PORTLAND – The telling of American history often seems to reflect the cliche about “time healing all wounds.” One example is the often sanitized and gentle way that the history of the civil rights movement is presented to the young and even college students, stripped of the beatings in the South and riots in the North.
A very similar example is the well-known American story of the brilliant deaf-blind prodigy Helen Keller and her teaching by the “miracle worker,” Anne Sullivan.
While the story of Sullivan and Keller is an important one in American history and especially in women’s and disabled people’s history, it is a story of much conflict in which philanthropic elites withheld their support of the duo for many decades.
Like all Americans, I had heard a lot about “The Miracle Worker.” However, my own interest in the history stemmed from my research into poverty in America when I came across Annie Sullivan’s admission to the Massachusetts State Almshouse at Tewksbury, which was one of the largest poorhouses in America.
Born into a deeply impoverished Irish family in western Massachusetts whose alcoholic father may have abused her, Anne also had trachoma, an eye condition that at the time resulted in blindness. After their father could no longer care for them, Sullivan and her brother Jimmie were admitted to the poorhouse in 1876.
Jimmie, who had a tubercular hip, died that year. His sister would spend 4½ years in this institution before charitable official Franklin Sanborn, a noted abolitionist and transcendentalist, transferred her to the Perkins School for the Blind in 1880.
Sullivan’s dramatic achievements in her years at Perkins led to her serving as a valedictorian at her graduation and being chosen in 1887 to teach deaf-blind Alabaman Helen Keller. She received worldwide acclaim for her success in teaching Keller to sign and learn not only English, but later several languages.
Everything came to a strange halt when Sullivan and Keller came to Boston the following year. They were met with a tremendous amount of suspicion that a former poorhouse inmate could possibly have taught anything or that Keller’s communications were authentic. Some accused Sullivan of perpetrating a fraud.
In addition to arousing general suspicion, the two young women were seen as incapable of achieving what Samuel Gridley Howe had done earlier in the century in teaching deaf-blind Laura Bridgman, who, unlike Keller, was quiet, passive and mostly read the Bible. One of the strongest opponents of Sullivan and Keller was Howe’s wife, Julia Ward Howe, the 19th-century feminist and author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
In a letter now housed in her archives at Radcliffe, she wrote, “It was with deep sorrow that we finally became convinced that the impressions given to the public regarding Helen’s performances were far from corresponding with the facts of the case.”
One result of the battle with the Howes was a trial held at Perkins in 1892 charging Keller with plagiarism.
Most of the country looked on with stunned silence — or, in the case of writer Mark Twain and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, with great horror — as the 12-year-old Keller was tried for allegedly copying a story she had heard into an essay sent to the head of the Perkins Institute.
While the jury ended in deadlock, Sullivan and Keller were forced out of Boston by the incident. But the battle between those who believed in the two and those who charged that they were frauds would continue for a decade and a half more.
It ended with, of all people, Sullivan’s original proponent, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, calling for the censure of Anne Sullivan in a 1906 resolution to the Perkins School Board, repudiating the idea that she taught Keller at all.
Interestingly, the battle, which centered on ideas about proper behavior for the poor, the Irish, women and the disabled, seemed to just be dying down when Keller announced in 1911 that she was a socialist.
As she and Sullivan became active in labor strikes and antiwar protests, leaders of the blind community, as well as leading figures in America, denounced them and charged that Sullivan and her husband, John Macy, must have been “propagandists” to get Keller to believe as she did.
The phenomenal entrance of these two women into American history was due in many ways to their persistence and refusal to bow to the many criticisms they received, particularly in the first three decades of their fame. This is the true meaning of their “miracle” and fame to me.
David Wagner, Ph.D., is a professor of social work and sociology at the University of Southern Maine and author of “The Miracle Worker and the Transcendentalist: Anne Sullivan, Franklin Sanborn, and the Education of Helen Keller.”