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A Conquest Of Solitude

June 2024
13min read

Before, during, and after the work that made him famous—his invention of the telephone—Alexander Graham Bell was deeply involved in teaching the deaf. It was his first work, and when he was seventy, he wrote that “recognition of my work for and interest in the education of the deaf has always been more pleasing to me than even recognition of my work with the telephone.” The impetus for this interest was extremely intimate: both his mother and his wife were deaf. In a new biography, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude, the historian Robert V. Brace describes the life, work and compassionate nature of this extraordinary man. The biography will be published later this month by Little, Brown and Company, and AMERICAN HERITAGE is pleased to publish a section of the book. Our excerpt starts when Bell, at the age of forty, met a small child —a girl whose face showed “an indefinable, chilling emptiness.”

Hellen Keller (circa 1920)

Among the deaf were those people who, like Mabel Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s wife, insisted that they would rather live sightless but warmed by voices in the dark than encased in the cold, bright solitude of deafness. Among them also were those for whom even the solitude was dark. They were the deaf-blind.

Bell knew the deaf-blind, too. In February, 1876, he had attended a memorial service to the late Samuel Gridley Howe, the educator and reformer who had done pioneer work with the blind. Howe had been head of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, and his most famous pupil there had been a deaf-blind student named Laura Bridgman. At the age of two Laura had lost her sight, hearing, even most of her sense of smell and of taste. Little remained to make her living body more than the sealed tomb of her mind. But Howe had touched that mind and found it responsive. And so Laura had discovered the existence of the world and had learned something of what it held. At the service for Howe, Bell had “quite a little talk” with Laura—by means of finger spelling—and as Bell wrote at the time, Laura had cried for her dead teacher. “The whole scene was one I shall long remember,” Bell wrote.

Years later, in 1887, Captain Arthur H. Keller, a former Confederate officer who had become a newspaper editor in Tuscumbia, Alabama, brought his six-year-old deaf-blind daughter Helen to Bell in Washington. Helen was a healthy child, excited to something like happiness by what she sensed of the novel journey. Bell may have seen irony in the contrast between her eager gropings and her father’s sadness. Yet in her well-shaped face, for all its intimations of dormant intelligence, there seemed to be an indefinable, chilling emptiness. Bell listened to the story of the illness that had left Helen completely deaf and sightless at nineteen months. Something in his touch, Helen remembered years later, gave her an impression of tenderness and sympathy. She sat on his knee and felt his watch strike. He understood her rudimentary signs, and she knew it and loved him at once. “But I did not dream,” she wrote in later years, “that that interview would be the door through which I should pass from darkness into light.”

According to Helen, Bell unlocked that door with the suggestion that Keller write Michael Anagnos, at that time the director of the Perkins Institution. As it happened, Anagnos was already prepared. A friend of Keller’s had spoken to Anagnos about Helen’s case months earlier, perhaps at the instance of Helen’s mother, who had read about Laura Bridgman in Charles Dickens’ American Notes . Then, on the strength of a tentative inquiry from Keller himself in the summer of 1886, Anagnos had alerted one of his star graduates to the possibility of such a call. She had since been studying Howe’s carefully recorded methods in the case of Laura Bridgman and spending much time with Laura. Presumably Bell’s encouragement in February, 1887, rekindled Keller’s interest or settled his doubts about Helen’s educability. At any rate Keller wrote again to Anagnos and thereby initiated the astonishing lifework of Annie M. Sullivan.

Annie was then twenty years old, still haunted by the horrors of her four childhood years in the Tewksbury poorhouse, still suffering from the effects of trachoma, which had once made and would again make her blind, but soon to be called by Mark Twain and others the miracle-worker and by Helen Keller simply Teacher. It was on March 3, 1887, that Annie Sullivan arrived in Tuscumbia. That day was to be cherished by Helen Keller as her “soul’s birthday.” It also happened to be the fortieth birthday of Alexander Graham Bell.

