Anne Sullivan’s pioneering work in Tuscumbia.
Ivy Green, The Miracle Worker, and that iconic water pump.
I struggled with how to do these three pieces that are inextricably interwoven and part of the American story. It seemed to make the most sense to honor them together.
No. 12: Helen Keller
Old money, old South — you wouldn’t expect the daughter of a Confederate general and Confederate captain from Tuscumbia to become a radical suffragette, socialist firebrand, and anti-militarist.
Born blind, you wouldn’t expect such a person to pen one of the most widely-read American autobiographies — and 11 other books.
But, such were the ironies in this daughter of Calvinist Swiss forbears — a family that, coincidentally, created that nation’s first school for the deaf and blind. For an encore, their descendant would upend the world in ways we now take for granted or are completely overlooked.
She founded one of the first disability advocacy group for the blind — Helen Keller International (one of the most efficient international charities going). Not content to fight merely for the rights of the disabled, she then co-founded the ACLU. Keller became a prolific author, penning 12 books. She was an activist for women’s self-determination, particularly access to birth control the ballot...at a time when both were deeply controversial. Keller loudly opposed the mad militarization and colonial jingoism in the run-up to the global catastrophe of World War I. Warning of the humanitarian disaster lurking behind those guns of August, she was saved only from louder accusations of unpatriotism by her domestic accomplishments and literary achievements.
For a well-heeled socialite, she scandalously defied the conventions of her breeding (and the South,) cavorting with Eugene Debs, the Wobblies, and trade unions in an era of equal-parts radical socialist awakening and equal-parts socialism panic. Perhaps just as scandalously for the scion of a prominent southern family — all debutantes and demurrer— she was an urban creature to her core, moving seamlessly in and among the Yankees and Europeans: a motivational speaker, outspoken activist and advocate, a celebrity, and a proto-jetsetter in the age of steam and sail.
Helen Keller was not born blind and deaf — she became so at 19 months old. The so-called “Forgotten Radical” was certainly was not born meek either. Though she lost the ability to speak before it was fully formed, when Helen did find her voice again, she never stopped using it.
Forget the modifiers or qualifiers: Helen Keller is, and would have been, a defiant person in any era. She and Anne Sullivan — and the generous patronage they received along the way — made a better world for those with disabilities. And they’re still making an impact.
No. 11 Anne Sullivan’s miraculous work
Equally remarkable was the work of her lifelong companion, friend, and teacher, Anne Sullivan. Like Keller, Sullivan too lost her sight at an early age. But, coming from the more urbane North, Sullivan was able to obtain formal education for blind students at the Perkins School. That education paid dividends. Just 20-years-old at the time, the recent grad was hired by the Keller family to come and teach their 7-year-old Helen.
The culture shock in moving from 1887 Massachusetts to 1887 rural Alabama was palpable. Almost immediately upon landing in Tuscumbia for her au pair role, Sullivan and the Kellers began fighting over the Civil War, and the Keller’s history as a slave-owning family.
But, they eventually found an uneasy truce and common cause in young Helen, into whose education Sullivan threw herself entirely. The question became how to teach a person who could not see or hear how to communicate? What would be born in those frustrating weeks and months was eventually a revolutionary form of tactile learning — one of face-reading and object recognition; of phoneme development; and eventually, an eclectic style that laid the ground work for her charge to learn Braille and the early sign language.
It’s as iconic a scene in American film as Boo Radley stepping from behind the door: that moment where Anne breaks through to Helen at the pump handle, opening a new world for them both.
That moment was indelibly etched in Keller’s memory as “my soul’s birthday” — March 5, 1887.
The breakthrough at the pump handle led the rigid Sullivan into ditching her lesson plans and, in Rousseau’s fashion, following the lead of her inquisitive, bright pupil. In rapid order, Sullivan would teach Helen multiplication tables, a 575-word vocabulary, and then the Braille language. Sign language followed.
And, for the next half-century, long after Keller had stopped being a pupil, and long after Sullivan had shepherded Helen through Radcliffe College, the two women would be side-by-side in life and death, as steadfast companions, advocates, and friends.
The intensely private Sullivan was not the public figure that Keller was, despite having perhaps a greater impact in the daily lives of persons with disabilities. Though an advocate for the blind — and one of the figures instrumental in the American Federation for the Blind, Sullivan remained an educator at heart.
Her experimental approaches to teaching manifested themselves in her facial learning techniques, a push for the standardization of the Braille language, a student-directed curriculum, and eventually moved Congress towards placing learning materials on “talking texts” — the forerunners of audiobooks.
For all of this work, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) would dub her “the Miracle Worker.”
In 1973, Helen Keller entered the inaugural class of the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1983, as accomplished as Keller in her own right, Anne Sullivan (Macy) joined her.
No. 10 Ivy Green and the Miracle Worker
The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan is not complete without the backdrop to their lives and the many adaptations of their story that live on a century later.
Ivy Green, in West Tuscumbia, still stands in 2019. It is not the sprawling Tara-like manse of Margaret Mitchell’s world; rather, it is just a nice, even relatively-modest plantation home, situated on spacious and immaculate grounds in the verdant hills of Northwest Alabama. Verandas, a lush lawn, trees a’plenty, a guest home, and a quaint gazebo lending it all an unmistakable air of a comfortable, lived-in home. You can almost see Helen running down the stairs and across the lawn.
It is on both the Alabama and National Registers of Historic Places.
The home is also the seat of the annual Miracle Worker at Ivy Green. For over thirty years now, Ivy Green has hosted an outdoor performance of William Gibson’s outstanding Miracle Worker, detailing the lives of Sullivan and Keller, and their remarkable breakthrough at that iconic pump handle.
In turn, Gibson’s work is an adaptation of Helen Keller’s autobiography, My Life in Words. Taking Twain’s appellation, Miracle Worker, his adaptation would be made into a 1962 film starring two titans: Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft. The pair both won Oscars that year for their powerful portrayals of these remarkable women.
This year’s performance has passed (it is usually in midsummer), but you can and should plan an excursion next year — or at least once in your life. Like a trip to the beach or Point Mallard, like the Iron Bowl and knowing what back road has the best barbecue no one has ever heard of, like knowing where the state troopers hide, it is an Alabamian’s rite of passage.
The event is hosted by, and proceeds go to, the Helen Keller Foundation, so you can do some good and be entertained at the same time. That is, if walking the grounds of living history and breathing an almost-palpable defiance was not enough motivation.
The story of Helen Keller is not complete without the story of Anne Sullivan and Sullivan’s ground-breaking work at Ivy Green. Keller does not become the formidable presence without that moment in which her soul was given wing; when she broke out of a world of darkness and into the light of ideas and communicating them.
Fittingly, the two are honored in death as they were bound in life.
When Sullivan passed away in 1936, her ashes were interred at the Washington National Cathedral — the first such woman to be so honored. And, when her protege-turned-friend passed away in 1968, Helen Keller would be interred alongside her at the Cathedral — the second woman to be so honored.
But while the flesh is mortal, their legacy is not.
We are now just 10 days away from football season.