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After the Miracle: The Political Crusades of Helen Keller, by Max Wallace

The early years of Helen Keller’s life were first portrayed to a great extent in the same way as I learned about her late in her life, as a boy growing up in the 1960s. My knowledge of her was almost entirely shaped by the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker: a girl rescued from the limitations of being blind and deaf by the steadfast and miraculous work of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. As Max Wallace points out in his new book After the Miracle: The Political Crusades of Helen Keller, Anne Bancroft won the Oscar for her portrayal in the movie of Anne Sullivan, while Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Keller, in effect assigning Keller a supporting role in her own story.

Wallace points out that this echoed the creation of her life story from the beginning. The first several chapters of the book take us through Keller’s early years and learning, and show how her first book, The Story of My Life, published in 1902, when she was 22 and attending Radcliffe College, was shaped by various forces to highlight the role of the teacher over the student.

But, oh, her life in between those early and late years! Before reading this book, I confess that I was unaware of what an outspoken political activist she was. Early on, she spoke out against Jim Crow laws, and opposed America's entry into World War One. She was giving money to the NAACP as early as 1916, and helped found the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. She was a suffragette, a supporter of birth control, and had joined the Socialist Party in 1909. She spoke out against Hitler as early as 1933, and spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy during the height of his anti-Communism witch hunts in the 1950s.

Keller’s political journey began in her twenties with her embrace of socialism, which is covered in several chapters. From there, she became active in the suffragist movement. Indeed, she was more attracted to the movement as represented by Britain’s Emily Pankhurst, who advocated direct action and civil disobedience to further the cause. Keller expressed doubt about the more genteel ways of the American suffragist movement, writing

“So long as the franchise is denied to a large number of those who serve and benefit the public, so long as those who vote are at the beck and call of party machines, the people are not free, and the day of women’s freedom seems still to be in the far future,” she wrote. “It makes no difference whether the Tories or the Liberals in Great Britain, the Democrats or the Republicans in the United States, or any party of the old model in any other country get the upper hand. To ask any such party for women’s rights is like asking a czar for democracy...We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We elect expensive masters to do our work for us, and then blame them because they work for themselves and for their class.”

In a 1913 interview with the New York Times, Keller praised Pankurst and endorsed the “smashing of windows, hunger strikes, anything that will bring publicity to the cause.” She further declared to the paper that “I believe suffrage will lead to socialism, and to me socialism is the ideal cause.” She explicitly linked her support for women’s rights larger issues of class. For example, in her 1913 response to anarchist leader Emma Goldman being arrested in New York City for distributing pamphlets on birth control, she wrote

“The arrest of Emma Goldman for teaching effective methods of birth control seems to me to have raised the only important issue in the whole fight for family limitation...Many mothers already desire to limit the number of offspring. They live among families so large and so poor that hunger forces them to send their young children to labor...The law is offended only when someone takes direct action against the frightfulness of the industrial conflict. This is no mere fight to keep a woman out of prison; it is a battle for the freedom of all women. Anyone that refuses to take part in it because Emma Goldman happens to be an anarchist, is guilty of treason to the cause of the workers.”

Also in 1913, Keller responded to an appeal from NAACP cofounder Oswald Garrison Villard for support for their cause. She responded with a check for one hundred dollars and a letter which said in part

“Nay let me say it, this great republic of ours is a mockery when citizens in any section are denied the rights which the Constitution guarantees them, when they are openly evicted, terrorized and lynched by prejudiced mobs, and their persecutors and murderers are allowed to walk abroad unpunished. The United States stands ashamed before the world whilst ten million of its people remain victims of a most blind, stupid, inhuman prejudice.”

Keller’s radical stances had generated increasing criticism in the media, and this letter crossed a line for many, particularly in her native state of Alabama. W. E. B. DuBois proudly reprinted her letter in The Crisis, but afterward an anonymous donor paid to have it reprinted in the Selma Journal for quite the opposite reason: to expose to a wide white Southern audience what Keller stood for. People, including whites, were lynched for expressing such ideas.

We can imagine how Helen Keller would view the Black Lives Matter movement by considering her public denunciation of the police in the case of Isaac Woodward, a Black soldier returning home to South Carolina after serving in the Pacific theater of World War II. He got into an altercation with the Greyhound bus driver over a request for a bathroom break. The police were summoned, and they beat the young soldier to the point of blinding him. Of the incident, Keller wrote that it was “a glimpse into another abyss of evil, learning how a police officer blinded a colored veteran, reportedly in ‘self-defence.’

Not all of her stances were noble, and the book doesn’t shy away from those controversies. She flirted with the eugenics movement in her early years, surprising for someone who herself would have been deemed irredeemably defective. In her support for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, and her support for America’s intervention in World War II, she seemed driven not only by a prescient view of the evils of fascism, but also by a blinkered view of the purported Communism being practiced in the Soviet Union. Indeed, Chapter 18 is entitled “Fellow Traveler,” using the pejorative term used during the Cold War for those with Communist sympathies. She came under heavy suspicion from Senator Mccarthy and his ilk for her connections to Communism. She publicly pushed back against McCarthy, but was probably protected from the worst of the anti-Communist excesses by her celebrity rather than her fighting.

Late in her life, in 1959, after she had been less public with her politics for some years, Keller received an appeal from someone representing the South African legal defense committee, asking her to endorse their representation of Nelson Mandela against the South African government’s prosecution of them for treason. It was not a popular cause in the United States, mired as it was in Cold War paranoia of anything with the taint of Communism. By this time, Keller’s firebrand politics of her earlier years had faded from public awareness, once again overtaken by the sentimental portrait of the young girl as had been portrayed in the 1957 Playhouse 90 television drama The Miracle Worker (which began its Broadway run in 1959 and adapted for Hollywood in 1962. She could have played it safe and avoided stirring up another controversy, but she did not do so. She issued a public statement against apartheid: “Freedom-loving, law-abiding men and women should unite throughout the world to uphold those who are denied their rights to advancement and education and shall never cease until all lands are purged from the poison of racism and oppression.

Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1962, and for the rest of her life stayed mainly at home, devoted primarily to raising funds for the American Society for the Blind. She died in 1968. This book is a welcome appraisal of her fascinating political life.