A Conquest Of Solitude


The kindly author of the original story, Margaret Canby, wrote that Helen’s version was no plagiarism but “a wonderful feat of memory” and an improvement on the source. “Please give her my warm love,” added Miss Canby, “and tell her not to feel troubled over it any more.” Mark Twain was more emphatic, recalling the time he himself had unconsciously plagiarized a passage from Oliver Wendell Holmes. “To think of those solemn donkeys breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant damned rubbish about plagiarism!” he wrote. “I couldn’t sleep for blaspheming about it last night.” Bell, who had helped Annie Sullivan trace Helen’s exposure to the story, saw further than either Twain or Miss Canby. Like them, he pointed out that “we all do what Helen did,” that “our most original compositions are composed exclusively of expressions derived from others.” But he also observed that Anagnos had “failed to grasp the importance of the Frost King incident” and that “a full investigation will throw light on the manner in which Helen has acquired her marvelous knowledge of language—and do much good.”

After a long talk with Helen in 1894 Bell heartily seconded her “strong desire” to be educated in a school for normal students rather than in a special school for the deaf or the blind. Bell reminded Captain Keller that his daughter would need a special interpreter in any case, so that a school for the handicapped could offer her no practical advantage. He promised to rally Helen’s friends to the underwriting of any expenses. Thus Helen went on to achieve what throughout her life would be one of her chief consolations and sources of pride: acceptance as an intellectual and social equal by people who could see and hear.

In 1897 Arthur Gilman, headmaster of the Cambridge School, at which Helen was preparing for Radcliffe College, decided that Miss Sullivan was endangering Helen’s health by pressing her too hard in her studies. Having temporarily persuaded Helen’s mother of this, he tried to separate Helen from her beloved teacher. Gilman did his best to win Bell’s support for the move. But Bell had boundless faith in the wisdom and dedication of Annie Sullivan, and when she appealed to him for help, he dispatched his assistant, the venerable John Hitz, to investigate. Afterward Bell wrote Gilman that nothing could justify parting Helen and Annie except evidence that Annie was in some way unfit for her charge; and as to that, his free conversation with Helen had revealed her to be a “living testimonial to the character of Miss Sullivan.” Mrs. Keller hurried to Massachusetts and, finding Helen in excellent health and determined to stay with Annie, agreed with Hitz and Bell that Gilman was wrong. Never again was it to be suggested that Helen and Annie Sullivan should be parted.

Three years later, just as Helen entered Radcliffe College, a well-intentioned friend nearly persuaded her to give up her studies and, together with Annie, to start and direct a school for deaf-blind children. Bell’s decided opposition to the scheme, along with that of other friends, kept Helen in Radcliffe and out of what would surely have been a fiasco.

Bell’s doubts of his own business acumen led him to decline the suggestion that he administer a trust fund set up for Helen in 1896. Nevertheless, he took a leading part in organizing the arrangement and contributed a thousand dollars to it. Before and after, he helped out on special occasions, sending Helen four hundred dollars when her father died in 1896, a hundred dollars toward a country vacation in the summer of 1899, $ 194 so that Helen could surprise Annie with a wedding gift when Annie married the writer and critic John A. Macy in 1905. Financial as well as moral support may have led Annie to write early in 1898 that Bell “will never know how deeply grateful I am to him for one of the richest and fullest years we have ever known.”

Among Helen’s friends and admirers were those who were richer than Bell and less deeply committed to the support of other causes. In dollar terms their gifts to Helen outstripped those of Bell. But he gave her things they could not match with money. “More than anyone else, during those [early] years,” wrote a friend who knew Helen in later life, “it was Alexander Graham Bell who gave Helen her first conception of the progress of mankind, telling her as much about science as Phillips Brooks told her about religion.” Bell thrilled her with stories that paralleled the Greek epics she loved, Promethean tales like that of the laying of the Atlantic cable. One day he placed her hand on a telephone pole and asked her what it meant to her, then explained that the wires it carried sang of life and death, war and finance, fear and joy, failure and success, that they pierced the barriers of space and touched mind to mind throughout the whole of the civilized world. Bell’s mind, and Helen’s through his, responded to nature, too. Once, beneath an oak, he placed her hand on the trunk, and she felt the soft crepitation of raindrops on the leaves. For years after that she liked to touch trees in the rain. Then, on another day, he went with her to Niagara Falls and put her hand on the hotel windowpane so that she could sense the thunder of the river plunging over its shuddering escarpment. He drove with her and Annie from Washington into the springtime countryside, where they gathered wild azalea, honeysuckle, and doewood blossoms.