Today, a parable of love, language, and
self-awareness. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
In 1913 Helen Keller visited
her friend Andrew Carnegie. He asked if it was true
she was a socialist. She allowed she was. He told
her he'd put her over his knee and spank her if she
didn't come to her senses. Then he gave some
What did she charge for tickets to her lectures on
socialism? A dollar-fifty, she answered. Cut that
to fifty cents, Carnegie said. You'll make a lot
Of course, Keller was blind and deaf. She was
sealed off from written or spoken language at the
age of 1½ by a devastating illness. Now
linguist Justin Leiber ponders her plight.
Just before her 7th birthday, Anne Sullivan, the
so-called Miracle Worker, arrived. Only three
months later, Keller could write a simple note to a
friend. Talking was harder. It took three years to
catch on to speech. Then she mastered it just as
quickly. A miracle really did occur.
Leiber points out that, without language, Keller
was also without consciousness as we understand it.
She had no way to look at herself. She couldn't
process her own feelings. Later on, she could
recall no emotion from those years of isolation.
The psychological literature is full of
language-deprived children. The Wild Child of
Aveyron is only the most famous of many. They've
all done badly -- all but Keller.
Sullivan had brought her to life. By the age of
ten, before she could speak, Keller was
corresponding with the likes of John Greenleaf
Whittier and Oliver Wendell Holmes. When she was
22, The Ladies Home Journal issued her
autobiography in serial form.
She also fell into the trap of becoming America's
darling. For all her genius she was a side-show
attraction. In 1929 she wrote another
autobiography. It's penultimate chapter was,
"Thoughts That Will Not Let Me Sleep,"
In it, she recounted her social agenda: Poverty,
ecology, pacifism, socialism. Some of that could've
landed her in jail during WW-I. She'd argued
passionately and well, but people didn't look
beyond the novelty to the full force of her ideas.
Then, in the last chapter, she remembers Anne
Sullivan, who'd given her the means to survive. The
book is dedicated "to Anne Sullivan whose love is
the story of my life."
Keller transmuted that love into social action. She
was most passionate about education -- for the
deaf, the blind, the poor.
In the end we really did hear what Keller had to
say. She made us all know how small her handicap
could be made. But only after Sullivan, herself
virtually blind, had given her the eyes of
self-awareness with which to see.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Justin Leiber, UH Philosophy Department, gave a
moving lecture at the UH Critical Studies Colloquium
on March 19, 1992, "Nature's Experiment, Society's
Closure: The Case of Helen Keller." Leiber is a
philosopher and writer and an expert in linguistics.
Keller always addressed Sullivan with Oriental
formality, as "Teacher." As she recalls her first
years with Sullivan, she uses three successive
terms to describe herself: Before she acquired
language, she refers to herself as "Phantom." For
the first two years after she learned finger
spelling, she refers to herself in the third person
as "Helen." Only when she reached the age of nine
did she come into a full sense of self. Only then
does the older Keller endow the child with the
first person pronoun, "I."
Keller, H., Midstream: My Later Life.
New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1930.
Keller, H., The Story of My Life, New
York: Bantam Books, 1990. (reprint of the original
which appeared in serial form in the 1902
Ladies Home Journal.)
Brooks, V.W., Helen Keller: Sketch for a
Portrait, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co.,
You will find several Helen Keller websites. See,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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