Helen Keller Was a “Firebrand” Socialist (or How History Whitewashed Her Political Life)

We expect that his­to­ries of famous fig­ures will prune their lives, sand down rough edges, rewrite and revise awk­ward and incon­ve­nient facts. What we may not expect – at least in the U.S. – is that decades of a famous person’s life will be redact­ed from the record. This is essen­tial­ly what hap­pened, how­ev­er, to the biog­ra­phy of Helen Keller even before her death in 1968. Per­haps the main offend­er remains play­wright William Gibson’s 1957 The Mir­a­cle Work­er, adapt­ed from the 1903 auto­bi­og­ra­phy she wrote at 23. Osten­si­bly about Keller, the sto­ry cen­ters instead, begin­ning with its title, on her teacher, Anne Sul­li­van.

The play (and 1962 film with Anne Ban­croft and Pat­ty Duke repris­ing their stage parts), por­trays Keller as a child, a role she was per­pet­u­al­ly assigned by her crit­ics through­out her adult life. She authored and pub­lished 14 books and dozens of essays dur­ing her 87 years, deliv­ered hun­dreds of speech­es, and main­tained a friend­ship and cor­re­spon­dence with many impor­tant fig­ures of the day. But in addi­tion to the usu­al sex­ism, she had to con­tend with those who thought her dis­abil­i­ty ren­dered her unfit to express opin­ions on mat­ters such as pol­i­tics. They asked that she “con­fine my activ­i­ties to social ser­vice and the blind,” she wrote in a sar­don­ic reply.

Keller’s polit­i­cal vision was writ­ten off as “a Utopi­an dream, and one who seri­ous­ly con­tem­plates its real­iza­tion indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.” What did she see in her mind that made crit­ics rush to belit­tle her? An end to war and Jim Crow; wom­en’s suf­frage, labor rights; an end to pover­ty and the pre­ventable child­hood ill­ness­es it engen­dered.… In a word, Helen Keller was a social­ist — and a pub­licly com­mit­ted one. “That we know so lit­tle of her avowed social­ism is aston­ish­ing, because she was an extro­vert­ed fire­brand who deliv­ered hun­dreds of rad­i­cal speech­es dur­ing” — writes Eileen Jones at Jacobin, quot­ing the 2020 doc­u­men­tary Her Social­ist Smile — “ ‘a fifty-year run on the lec­ture cir­cuit.’ ”

Keller pub­lished fre­quent arti­cles on the new­ly formed Sovi­et Union, Eugene Debs and the IWW (includ­ing “Why I Became an IWW” in 1916), and “Why Men Need Woman Suf­frage” (in 1913). “Turn­ing the yel­low­ing pages of rad­i­cal news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines from 1910 to the ear­ly 1920’s,” writes his­to­ri­an Philip Fon­er in an intro­duc­tion to her col­lect­ed social­ist writ­ings, “one fre­quent­ly finds the name Helen Keller beneath speech­es, arti­cles, and let­ters deal­ing with major social ques­tions of the era. The vision which runs through most of these writ­ings is the vision of social­ism.”

Mark Twain may have been the first to call Anne Sul­li­van a “mir­a­cle work­er” and Keller “a mir­a­cle,” but he treat­ed Keller “not as a freak,” she wrote, but as an equal and shared many of her views. He helped fund her edu­ca­tion at Rad­cliffe Col­lege (then a part of Har­vard ) and encour­aged her to speak and pub­lish. Keller joined the social­ist par­ty at age 29, in 1909, and in 1912, she pub­lished an arti­cle in The New York Call titled “How I Became a Social­ist.” The answer, she writes: “by read­ing.” As would be the case through­out her life, Keller felt the need to take a defen­sive pos­ture: crit­ics had accused John and Anne Macy (for­mer­ly Sul­li­van) of cor­rupt­ing her, to which she replied that she nei­ther shared Mr. Macy’s pro­pa­gan­dis­tic vari­ety of Marx­ism nor did Mrs. Macy share either of their views.

Keller’s polit­i­cal writ­ing is now wide­ly avail­able thanks to the inter­net, and can no longer be sup­pressed by edu­ca­tors who want to use her child­hood and dis­abil­i­ty but ignore most of her adult life. Even stu­dents watch­ing the PBS Amer­i­can Mas­ters doc­u­men­tary Becom­ing Helen Keller (see clip at the top) will learn that, gasp, yes, she was a social­ist. Dig deep­er, and they’ll find her views were unique and sig­nif­i­cant to the U.S. left: Kei­th Rosen­thal writes at Inter­na­tion­al Social­ist Review:

She was a seri­ous polit­i­cal thinker who made impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions in the fields of social­ist the­o­ry and prac­tice.… [S]he was a pio­neer in point­ing the way toward a Marx­ist under­stand­ing of dis­abil­i­ty oppres­sion and liberation—this real­i­ty has been over­looked and cen­sored. The mytho­log­i­cal Helen Keller that we are famil­iar with 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.

Get to know the real Helen Keller — or a seri­ous­ly over­looked (at least) side of her life — in her polit­i­cal writ­ings herehere, and here and watch a video intro­duc­tion to her pol­i­tics by His­tor­i­cal­ly Fan­tas­tic fur­ther up.

via Jacobin

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

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

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)

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

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  • Gregory Pancratz says:

    Radi­o­lab recent­ly did an episode on a per­son­’s inves­ti­ga­tion into Keller —

    Fan­ta­sy writer Elsa Sjun­neson has been haunt­ed by Helen Keller for near­ly her entire life. Like Helen, Elsa is Deaf­blind, and grow­ing up she was con­stant­ly com­pared to her. But for a mil­lion dif­fer­ent rea­sons she hat­ed that, because she felt dif­fer­ent from her in a mil­lion dif­fer­ent ways. Then, a year ago, an online con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry claim­ing Helen was a fraud explod­ed on Tik­Tok, and sud­den­ly Elsa found her­self draw­ing her sword and jump­ing to Helen’s defense, set­ting off a chain of events that would bring her clos­er to the dis­abil­i­ty icon than she ever dreamt. For over a year, Elsa, Lulu and the Radi­o­lab team dug through pri­ma­ry sources, talked to experts, even vis­it­ed Helen’s birth­place Ivy Green, and dis­cov­ered the real sto­ry of Helen Keller is far more com­pli­cat­ed, mys­te­ri­ous and con­found­ing than the sim­ple myth of a young Deaf­blind girl res­cued by her teacher Annie Sul­li­van. It’s a sto­ry of ghosts, sur­pris­es, a few tears, a bit of romance, some hard con­ver­sa­tions, and a pos­si­bly psy­chic dog.


  • Mollie Holtmann says:

    “That we know so lit­tle of her avowed social­ism is aston­ish­ing, because she was an extro­vert­ed fire­brand who deliv­ered hun­dreds of rad­i­cal speech­es dur­ing” — writes Eileen Jones at Jacobin, quot­ing the 2020 doc­u­men­tary Her Social­ist Smile — “‘a fifty-year run on the lec­ture cir­cuit.’”

    This is a very awk­ward break after “dur­ing.” Put the author cred­it at the end of the quo­ta­tion. There’s no rea­son to inter­ject it there.

    Won­der­ful arti­cle! Thank you.

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