“A miracle has happened,” wrote Annie on March 20; “the wild little creature of two weeks ago has been transformed into a gentle child.” On April 5 came Helen’s famous breakthrough to the understanding that things had names, and three months later she was writing letters. Bell followed the Tuscumbia “miracle” with wonder, as did the public after Michael Anagnos sounded the trumpet. Bell himself helped to spread the news, furnishing a New York paper in 1888 with Helen’s picture and one of her letters to him. He saw a wider good coming from the dazzling emergence of her mind. “The public have already become interested in Helen Keller,” he wrote in 1891, “and through her, may perhaps be led to take an interest in the more general subject of the Education of the Deaf.”

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.

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.


More than once Helen visited Beinn Bhreagh, the Bells’ summer estate in Nova Scotia. She spent one night with Bell’s daughters Elsie and Daisy on their houseboat, from which they all climbed down by a rope ladder to swim in the moonlit lake. In the fields overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes, Bell told her of his kite flying and his hope of giving wings to mankind. “He makes you feel that if you only had a little more time, you, too, might be an inventor,” she wrote. One windy day she helped him fly his kites. “On one of them I noticed that the strings were of wire, and having had some experience in bead work, I said I thought they would break. Dr. Bell said ‘No!’ with great confidence, and the kite was sent up. It began to pull and tug, and lo, the wires broke, and off went the great red dragon, and poor Dr. Bell stood looking forlornly after it. After that he asked me if the strings were all right and changed them at once when I answered in the negative. Altogether we had great fun.” Back at Radcliffe that summer of 1901 she wrote Mabel that “the smell of the ocean, and the fragrance of the pines have followed me to Cambridge and linger about me like a benediction.”

Now and then Bell thought about Helen’s future course in life. As she made her way through college he began to feel that “with her gifts of mind and imagination there should be a great future open to her in literature.” Later he wrote her, “You must not put me among those who think that ‘nothing you have to say about the affairs of the universe would be interesting.’” But Helen was more realistic about the limits put upon her direct apprehension of the world, about her inescapable dependence on the words of others for learning what eyes and ears tell most people. She knew also that to the public her blindness was her foremost characteristic (though personally she agreed with Mabel Bell that deafness was the heavier cross), so her work came to be more and more that of helping the cause of the blind. And because Bell’s work lay with the deaf, he and she saw less of each other as the new century wore on.

Each missed the other. When he tried his hand at a letter in Braille while she was in college, she praised him for not making a single mistake. “It seemed almost as if you clasped my hand in yours and spoke to me in the old, dear way,” she wrote him. In 1907 he wrote her, “I often think of you and feel impelled to write but—as you know—I am a busy man, and… have always lots of back correspondence to make up.” Now and then he wrote again in Braille, but not often enough for it to be easy. He spent a few days in Boston once and tried for a long time one day to telephone Helen’s house, but Annie heard the ringing too late. “We seem bound every time to miss seeing him,” Helen wrote John Hitz on that occasion. As public figures, each knew in a general way what the other was doing. “I suppose,” wrote Helen in 1902, “Mr. Bell has nothing but kites and flying-machines on his tongue’s end. Poor dear man, how I wish he would stop wearing himself out in this unprofitable way—at least it seems unprofitable to me.” But six years later she sent him a note of congratulation on his successes in aviation, to which he replied in proud detail.

In January, 1907, Helen wired Bell “I need you.” She was to speak in New York at a meeting for the blind; but Annie, who usually repeated her speech for those who might have difficulty understanding it, was sick. Bell left Washington at once and lent his matchless voice to the occasion.

In the summer of 1918 Helen asked Bell to play himself in a motion picture of her life. He was then seventyone, in uncertain health, very susceptible to summer heat, and had “the greatest aversion to appearing in a moving-picture.” Still, her letter touched him deeply. “It brings back recollections of the little girl I met in Washington so long ago,” he wrote her. “You will,” he reminded her, “have to find someone with dark hair to impersonate the Alexander Graham Bell of your childhood.” But he promised to appear with her in a later scene, when the hot weather was over, if she wanted him to. To his great relief he was not called upon (which was just as well, since the film was a grotesque failure, both as drama and as history).


The drama of Helen Keller’s rescue and rise had, after all, been given a far more enduring form in her own autobiography, The Story of My Life, fifteen years before. Supplemented by her own and Annie Sullivan’s letters, it both recounted and attested to one of history’s most moving triumphs. And it began with the words

To A LEXANDER G RAHAM B ELL Who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies, I Dedicate this Story of My Life.


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