Helen Keller (1880—1968) and her devoted teacher Anne Sullivan (1866—1936) owe their places in the pantheon of American heroines to their successes in overcoming the effects of an illness that left Helen deaf, blind, and mute at the age of 19 months. Helen learned to communicate in several languages and wrote a series of books. From 1924 until her death she was employed as a fundraiser and lecturer by the American Foundation for the Blind and traveled the world as a ‘goodwill ambassador’ for the United States.
That is the ‘official story.’ But it omits the fact that as a young woman Helen Keller was also well known as a publicist for the American socialist movement. She discovered socialism in 1908 and joined the Socialist Party the next year. In 1915, feeling that the Socialist Party was getting bogged down in reformism,1 she joined the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In the early 1920s she stopped publicly identifying herself as a socialist, but her correspondence shows that she remained a socialist at heart.
Even now many accounts of Helen Keller’s life make no mention of her socialist views and activities. This is especially true of books about her written for young people, perhaps because their authors were concerned to ensure their use in schools. Other accounts mention her socialism but only in passing.2 By contrast, some scholars – notably, Philip S. Foner of Lincoln University and Kim E. Nielsen of the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay3 – have made special efforts to draw attention to this aspect of her life.
What then were the conditions that first enabled Helen Keller to become an active socialist but later prevented her from continuing to express socialist views in public?
It does not detract in any way from recognition of Helen Keller’s remarkable achievements to acknowledge that in her dealings with the world she remained dependent upon help from other people. Above all, she was always deeply dependent upon ‘Teacher’: Anne Sullivan lived with her and constantly accompanied her to act as her guide, interpret her garbled speech, and convey to her the meaning of what others said. On her own Helen could read only material published in Braille.4
It is therefore pertinent to clarify the attitude of Anne Sullivan toward socialism. Unfortunately the sources tell us little about this. It was Anne who provided Helen with her first reading matter on socialism, a book by the English writer Herbert George Wells.5 She did so, however, not out of any sympathy for socialism but in the hope that the author’s ‘electric’ and ‘imaginative’ style would stimulate her student. Indeed, she got much more than she had bargained for! As Helen became more deeply involved in the socialist movement, Anne gently tried to dampen the enthusiasm that she herself had inadvertently kindled.
Helen had a domestic ally of sorts in Anne’s new husband, the young college instructor John Macy (1877—1932). John was a socialist and did much to assist Helen in her development as a socialist, though she complained that he showed insufficient enthusiasm.6 I suspect that he was trying to be tactful in an awkward situation and did not want to gang up with Helen against his wife. The complexities of the triangular relationship among Anne, Helen, and John must have contributed to the eventual breakdown of the marriage, which in turn deprived Helen of her ally and made it more difficult for her to sustain her socialist commitment.
The mundane imperative of making a living also militated against the continued public expression of socialist views. Especially after the breakdown of Anne’s marriage she and Helen found themselves in a precarious economic position. At the same time, the publicity that they had received as pioneers in the education of the blind-deaf-mute opened up the prospect of financial support from wealthy ‘philanthropists.’ But this prospect would come to naught if Helen’s association with socialist politics scared them away.
The first ‘philanthropist’ to offer Helen support – namely, a pension – was the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. In December 1910 Helen wrote to him declining the offer, but in April 1913 she wrote again, confessing to ‘an overwhelming sense of helplessness’ and telling him that she had changed her mind.’7 And yet:
Sometime during the spring when this letter was written, Carnegie, Macy, and Keller met for tea. He asked her if it was true that she had become a socialist. When she admitted it, he threatened to lay the 33-year-old woman across his knees and spank her if she did not come to her ‘senses.’ She received a Carnegie pension for decades but never wrote about her feelings on the matter.8
Helen Keller was as dependent for her livelihood on capitalists like Carnegie as any member of the working class, so she was prepared to swallow any indignity in silence. Nevertheless, she was not yet willing to abandon her public affiliation with socialism, which in fact became even more radical when she joined the IWW a couple of years later. Curiously enough, she did not lose her pension. Perhaps Carnegie was blissfully unaware that she was still ‘out of her senses’ – or perhaps he did not really care all that much.
The ‘socialist years’ of Helen Keller ended in 1924 with the negotiations over the conditions of her employment by the American Foundation for the Blind. Moses Charles Migel, President of the AFB, was most concerned that her fundraising efforts should not be undermined by her political radicalism. Evidently a mutual understanding was reached. She reconciled herself to ‘silence on subjects which are of vital interest to me’ and ‘narrowed her public political activities to focus almost exclusively on the AFB.’9
Helen Keller had finally been silenced.
1. Examples of books for young people that ignore Keller’s socialism are Gare Thompson, Who Was Helen Keller? and Johanna Hurwitz, Helen Keller – Courage in the Dark. Reference sources that make no mention of it include history.com and britannica.com. It receives passing mention in biography.com.
2. ‘Why I Became an IWW,’ in Philip S. Foner, ed., Helen Keller: Her Socialist Years (New York: International Publishers, 1967), pp. 82-5.
3. Kim E. Nielsen, The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (New York and London: New York University Press, 2004); Kim E. Nielsen, ed., Helen Keller: Selected Writings (New York and London: New York University Press, 2005).
4. She was able to obtain socialist literature published for the blind in Braille by the German social-democratic party.
5. H.G. Wells, New Worlds for Old (New York: Macmillan Co., 1908).
6. Foner, ed., Helen Keller, p. 63. John also helped Helen establish herself as a writer.
7. Kim E. Nielsen, ed., Helen Keller: Selected Writings, pp. 82-3, 88-9.
8. Kim E. Nielsen, ed., Helen Keller: Selected Writings, p. 88. For further reflections on ‘philanthropy’ in general and Carnegie in particular, see here.
9. Nielsen, The Radical Lives, pp. 49, 50.
For further reading:
Helen Keller, Out of the Dark: Essays, Lectures, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1907, 1910, 1913, 1920).