Sunday, March 3, 2024

My Future As I See It

Helen Keller (1880–1968)
From Helen Keller: Autobiographies & Other Writings

Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, and Keller’s dog Sir Thomas (“Phiz”)—a black-and-white Boston bull terrier—sitting in the branches of a tree, probably in their backyard in Wrentham, Massachusetts, around 1904. With one hand Keller reads Sullivan’s lips; with the other she touches a book Sullivan holds open. Both women are in white dresses, Sullivan’s embroidered with flowers. A lawn stretches far into the distance behind them. Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA.
“It is heresy in our time to intimate that a young woman may do better than go to college,” twenty-four-year-old Helen Keller wrote the year after she graduated from Radcliffe College. “Five years ago I had to decide whether I should be a heretic, or adhere to the ancient faith that it is the woman’s part to lay her hands to the spindle and to hold the distaff. Some of my friends were enthusiastic about the advantages of a college education, and the special honor it would be for me to compete with my fellows who see and hear.”

She had entered Radcliffe in the fall of 1900; Anne Sullivan, her governess and teacher since Keller was six years old, accompanied her to classes and spelled out the lectures into her hand. For both the entrance exams and for subsequent tests, Sullivan was not present; the dean arranged for two proctors for each exam: “one to proctor Helen, and another to proctor Helen’s proctor,” one of the former recounted years later. “She had her typewriter for work in answering the exam questions. I had my Braille typewriter to translate the questions.”

For her studies at Radcliffe, Keller relied on two assistive devices: a braille machine and a typewriter. Using the former, she was able to read and revise her writing without help; but she found the machine “somewhat cumbersome.” She was much faster and quite accurate at the typewriter, but then necessarily depended on Sullivan and others to notice typographical errors and, if she wanted to revise, to spell out her work back to her. On top of the challenges presented by her studies and her exams, Keller signed a $3,000 contract to write her life story for The Ladies’ Home Journal. Her English literature professor, Charles Townsend Copeland, encouraged the proposal and allowed her to submit her work-in-progress in lieu of regular assignments. For the most part, she composed the essays of the magazine version of “The Story of My Life” on her typewriter. “Under great pressure” to meet her publisher’s deadlines, in July 1902 Keller finished the last chapter of her story, which had already begun to appear in print as a serial in the magazine.

She also enlisted the assistance of John Macy, a twenty-five-year-old Harvard instructor who lived in their boardinghouse; he learned to finger-spell and with Sullivan helped to arrange and submit Keller’s manuscripts. Macy negotiated a contract with Doubleday, Page to gather the installments into a book. William Wade, a friend who had previously arranged to make braille editions of some of Keller’s college textbooks, had a braille copy of each article prepared from the magazine proofs. When she read through the entire series, Keller decided to rewrite it substantially; Sullivan and Macy played an essential role in this process, not only offering practical help in assembling a finished typescript but also making “suggestions at many points” about Keller’s prose.

The Story of My Life was published in March 1903 and was widely and favorably reviewed, although its initial sales were modest. There were a handful of naysayers who questioned the authenticity of the book, but one review apparently caused the most consternation to Keller, as well as to Sullivan and Macy. “All her knowledge is hearsay knowledge,” wrote an unnamed critic in The Nation, “her very sensations are for the most part vicarious, and yet she writes of things beyond her power of perception with the assurance of one who has verified every word.” The writer chided her for describing things she “saw” or “heard” when she could have done neither and seemed less interested in Keller’s experiences or accomplishments and more interested in her as an object for scientific study: “We lose what she could teach us by showing wherein she varies from the normal. It almost seems as it every fact of real psychological value has been perversely withheld. . . . Some accurate observations of the manner in which the senses of touch and smell can play substitute to the missing ones would be of real scientific value.”

