Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 803:
HELEN KELLER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 803.

Today, a parable of love, language, and self-awareness. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1913 Helen Keller visited her friend Andrew Carnegie. He asked if it was true she was a socialist. She allowed she was. He told her he'd put her over his knee and spank her if she didn't come to her senses. Then he gave some capitalistic advice:

What did she charge for tickets to her lectures on socialism? A dollar-fifty, she answered. Cut that to fifty cents, Carnegie said. You'll make a lot more money.

Of course, Keller was blind and deaf. She was sealed off from written or spoken language at the age of 1½ by a devastating illness. Now linguist Justin Leiber ponders her plight.

Just before her 7th birthday, Anne Sullivan, the so-called Miracle Worker, arrived. Only three months later, Keller could write a simple note to a friend. Talking was harder. It took three years to catch on to speech. Then she mastered it just as quickly. A miracle really did occur.

Leiber points out that, without language, Keller was also without consciousness as we understand it. She had no way to look at herself. She couldn't process her own feelings. Later on, she could recall no emotion from those years of isolation.

The psychological literature is full of language-deprived children. The Wild Child of Aveyron is only the most famous of many. They've all done badly -- all but Keller.

Sullivan had brought her to life. By the age of ten, before she could speak, Keller was corresponding with the likes of John Greenleaf Whittier and Oliver Wendell Holmes. When she was 22, The Ladies Home Journal issued her autobiography in serial form.

She also fell into the trap of becoming America's darling. For all her genius she was a side-show attraction. In 1929 she wrote another autobiography. It's penultimate chapter was, "Thoughts That Will Not Let Me Sleep,"

In it, she recounted her social agenda: Poverty, ecology, pacifism, socialism. Some of that could've landed her in jail during WW-I. She'd argued passionately and well, but people didn't look beyond the novelty to the full force of her ideas.

Then, in the last chapter, she remembers Anne Sullivan, who'd given her the means to survive. The book is dedicated "to Anne Sullivan whose love is the story of my life."

Keller transmuted that love into social action. She was most passionate about education -- for the deaf, the blind, the poor.

In the end we really did hear what Keller had to say. She made us all know how small her handicap could be made. But only after Sullivan, herself virtually blind, had given her the eyes of self-awareness with which to see.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Justin Leiber, UH Philosophy Department, gave a moving lecture at the UH Critical Studies Colloquium on March 19, 1992, "Nature's Experiment, Society's Closure: The Case of Helen Keller." Leiber is a philosopher and writer and an expert in linguistics.

Keller always addressed Sullivan with Oriental formality, as "Teacher." As she recalls her first years with Sullivan, she uses three successive terms to describe herself: Before she acquired language, she refers to herself as "Phantom." For the first two years after she learned finger spelling, she refers to herself in the third person as "Helen." Only when she reached the age of nine did she come into a full sense of self. Only then does the older Keller endow the child with the first person pronoun, "I."

Keller, H., Midstream: My Later Life. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1930.

Keller, H., The Story of My Life, New York: Bantam Books, 1990. (reprint of the original which appeared in serial form in the 1902 Ladies Home Journal.)

Brooks, V.W., Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1956.

You will find several Helen Keller websites. See, e.g.,

http://www.rnib.org.uk/wesupply/fctsheet/keller.htm


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode