pe­ti­tion,” in which she made the case for “a bet­ter social order” against a cen­tral con­ceit of cap­i­tal­ism: that “life would not be worth while with­out the keen edge of com­pe­ti­tion,” and that with­out it “men would lose ambi­tion, and the race would sink into dull same­ness.” Keller advances her coun­ter­ar­gu­ment with vig­or­ous and inci­sive rea­son­ing.

This whole argu­ment is a fal­la­cy. What­ev­er is worth while in our civ­i­liza­tion has sur­vived in spite of com­pe­ti­tion. Under the com­pet­i­tive sys­tem the work of the world is bad­ly done. The result is waste and ruin [….] Prof­it is the aim, and the pub­lic good is a sec­ondary con­sid­er­a­tion. Com­pe­ti­tion sins against its own pet god effi­cien­cy. In spite of all the strug­gle, toil and fierce effort the result is a depress­ing state of des­ti­tu­tion for the major­i­ty of mankind. Com­pe­ti­tion diverts man’s ener­gies into use­less chan­nels and degrades his char­ac­ter. It is immoral as well as inef­fi­cient, since its com­mand­ment is “Thou shalt com­pete against thy neigh­bor.” Such a rule does not fos­ter Truth­ful­ness, hon­esty, con­sid­er­a­tion for oth­ers. [….] Com­peti­tors are indif­fer­ent to each oth­er’s wel­fare. Indeed, they are glad of each oth­er’s fail­ure because they find their advan­tage in it. Com­pas­sion is dead­ened in them by the neces­si­ty they are under of nul­li­fy­ing the efforts of their fel­low-com­peti­tors.

Keller refused to become cyn­i­cal in the face of seem­ing­ly inde­fati­ga­ble greed, cru­el­ty, and hypocrisy. Though not a mem­ber of a main­stream church (she belonged to the obscure Chris­t­ian sect of Swe­den­bor­gian­ism), she exhort­ed Amer­i­can Chris­tians to live up to their professions—to fol­low the exam­ple of their founder and the com­mand­ments of their sacred text. In an essay writ­ten after World War I, she argued mov­ing­ly for dis­ar­ma­ment and “the vital issue of world peace.” While mak­ing a num­ber of log­i­cal argu­ments, Keller prin­ci­pal­ly appeals to the com­mon ethos of the nation’s dom­i­nant faith.

This is pre­cise­ly where we have failed, call­ing our­selves Chris­tians we have fun­da­men­tal­ly bro­ken, and taught oth­ers to break most patri­ot­i­cal­ly, the com­mand­ment of the Lord, “Thou shalt not kill” [….] Let us then try out Chris­tian­i­ty upon earth—not lip-ser­vice, but the teach­ing of Him who came upon earth that “all men might have life, and have it more abun­dant­ly.” War strikes at the very heart of this teach­ing.

We can hear Helen Keller’s voice speak­ing direct­ly to us from the past, diag­nos­ing the ills of her age that look so much like those of our own. “The mytho­log­i­cal Helen Keller,” writes Kei­th Rosen­thal, “has apt­ly been described as a sort of ‘plas­ter saint;’ a hol­low, emp­ty ves­sel who is lit­tle more than an apo­lit­i­cal sym­bol for per­se­ver­ance and per­son­al tri­umph.” Though she embod­ied those qual­i­ties, she also ded­i­cat­ed her entire life to care­ful obser­va­tion of the world around her, to writ­ing and speak­ing out on issues that mat­tered, and to car­ing deeply about the wel­fare of oth­ers. Get to know the real Helen Keller, in all her com­plex­i­ty, fierce intel­li­gence, and fero­cious com­pas­sion, at the Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion for the Blind’s exhaus­tive dig­i­tal archive of her life and work.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Helen Keller Writes a Let­ter to Nazi Stu­dents Before They Burn Her Book: “His­to­ry Has Taught You Noth­ing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas” (1933)

Watch Helen Keller & Teacher Annie Sul­li­van Demon­strate How Helen Learned to Speak (1930)

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

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