In response, Keller tackled the issue of language and experience in her next book, The World I Live In:
It is not a convention of language, but a forcible feeling of the reality, that at times makes me start when I say, “Oh, I see my mistake!” or “How dark, cheerless is his life!” I know these are metaphors. Still, I must prove with them, since there is nothing in our language to replace them. Deaf-blind metaphors to correspond do not exist and are not necessary. Because I can understand the word “reflect” figuratively, a mirror has never perplexed me.
As an example, she flags the following sentence in her book: “When I was a little girl I was taken to see a woman who was blind and paralyzed.” In a footnote, she adds, “The excellent proof-reader has put a query to my use of the word ‘see.’ If I had said visit,” he would have asked no questions, yet what does ‘visit’ mean but ‘see’ (visitare)?” Georgina Kleege, author of Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller, comments, “Keller uses her knowledge of Latin to demonstrate that the more one knows about language the harder it is to find vocabulary that does not have some etymological link to sight and hearing. To deny her the use of such language, she argues, would be to deprive her of the ability to communicate at all.”

Keller hoped The World I Live In would sate the public appetite for her life story (it did not) and allow her to write on other subjects. “It is startling to observe how five years after publishing what is still probably the best-known disability autobiography,” Keege concludes, “Keller writes a book that chafes at the shortcomings of the genre she helped to invent, exposes the limitations of the language that is her chosen medium, and experiments with a new approach to self-representation that was well in advance of her time.”

Before Keller went to Radcliffe, Anne Sullivan had pondered publishing her own biographical account of their experiences. “The Story of My Life is a radically different book from what Sullivan originally had in mind, even based on just the little bit known about her unrealized plans,” writes Kim E. Nielsen, who edited the just-published Library of America edition. “In her imagined book she would have been the primary actor, the focal point from which the story was told. The Story of My Life tells the story from Keller's vantage point as Keller's story with Keller as the authorial voice.” Moreover, for the last century most readers, especially students, have read not the full, collaborative book but only the autobiographical narrative written by Keller herself. The original “unabridged” edition was more than three times the length; two additional sections included a selection of Keller’s letters from 1887 to 1901 and a “Supplementary Account of Her Education,” written by Macy, that draws liberally on Sullivan’s letters and reports. Although Doubleday, Page reprinted the original edition on at least seventeen occasions through 1949, most of the dozens of editions produced by other publishers, from the 1928 “school edition” issued by Houghton Mifflin to the 1967 Scholastic edition to the 1996 Dover edition, present only the first third of the book (often abridged or even rewritten) and omit the other two sections.

In 1905, Doubleday, Page published a “special edition” of the full book, with two additional chapters appended as Part IV. The first of these new entries would become, in 1908, the opening chapter of The World I Live In. The second, “My Future As I See It,” appeared in the November 1903 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal as a postscript to “The Story of My Life.” Written when Keller was a senior at Radcliffe, the essay was removed from all future printings and editions of the book, but it has been reprinted in the LOA edition, and we present it below. In a headnote for the magazine version, the editor wrote, “Exactly what Miss Keller intends to take up as her life-work after she has graduated is practically the only point about herself which she has not fully explained in her book. Hence it was suggested to Miss Keller that she elucidate this oft-asked question.”

The descriptions above of Helen Keller’s methods of compositions and the textual history of The Story of My Life are adapted from the Note on the Texts in Helen Keller: Autobiographies & Other Writings, edited by Kim E. Nielsen. The account by one of Keller’s proctors appeared in the August 1968 issue of The Radcliffe Quarterly and was quoted in Dorothy Herrmann’s biography of Keller.

Notes: The peasant girl who spilled her milk is a reference to La Fontaine’s “La laitière et le pot au lait” (“The Milkmaid and Her Pail”), from his Fables (1668–94). Andrew Carnegie was a steel industry magnate who gave away most of his wealth during the last two decades of his life, funding about three thousand public libraries, as well as dozens of colleges, museums, and foundations. In 1910 he offered Keller a pension to support herself and her work; she at first declined but “anxious about those who are nearest to me” she accepted his offer three years later.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs

My Future As I See It

When I wrote “The Story of My Life” I thought I had told my readers all I knew about myself. But since the publication of my book I have been asked what I am going to do after I graduate from Radcliffe this year. People often ask me what my future is as I see it. I do not intend to follow the example of the peasant girl in La Fontaine, who pictured such a bright future that in her enthusiasm she spilled her milk. Nor am I like the small boys who vie with each other in predicting what they will do when they grow up, and promise to be police­men, doctors, firemen, and soldiers.

