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Helen Keller: A Life Paperback – December 15, 1999

4.5 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

William Gibson's The Miracle Worker is justly celebrated for its dramatic depiction of the innovative techniques by which Annie Sullivan taught Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, to communicate with the outside world. Now, Dorothy Herrmann's solid, readable biography of Keller reveals that the 7-year-old, who was liberated from her isolation in 1887, grew up to be a strong-willed, tough-minded, intellectually independent woman--not at all the "plaster saint" her teacher liked to present to the public. Throughout her long life (1880-1968), Keller worked tirelessly to promote the interests of the handicapped, but she was also an avowed socialist who believed that working-class people deserved a larger share of America's wealth and a racial egalitarian whose support of civil rights horrified her genteel Southern family. Veteran biographer Herrmann paints a nuanced portrait of Keller's complex relationship with Sullivan, which included anger and resentment as well as devoted affection, and she vividly depicts the maddening constraints imposed by society's image of Keller as a perfect Victorian maiden, virginal and selfless, when in fact she had an ego and a sex drive no different from those of hearing and sighted people. The book abounds in colorful touches such as Keller's delight in performing on the vaudeville circuit--her admirers were scandalized by this vulgar display to earn money. She adored "the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me." Candidly acknowledging Keller's frustrations and some of her less-than-sterling qualities, Herrmann gives readers a flesh-and-blood woman whose achievements are all the more remarkable. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Since William Gibson's 1959 play and, later, the film The Miracle Worker, Keller (1880-1968) has been overshadowed in memory by her indefatigable teacher, Annie Sullivan. Herrmann (Anne Morrow Lindbergh) returns KellerAblind, deaf and muteAto the center of her own story, although Sullivan nonetheless remains the determined manager of the miracle that was Keller herself, who was seven at their meeting and frustrated by her grim, blank world. Spelling impressions into Keller's palm, Sullivan opened a sensory door. By controlling the metamorphosis of Keller's personality, Sullivan released the rural Alabama girl who eventually became one of the most famous females of her time. Sullivan did not set out to create a prodigy, yet Keller soon became one, writing books and articles on a special typewriter, meeting every president from Cleveland to Eisenhower, finding mentors and friends in the likes of Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain. Unwilling to accept handouts and insisting on earning a living on her own, KellerAwith Sullivan until she died in 1936 at age 70Awent on the vaudeville stage and later lectured and involved herself with left-wing politics as a member of the Socialist Party. She remained a stoic, often charming woman with strong ideas and acute senses of touch and smell that kept her in sensory contract with what she could neither see nor hear. Herrmann's life avoids sentimentality and evokes the grievously handicapped Keller stretched by protective persistence into a figure admired worldwide. Photos.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 414 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (December 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226327639
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226327631
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #307,319 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I've long been a reader of books on Helen Keller. As a deaf person and an educator who uses her words in my own life and teachings, I feel it is important to know the person I am talking about. I often use Helen Keller as an example to others with disabilities whom I teach, and this book is a useful addition to my library. My only reason for giving it a four and not a five star rating is Dorothy Herrmann speculates quite a bit about the thoughts and feeling of two women who lived over 75 years ago. Much of their private lives has been speculated about, but we cannot know the truth about these matters when they are no longer here to tell us. I also get the feeling the author is a bit of a Freudian psychologist, and allows this to influence her writings of the people surrounding Helen and Annie. Sometimes, innocence is just innocence and there is no need to make it salacious for the public. Is it so hard to believe that some people are just innately good? Many of the things that happened to Helen Keller were typical of the lives of women at that point. I see it in the geneaological work in my own family. Women didn't have a lot of choices, and women with disabilities had absolutely none. However, Helen was one of those people who brought out the best in others, and the protective qualities in men. As a deaf person who has both men and women for friends who are protective of me, I can understand teasing in letters which have no negative connotation of any kind. I am married, but these friends still look out for me. Both my husband and me understand why they do this and feel this way, and it is sweet, with nothing in it that has an underlying meaning. I think we can look at the relationships of Helen with most men that way, rather than assuming the worst on either side. Otherwise, the book is very well written, and certainly extremely readable in comparison to other biographies about Helen Keller.
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Format: Paperback
Helen Keller calls the day she understood the basic concept of language was that all things have names "her soul's birthday." Helen herself says that "Teacher," the name Annie Sullivan insisted Helen use for her literally led her out of a dark silent world and into one where communication was possible.
Many works on Ms. Keller seem to get stuck on the now famous scene at the water pump when Annie spells "water" into Helen's outstretched hand. This author, to her credit, provides a rich source of information and introduces the readers at large to Helen the student, Helen the writer, Helen the adult and Helen as one third of a strange triadic relationship when her beloved "Teacher" marries a gifted editor named John Macy.
Helen and Annie had a rather symbiotic relationship and this was never made more apparent than when other educators as well as Helen's mother tried to prize them apart. John Macy, Annie's long suffering husband tired of having to include Helen in every aspect of his married life and felt that Annie was making Helen "more of an institution than a woman." He further charged Annie with being a self serving promotor and felt that Helen was being exploited.
This work does indeed raise some very interesting ideas. Annie does indeed have a punitive streak, no doubt influenced by her abusive, alcoholic father and the lost years she spent in the alms-house. The alms-house was, by all accounts a genuine Chamber of Horrors and no provisions were made for children. Annie survived the gritty horrors, including the death of her beloved baby brother, Jimmie.
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Format: Hardcover
Briefly, I give the book a fairly high rating, because it offered much more detailed and new information than ever provided before in anything else I had read about Helen Keller.
It is very well-researched and almost uniformly highly readable (very little dry stuff). It gives a harrowing account of Annie Sullivan's nightmarish childhood (and difficult and demanding personality throughout her adulthood) than was every really hinted at in other works, or in "The Miracle Worker"). That gives even more insight on how these two people interacted for so many years together.
It also gives much information on Helen's sometimes naive and leftist/pacifist/near anarchist political philsophies (strongly developed by conversion to Swedenborgian).
It also gives an insightful analysis of what Helen's family relationship was really like. If you've ever been on the house tour in Tuscumbia, AL, this stuff is sugar-coated and glossed over. While on some levels one can understand why, one is really mislead about what her life there was really like. Not to mention the true nature of her family. Captain Keller is just not the Civil War hero he had been made out to be, and her mother was very difficult throughout her life.
And had she not suffered from scarlet fever and its aftermath, Helen would have been a Southern Belle through and through. She was very beautiful (despite the eye deformities), and her life would have been such that she would have been expected to marry well and live as much of a life of leisure as possible.
I had no idea that Ms. Keller was essentially an invalid (and virtually suffered from dementia) for at least the last 6 years of her life. Not much information is provided about the end of her life.
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