Friday, June 19, 2015

I Go Adventuring

Helen Keller (1880–1968)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

“Helen Keller teaching Charlie Chaplin the manual alphabet,” circa 1918. Photograph from Keller’s memoir Midstream: My Later Life (1929), in which “I Go Adventuring” originally appeared.
Born in Alabama, Helen Keller attended a college preparatory school for the deaf in New York City for two years in the mid-1890s (she was the only blind student); it was during this period she met and befriended Mark Twain and many other celebrities. Two decades later, her love for the city convinced her and her guide, Anne Sullivan, to move to Forest Hills (a suburb in Queens) at the age of thirty-seven. They lived there for nearly twenty years.

Her impressions of New York can be found throughout her writings. In “I Go Adventuring,” from her 1929 memoir Midstream, she described her occasional jaunts to Manhattan and what she “saw” through her own senses of smell and touch and the descriptions given to her by friends. Elsewhere in the book, she wrote, “Fifth Avenue, for example, has a different odor from any other part of New York or elsewhere. Indeed, it is very odorous street. It may sound like a joke to say that it has an aristocratic smell, but it has, nevertheless.” When asked three years later what she could possibly have “seen” from the top of the Empire State Building, Keller responded in a breathtakingly beautiful letter:
I will concede that my guides saw a thousand things that escaped me from the top of the Empire Building, but I am not envious. For imagination creates distances that reach to the end of the world. . . . There was the Hudson—more like the flash of a sword-blade than a noble river. The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head! . . . Well, I see in the Empire Building something else—passionate skill, arduous and fearless idealism. The tallest building is a victory of imagination.
Throughout her adulthood, but particularly earlier in her career, she faced skepticism over her abilities and criticism for her choice of language. In an essay on Keller for The New Yorker, the novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick reports how Thomas Cutsworth, a blind psychologist who was Keller’s contemporary, assailed her use of color and pictorial words, arguing that the prevalence of visual imagery showed the influence of her teachers rather than originality of her own thought. But Keller wrote in response to such criticism that the deaf-blind person “seizes every word of sight and hearing, because his sensations compel it. Light and color, of which he has no tactual evidence, he studies fearlessly, believing that all humanly knowable truth is open to him.” Or, as Ozick concludes in agreement, “She was an artist. She imagined.”

Note: Among the four friends who accompany Helen Keller to Manhattan is Edward L. Holmes, an architect she knew from her school days in Cambridge, when he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A native of California who had hosted her on visit to San Francisco, he had moved to New York in the 1920s.

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Cut off as I am, it is inevitable that I should sometimes feel like a shadow walking in a shadowy world. When this happens I ask to be taken to New York City. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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