I used to have all sorts of unrealizable ambitions. Indeed, the only one that has never troubled me is the ambition to be President of the United States. I suppose in youth we are all, as a matter of course, song-birds. The only question of importance which we have to decide is what kind of song-bird we shall be. As we grow older we smile at the eager soarings of our childhood. But I hope we shall never cease to dream out our world, to people it with gods strong of hand and great of soul. I certainly hope I shall never think of the world as the pessimist thinks of it—a commonplace thing shaped like an orange, slightly flattened at the ends!

The only real ambitions spring from the circumstances in which our lives are set. I used to believe that my limitations would prevent me from doing anything beyond improving my mind and accepting the cup of pleasure or sorrow in whatever measure it might be dealt to me. There is no grief deeper than the consciousness that we are isolated, no ache of heart harder to bear than the thought that our fellows are crying in the darkness, and we are so fettered that we may not go to them. This is separation from the social order into which we are born, the agony of thwarted forces, a death in the midst of life. But I have discovered that the material with which we work is every­where and in abundance. I have felt the joy of the strong man who grasps the reins in his hands and drives the forces that would master him. Our worst foes are not belligerent circumstances, but wavering spirits. As a man thinketh, so is he. The field in which I may work is narrow, but it stretches before me limitless. I am like the philosopher whose garden was small but reached up to the stars.

The occupations I can engage in are few, but into each one I can throw my whole strength. Opportunities to be of service to others offer themselves constantly, and every day, every hour, calls even on me for a timely word or action. It bewilders me to think of the countless tasks that may be mine. I am near the end of my last year at college. I am already looking forward to Commencement Day. In imagination I have passed my last examinations, I have written my last thesis, I have said good-by to my school-days, and taken my little canoe and ventured out on unknown seas. I have received the best education my country can give me. Generous friends have assisted me and strewn my path with opportunities. The question now is, What shall I do with this education and these opportunities?

I shall not forget the continuous task which my friends keep before me of improving my mind. I shall try to keep my flower-beds well trimmed and perhaps I may add to my estate. I shall read as extensively as possible and, perhaps, increase my knowledge of the classics. I shall never lose my interest in history and social questions, and I shall continue the studies that please me most as long as I live.

I am much interested in work that woman may do in the world. It is a fine thing to be an American, it is a splendid thing to be an American woman. Never in the history of the world has woman held a position of such dignity, honor, and usefulness as here and now. We read how nation after nation has reached a certain height of civilization and failed because the women of the nation remained uncivilized. I think the degree of a nation’s civilization may be measured by the degree of enlightenment of its women. So I shall study the economic questions relating to woman and do my best to further her advancement; for God and His world are for everybody.

Above all must I interest myself in affairs which concern the deaf and the blind. Their needs have given me another motive for traveling. I used to idle away hours in dreams of sailing on the Rhine, climbing the Alps, and wandering amid the monuments of Greece and Rome. Every tale I read about travelers, every description that friends gave me of their experiences abroad, and especially my visit to the World’s Fair at Chicago, added fire to my longing. But now I have another ambition which transcends those imagined pleasures. Travel would, it seems to me, afford valuable opportunities to act as a sort of emissary from the teachers in this country to those of Europe, and to carry a message of encouragement to those who, in face of popular prejudice and indifference, as in Italy and Sweden, are struggling to teach the blind and give them means of self-support.

There are two ways in which we may work: with our own hands and through our fellow men. Both ways are open to me. With my own hands and voice I can teach; perhaps I can write. Through others I can do good by speaking in favor of beneficent work and by speaking against what seems to me wrong.

I often think I shall live in the country and take into my home a deaf child and teach him as Miss Sullivan has taught me. For years I have observed the details of her method, and her example in word and deed has inspired me so that I feel that I could impart to a child afflicted like myself the power to see with the soul and understand with the heart. All his needs and difficulties would be intelligible to me, since I know the darkness he sees and the stillness he hears. The road he must travel I have traveled; I know where the rough places are and how to help him over them. This would be the directest and most joyous way of doing for another what has been done for me.

