HELEN KELLER by Dorothy Herrmann


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This biography ably chronicles the long, remarkable life of the deaf/blind prodigy, mystic, and socialist Keller and her longtime teacher and helpmeet, Anne Sullivan, who taught her to communicate with the world. Keller, born in 1880 in rural Alabama, developed at age 19 months a grave case of what Herrmann says was probably scarlet fever or meningitis. She recovered but lost total hearing and sight, becoming increasingly frustrated and unruly in the ensuing years. Herrmann recounts the thrilling story of Sullivan’s “breaking through” to the wild child (a tale familiar to viewers of the 1962 film The Miracle Worker). “By the end of their first year together,” writes Herrmann, “Annie was spelling into Helen’s hand stories from The Iliad and The Odyssey.” Herrmann charts how various powerful men, including Alexander Graham Bell, facilitated, perhaps out of mixed motives, the creation of Helen’s public persona, both before and after the celebrated young Keller’s entrance to Radcliffe College. Later, with publication of her autobiography (the first of many books), Keller achieved lasting international fame. A theatrical agent, around the time of the 1918 film about Keller, Deliverance (in which Helen played herself in some of the scenes), observed that “after Helen’s release from silence and darkness, nothing dramatic happened to her.” This, of course, will be part of the problem with any biography of Keller. Her postcollegiate years included a never-ending round of lecture tours, and even a stint with Sullivan as a vaudeville regular from 1920 to 1924, activities supported by her popularity but also necessitated by economics. For that and other reasons, the widely revered Keller, who lived to age 88, comes off as something of a sad if stoic figure. A fairly lively slice of American social history, but lacking in its later pages much inherent excitement. Keller’s life, exceptional as it was, is no match for that of Herrmann’s earlier subject, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. (64 photos) (Author tour)

Pub Date: Aug. 12th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-44354-1
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1998