Helen Keller’s letters are important, not only as a supplementary story of her life, but as a demonstration of her growth in thought and expression—the growth which in itself has made her distinguished.
These letters are, however, not merely remarkable as the productions of a deaf and blind girl, to be read with wonder and curiosity; they are good letters almost from the first. The best passages are those in which she talks about herself, and gives her world in terms of her experience of it. Her views on the precession of the equinoxes are not important, but most important are her accounts of what speech meant to her, of how she felt the statues, the dogs, the chickens at the poultry show, and how she stood in the aisle of St. Bartholomew’s and felt the organ rumble. Those are passages of which one would ask for more. The reason they are comparatively few is that all her life she has been trying to be “like other people,” and so she too often describes things not as they appear to her, but as they appear to one with eyes and ears.
One cause for the excellence of her letters is the great number of them. They are the exercises which have trained her to write. She has lived at different times in different parts of the country, and so has been separated from most of her friends and relatives. Of her friends, many have been distinguished people, to whom—not often, I think, at the sacrifice of spontaneity—she has felt it necessary to write well. To them and to a few friends with whom she is in closest sympathy she writes with intimate frankness whatever she is thinking about. Her naive retelling of a child’s tale she has heard, like the story of “Little Jakey,” which she rehearses for Dr. Holmes and Bishop Brooks, is charming and her grave paraphrase of the day’s lesson in geography or botany, her parrot-like repetition of what she has heard, and her conscious display of new words, are delightful and instructive; for they show not only what she was learning, but how, by putting it all into letters, she made the new knowledge and the new words her own.
So these selections from Miss Keller’s correspondence are made with two purposes—to show her development and to preserve the most entertaining and significant passages from several hundred letters. Many of those written before 1892 were published in the reports of the Perkins Institution for the Blind. All letters up to that year are printed intact, for it is legitimate to be interested in the degree of skill the child showed in writing, even to details of punctuation; so it is well to preserve a literal integrity of reproduction. From the letters after the year 1892 I have culled in the spirit of one making an anthology, choosing the passages best in style and most important from the point of view of biography. Where I have been able to collate the original letters I have preserved everything as Miss Keller wrote it, punctuation, spelling, and all. I have done nothing but select and cut.
The letters are arranged in chronological order. One or two letters from Bishop Brooks, Dr. Holmes, and Whittier are put immediately after the letters to which they are replies. Except for two or three important letters of 1901, these selections cease with the year 1900. In that year Miss Keller entered college. Now that she is a grown woman, her mature letters should be judged like those of any other person, and it seems best that no more of her correspondence be published unless she should become distinguished beyond the fact that she is the only well-educated deaf and blind person in the world.
Miss Sullivan began to teach Helen Keller on March 3rd, 1887. Three months and a half after the first word was spelled into her hand, she wrote in pencil this letter
TO HER COUSIN ANNA, MRS. GEORGE T. TURNER
[Tuscumbia, Alabama, June 17, 1887.]
helen write anna george will give helen apple simpson will shoot
bird jack will give helen stick of candy doctor will give mildred
medicine mother will make mildred new dress
Twenty-five days later, while she was on a short visit away from home, she wrote to her mother. Two words are almost illegible, and the angular print slants in every direction.
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