Whether I teach or not, I shall write. My subject-matter is limited. I have very little that is novel or entertaining to tell those who see and hear, who have a vision that embraces earth and sky and water, whereas I grasp only so much of the world as I can hold in my hand. But I may perhaps translate from the classics and from the modern languages. If opportunity offers, I shall certainly write on topics connected with the deaf and the blind. If I see a plan on foot to place the blind in positions of self-support, I will advocate it. If there is a good cause that needs a word, I will speak it if I can. If an institution is projected for the relief of suffering, and money is needed, I will write a timely appeal. Editors and publishers have already suggested subjects on which I might write, and I find their proposals helpful because they afford a clue to what others expect of me, and indicate the various ways in which I may increase and apply what literary skill I may have. I cannot say, however, to what extent I shall follow those suggestions.

Another way in which I may render service to others with my own hands is to take up settlement work. I suppose, as a friend said, I was fighting with windmills when I said in my story that it seemed wicked that the poor could not live in comfortable homes and grow strong and beautiful. But I hear every day of young girls who leave their homes and pleasures to dwell among the poor and brighten and dignify their lives, and the impulse within me to follow their example seems at times too strong for me to restrain. The world is full of suffering, it is true, but full, also, of the overcoming of it. As I reflect on the enormous amount of good work that is left undone, I cannot but say a word and look my disapproval when I hear that my country is spending millions upon millions of dollars for war and war engines—more, I have heard, than twice as much as the entire public-school system of the United States costs us.

I could help take care of the sick. I have several times had occasion to use my hands to lessen pain, as they do in massage. I may study this art by-and-by, and even if I do not become a masseuse I shall be interested in it as an employment for the blind. Our hands are instruments with which to gain a livelihood, and if they are trained to the best advantage they prove more precious than the eye or the ear. Massage is an occupation in which I or any blind person may use the hands with profit and pleasure and bring comfort to many.

No work, however, can mean so much to me as what I can do for the deaf and the blind. I am not competent now to discuss their problems, but I shall find out what those problems are and study the methods of solving them. Whatever I do I shall keep track of all the measures proposed in behalf of the deaf and the blind, and to the best of my ability support the most efficient. I realize how much has already been done toward improving the condition of the blind and the deaf, and I am grateful; but there still remains much to be done; do what we may, we fall short and leave the work incomplete. I have twice had my share in the promotion of enterprises for the relief of the defective classes.

Last winter there was a bill before the Legislature of Massachusetts to provide the blind with manual training which would enable them to earn their bread, and I was asked to speak for the bill. Again, last May I attended the dedication of the new building of the Eye and Ear Infirmary in New York, and at the request of the physicians I spoke in behalf of the hospital. If these workers and philanthropists in Massachusetts and New York thought that I, a student in college, could help hundreds of unfortunate men and women, how much greater must my chances of usefulness be when I comprehend more fully the needs of the deaf and the blind! These experiences promise others, and I must follow where the good cause leads, just as the lamp goes with the hand.

Among the problems of the blind are two to which I shall direct my attention—more books for the blind and a universal system of raised print. My views may be erroneous, and I suggest them here merely to illustrate the kind of work which lies before me.

I should like the blind in America to have a magazine of high quality and varied interest like the best periodicals published for those who see. To establish one would require much money, and the blind are poor. If they are to have a periodical, some generous friend must establish it for them. In a country where so much is done to build great libraries and provide books for those who see, I should think a Mr. Carnegie might be found who would give a magazine to us who cannot see.

I am still a college girl, and I can look forward to a golden age when all my plans shall have been realized. I can dream of that happy country of the future where no man will live at his ease while another suffers; then, indeed, shall the blind see and the deaf hear.

First published in the November 1903 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal and reprinted with minor updates and additions in the 1905 “special edition” of The Story of My Life, which is the text presented here.