In recent years, feminist historians, literary critics, and Disability Studies scholars such as Kim Nielsen (The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, NYU Press, 2004), Georgina Kleege (Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller, Gallaudet University Press, 2006), and Brenda Jo Brueggemann (Women and Deafness: Double Visions, edited with Susan Burch, Gallaudet University Press, 2002) have done much to challenge popular perceptions of Helen Keller as an inspirational figure, saintly and persevering icon, and a pedagogical lesson to children everywhere in "what is possible"—even for people with disabilities. Performance artists, poets, filmmakers, and activists with disabilities such as Cheryl Marie Wade ("Disability Culture Rap" 1992), Liz Crow ("Re-thinking The Problematic Icon," Disability and Society, 2000 and "The Real Helen Keller," Roaring Girl Productions, 2000), Kathi Wolfe ("Helen Takes the Stage," Pudding House Chapbooks, 2009), and Terry Galloway ("Annie Dearest," Faust Films, 2009 and Mean Little deaf Queer, Beacon Press, 2009) have also produced works that question, subvert, parody, or re-script sentimental narratives of Keller's life in order to confront ableism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and historical erasure while revealing a more complex and human Helen Keller who was a thoughtful advocate for social and political causes and who also loved whisky and hotdogs, enjoyed music through touch, and employed her sense of smell to identify familiar places and beloved friends. This intellectual and cultural work has critiqued Keller's sanitized, "inspiring" image as one that sets an impossible standard for real disabled women, strategically elides the politics and struggles of living with disabilities, and enacts a medical model of disability as a personal affliction to be heroically conquered or cured, rather than a social and cultural construction that can be altered through collective action.
A recent first-of-its-kind collection of Keller's newspaper and magazine columns edited by Disability Studies scholar and Journalism Professor Beth A. Haller adds to these on-going efforts to re-assess, better understand, and more fully represent Helen Keller's life and legacy. Byline of Hope: Collected Newspaper and Magazine Writing of Helen Keller (The Advocado Press, 2015) demonstrates that, although her reading audience regarded her primarily as an icon of hope and optimism, Keller strove to become a serious political thinker, writer, and advocate for change.
Organized by themes including "Socialism," "Women's Issues," and "Children and Education," each section in this collection includes an introductory essay with incisive analysis by Haller. Haller argues, for instance, that Keller's optimistic public persona and the inspirational messages she offered readers in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, and Ladies' Home Journal, among others, resulted not so much from her "triumph over disability" but from her conviction that social change was possible and her belief in the transformative power of knowledge, education, and understanding. In an essay entitled "Women and Peace" Keller wrote in 1930: "Let us not be deceived by talk about war to end war. That is propaganda which closes the mind and prevents education from opening it to the facts. Violence does not, and never will, yield to violence" (195). Excoriating the evils of child labor in 1931, Keller insisted that children's lives were being "crushed out" to create profits for the wealthy. The solution, she said, was education "which the state should guarantee" (166).
Haller's collection also illustrates how, although she was largely isolated from the day-to-day work of political activism around women's rights, labor rights, education, and economic inequality, Keller's public support for these causes helped to keep them in the public's consciousness. She often blended her socialist ideals with democratic ones in order to appeal to readers. If activists, advocates, and philanthropists sometimes exploited public admiration and mawkishness for Keller to advance their own ends, Keller also used them to think about and engage the public on subjects she cared about. In 1933 she voiced explicit support for FDR's ambitious New Deal agenda and invoked "a noble nationalism" to urge audiences to support the president and to "resolve to think more, to feel more, to love more, and to be more in the service of others and the world" (170).
Although many of Keller's writings catered to public fascination with her disabilities, Byline of Hope suggests the ways in which her writings also challenged ableist fears about disability by demonstrating that people with disabilities need not live lives defined by deficit, dependence, and isolation. Keller persistently emphasized how her senses of touch, taste, and smell where powerful sources of knowledge underappreciated by those with sight and hearing. In a 1929 column in The American Magazine Keller wrote "The people who imagine I am cut off from nature do not dream of the world of loveliness that touch and the sense of smell reveal to me" (30). She then describes the sensory experiences that connected her to the world—the warmth of the sun, the smell of rain—and relates how she understood color through sensations and emotions. Pink was "a warm southern breeze," a soft kiss. Red was "hell and hate" while brown was the smell of the earth and the feel of tree trunks.
