To understand the people who've profoundly impacted history, we're exploring the books that profoundly impacted them. Here, Dorothy Herrmann, author of Helen Keller: A Life, tells us about the writer and activist’s passion for philosophy, love of Walt Whitman, and devotion to the work of a Swedish theologian.
By Dorothy Herrmann as told to Cori Brosnahan
Helen Keller was very well read. Reading was one of her few pleasures because, as a woman who was totally deaf and blind, she really couldn’t hear music or see paintings. Before braille was first standardized in the United States in 1918, there were about five different types of raised point, and she knew all of them. She fought for braille to be standardized and was very glad when that came to pass; having to deal with reading material in all of these different raised prints was very difficult.
She knew several languages and was able to read in braille the works of foreign authors. She read Goethe and Schiller in German, Molière in French, Milton’s poetry in English. She was especially interested in philosophy. Referring to her years at Radcliffe College, she wrote, “I was so happily at home in philosophy that it well would have rendered those four difficult years worthwhile. Philosophy taught me how to keep on guard against the misconceptions which sprang from the limited experience of one who lives in a world without color and without sound.”
She read Emerson, Thoreau, Plato, and Kant. But her favorite philosopher was Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a famous Swedish member of parliament. He had a series of very profound religious experiences and abandoned his regular work in science. He claimed that a number of extraordinary visions were revealed to him in dreams. After these revelations, he wrote extensively on the meaning of the Bible, heaven and hell, and divine love and wisdom.
His writings really appealed to Helen. He believed that anything incomplete or defective in this world, in the next life would be made whole. In other words, she wouldn’t be deaf and blind in the afterlife. Helen’s parents were Presbyterians. But Helen was devoted to Swedenborg, who was a mystic. She was loyal to that religion throughout her life.
She also read a great deal of poetry. Her favorite poet was Walt Whitman. In her autobiography, she wrote of Whitman: “He has been an inspiration to me in a very special way. I began to read his poetry years ago at a time when I was overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and self-doubt. It was when I read "The Song of the Open Road" that my spirit leaped up to meet him. For me his verses have the quality of exquisite physical sensations. They wave like flowers, they quiver like fountains, or rush on like mountain torrents. He sings unconquerable life. He is in the middle of the stream. He marches with the world's thought, not against it. To me he seems incomparably our best poet.”
What else? She loved the world of nature — One Day in Teton Marsh and An Almanac for Moderns were special books for her. And I assume since she was a socialist that she would have read The Communist Manifesto, and perhaps other socialist works.
One work that she was not particularly interested in was The Miracle Worker — the famous play about her by William Gibson. She read it in braille, but she really didn’t care for it. By that time her own life as it existed in the popular mind had become very boring to her.
Now, of course, she was a great friend of Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. She doesn’t mention reading any of Twain’s books, but it seems unlikely to me that she wouldn’t have read Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer. Twain had lost his daughter Susie to spinal meningitis, and for him, Helen Keller was sort of a substitute daughter. She once stayed overnight at his house for the weekend and he put a bottle of whiskey and a cigar in her room. She thought that was funny. Of course, Helen did like to drink. She was very fond of martinis. She really was a very down to earth woman, who seemed to have a very good sense of humor.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Read more about braille, accessibility and Helen Keller's achievements.