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
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.
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