In another introductory essay, Haller builds on the work of Paula Marantz Cohen ("Helen Keller and the American Myth," Yale Review, 1997) to confront skepticism regarding Keller's ability to write about, and analyze, the world around her. Keller's secondhand experience of language meant that she necessarily relied on the words of others to put into writing her own knowledge and experiences. As Haller points out, Keller's writings indicate that she understood this and acknowledged the debt she owed to the words of others for helping her to relate her experiences, express her views, and convey knowledge to others. Although Haller does not argue this explicitly, her analysis of Keller's work suggests to readers how ableism has consistently informed skeptics and critics of Keller's voluminous writing. Such critics assume that Keller's methods for acquiring knowledge were inherently inferior to their own while not recognizing the flaws in their own knowledge acquisition methods—seeing with the eye is not always believing—or acknowledging the debt they owe to others for the knowledge they've gained.
This collection also reveals some of the contradictions and entanglements Keller had to negotiate in order have a public voice on social issues. Keller leveraged her "inspirational" status to address complex and potentially contentious issues in ways that were relatable and politically acceptable to readers of mainstream American periodicals. Her work to prevent blindness caused by venereal disease, for instance, illustrated how Keller's "saintly" sexless image allowed her to openly confront taboo subjects such as sexually transmitted disease without arousing much suspicion or outrage. Readers would often write condescendingly in praise of her "noble" and "angelic" efforts—even on issues related to sex, gender, or economic equality—revealing, Haller argues, that they were often less interested in her writing topics than in her "awe-inspiring presence on earth" (6). Haller makes clear that Keller's sustained commitment to socialism was, by-and-large, not taken seriously. "Her socialism," Haller observes, "might have been controversial had she not been Helen Keller" (163). Keller's writings often took care to couch much of her advocacy in terms that would resonate with conventional thinking at the time about gender, individual responsibility, and economics. In one 1930 essay she urges young women to cherish their independence and consider marriage carefully warning that, if they did marry, their husband's life must necessarily "absorb" their own lives "or the marriage will not be a success" (198).
Although she never developed what we would consider a "disability consciousness," Haller's collection shows contemporary audiences that the writings Keller left behind nonetheless challenged readers in her own time to re-think their taken-for-granted assumptions about the world around them. In 1933, Keller subtly challenged readers of The Home Magazine to recognize that restless, fidgeting, and anxious children who seemed unable to learn or listen suffered not from a biological or physiological "condition" but from an educational and social system that sought to control and manage difference and indoctrinate, rather than educate and empower, children. Speaking directly to mothers Keller observed, "Time and again you have noticed how he frets and is troublesome when you try to do things for him. You are in a hurry, so you don't allow him to struggle with the intricacies of buttons and socks and shoes. You put them on, curbing as best you can his impatient jerks and twistings. His aimless resistance is a sign that he is being thwarted" (239). Such words could well describe the daily experiences of children and adults with disabilities. Denied the "dignity of risk," the ability to fail and learn from their own mistakes and lived experiences, people with disabilities are all too frequently physically and socially segregated from their peers and the world around them in ways that deny them the education and experiences they need to lead full, rich lives.
Too much of this collection is devoted to "curiosity" pieces about what it's like to be a deaf/blind person. Although, again, these pieces may ease fears about having a disability and challenge ableist assumptions about the "terribleness" of disability and the superiority of nondisabled experiences and knowledge, Keller's poetic descriptions of smells, tastes, textures, and sensations risks downplaying, if not ignoring altogether, the politics, struggle, and complexity of living with disabilities by romanticizing or exoticizing life as a deaf/blind person. Haller makes clear that Keller was—at least to some extent—aware of these risks and that such pieces were not her favorite to write. But the popularity of these pieces was too lucrative to ignore and, unfortunately, hearing and sighted readers often took away the message that "they should be thankful for whatever they were able to experience" (14). A final section on "Famous People" doesn't add much to this volume in terms of Keller's social and intellectual legacy, but does reveal Keller's varied interests and her dynamic life as a world famous advocate for the blind who was very much aware of the power of myth and celebrity to influence and inspire people. Finally, there is much emphasis on how Keller inspired weary, anxious, Depression-era readers but not enough context provided on how Keller's writing addressed audiences throughout the 20th century. As the breadth of this collection demonstrates, Keller's writing was surely more than a coping mechanism or inspiring spectacle for readers of popular periodicals in the 1930s and this volume could do more to illustrate this—and to strengthen its analysis of Depression-era readers—by addressing the question of audience more directly. Haller could address how Keller's messages might have played—or did play—to other audiences at other points in her long career including those who did not read the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, or Ladies Home Journal. Still, Byline of Hope is a significant contribution to our evolving understanding of Keller's life and work. Its accessibility and organization, along with Haller's thoughtful commentary, make it a valuable resource for historians, literary, media, and cultural scholars as well as students, educators, and the public at-large.
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