A Conquest Of Solitude

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In one respect Bell stood alone among Helen Keller’s admirers and celebrators. He insisted that what Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller between them had done was not a miracle but a brilliantly successful experiment. “It is … a question of instruction we have to consider,” he wrote, “and not a case of supernatural acquirement.” He interviewed Helen himself to measure her progress and pressed Annie Sullivan for explanations of it, especially of Helen’s command of idiomatic English. From what Annie reported, he found the key in the fact that she constantly spelled natural, idiomatic English into Helen’s hand without stopping to explain unfamiliar words and constructions and that she encouraged Helen to read book after book in Braille or raised type with a similar reliance on context to explain new vocabulary. This, as Bell pointed out, was the equivalent of the way a hearing child learned English. And it supported his long-standing emphasis on the use of the English language, rather than sign language, with deaf children. Indeed, he saw the importance of books in the early stages of educating the deaf as “the chief lesson, I think, to be learned from the case of Helen Keller.”

At the 1891 summer meeting of the American Association for the Promotion of the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, an organization started the year before by Bell and some associates, Bell gave each member a copy of a handsomely bound “Helen Keller Souvenir.” This book contained accounts of Helen’s education by Annie Sullivan and others, among them Sarah Fuller, who had recently given Helen her first lessons in speech. At the association’s expense Helen and Miss Sullivan came in person to the 1893 meeting in Chicago, and Helen “saw” the World’s Columbian Exposition through the hands of Bell and her teacher; the tour included an exhibit of Bell’s telephone. Teachers of the deaf met her and, it was reported, “saw and heard enough to remove all their doubts.” A year later, at the AAPTSD Chautauqua meeting, Annie Sullivan delivered—or rather, out of last-minute shyness, asked Bell to deliver for her —an eloquent yet objective account of her work and relations with Helen. And in 1896 the sixteen-year-old Helen herself proudly addressed the AAPTSD. “If you knew all the joy I feel in being able to speak to you today,” she said, “I think you would have some idea of the value of speech to the deaf. … One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.”

 

Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan were, however, much more to Bell than phenomena or specimens. They were his friends, and he was theirs. “It was an immense advantage for one of my temper, impatience, and antagonisms to know Dr. Bell intimately over a long period of time,” said Annie in retrospect. “Gifted with a voice that itself suggested genius, he spoke the English language with a purity and charm which have never been surpassed by anyone I have heard speak. I listened to every word fascinated… I never felt at ease with anyone until I met him.… Dr. Bell had a happy way of making people feel pleased with themselves. He had a remarkable faculty of bringing out the best that was in them. After a conversation with him I felt released, important, communicative. All the pent-up resentment within me went out… I learned more from him than from anyone else. He imparted knowledge with a beautiful courtesy that made one proud to sit at his feet and learn. He answered every question in the cool, clear light of reason … [with] no trace of animus against individuals, nations, or classes. If he wished to criticize and he often did, he began by pointing out something good I had done in another direction.” When asked long after Bell’s death what, aside from her feeling for Helen, had enabled her to keep at so exacting a task for so many years, she replied, “I think it must have been Dr. Bell—his faith in me.”

Bell’s own daughters felt a touch of jealousy at his feeling for Helen Keller. For her part, one of her early letters, written a few months after her teacher first came to her, was to “Dear Mr. Bell,” and it said, among other things, “I do love you.” And more than thirty years later, when he was seventy-one, she wrote him, “Even before my teacher came, you held out a warm hand to me in the dark.… You followed step by step my teacher’s efforts. … When others doubted, it was you who heartened us. … You have always shown a father’s joy in my successes and a father’s tenderness when things have not gone right.”

More than once in those thirty years things did go wrong for Helen Keller, and Bell was there with a helping hand. A short story, “The Frost King,” which she wrote in 1891 at the age of eleven for Anagnos’ birthday and which Anagnos then published, was found to echo the plot and wording of a children’s fairy tale published nearly twenty years earlier, a story unknown to Annie Sullivan and not in the books available to Helen. It turned out to have been read to her at the home of a friend in Annie’s absence more than three years earlier. At the Perkins Institution a solemn committee (Mark Twain in his outrage called it “a collection of decayed human turnips”) cross-questioned the bewildered and frightened child at great length, with Annie Sullivan sent out of the room, before concluding that Helen had unwittingly summoned up the story from her remarkable memory rather than from her imagination as she supposed. The ordeal crushed Helen’s spirit and her joy in books for months and shook her confidence in her own originality for years.