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The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller

 

Part II: Letters (1887 - 1901)

 

1893

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TO MISS CAROLINE DERBY

Tuscumbia, Alabama, February 18, 1893.

 

...You have often been in my thoughts during these sad days, while my heart has been grieving over the loss of my beloved friend [Phillips Brooks died January 23, 1893], and I have wished many times that I was in Boston with those who knew and loved him as I did... he was so much of a friend to me! so tender and loving always! I do try not to mourn his death too sadly. I do try to think that he is still near, very near; but sometimes the thought that he is not here, that I shall not see him when I go to Boston,--that he is gone,--rushes over my soul like a great wave of sorrow. But at other times, when I am happier, I do feel his beautiful presence, and his loving hand leading me in pleasant ways. Do you remember the happy hour we spent with him last June when he held my hand, as he always did, and talked to us about his friend Tennyson, and our own dear poet Dr. Holmes, and I tried to teach him the manual alphabet, and he laughed so gaily over his mistakes, and afterward I told him about my tea, and he promised to come? I can hear him now, saying in his cheerful, decided way, in reply to my wish that my tea might be a success, "Of course it will, Helen. Put your whole heart in the good work, my child, and it cannot fail." I am glad the people are going to raise a monument to his memory....

 

In March Helen and Miss Sullivan went North, and spent the next few months traveling and visiting friends.

 

In reading this letter about Niagara one should remember that Miss Keller knows distance and shape, and that the size of Niagara is within her experience after she has explored it, crossed the bridge and gone down in the elevator. Especially important are such details as her feeling the rush of the water by putting her hand on the window. Dr. Bell gave her a down pillow, which she held against her to increase the vibrations.  
 

TO  MRS. KATE ADAMS KELLER

South Boston, April 13, 1893.

 

...Teacher, Mrs. Pratt and I very unexpectedly decided to take a journey with dear Dr. Bell     Mr. Westervelt, a gentleman whom father met in Washington, has a school for the deaf in Rochester. We went there first....

 

Mr. Westervelt gave us a reception one afternoon. A great many people came. Some of them asked odd questions. A lady seemed surprised that I loved flowers when I could not see their beautiful colors, and when I assured her I did love them, she said, "no doubt you feel the colors with your fingers." But of course, it is not alone for their bright colors that we love the flowers.... A gentleman asked me what BEAUTY meant to my mind. I must confess I was puzzled at first. But after a minute I answered that beauty was a form of goodness--and he went away.

 

When the reception was over we went back to the hotel and teacher slept quite unconscious of the surprise which was in store for her. Mr. Bell and I planned it together, and Mr. Bell made all the arrangements before we told teacher anything about it. This was the surprise--I was to have the pleasure of taking my dear teacher to see Niagara Falls!...

 

The hotel was so near the river that I could feel it rushing past by putting my hand on the window. The next morning the sun rose bright and warm, and we got up quickly for our hearts were full of pleasant expectation.... You can never imagine how I felt when I stood in the presence of Niagara until you have the same mysterious sensations yourself. I could hardly realize that it was water that I felt rushing and plunging with impetuous fury at my feet. It seemed as if it were some living thing rushing on to some terrible fate. I wish I could describe the cataract as it is, its beauty and awful grandeur, and the fearful and irresistible plunge of its waters over the brow of the precipice. One feels helpless and overwhelmed in the presence of such a vast force. I had the same feeling once before when I first stood by the great ocean and felt its waves beating against the shore. I suppose you feel so, too, when you gaze up to the stars in the stillness of the night, do you not?... We went down a hundred and twenty feet in an elevator that we might see the violent eddies and whirlpools in the deep gorge below the Falls. Within two miles of the Falls is a wonderful suspension bridge. It is thrown across the gorge at a height of two hundred and fifty-eight feet above the water and is supported on each bank by towers of solid rock, which are eight hundred feet apart. When we crossed over to the Canadian side, I cried, "God save the Queen!" Teacher said I was a little traitor. But I do not think so. I was only doing as the Canadians do, while I was in their country, and besides I honor England's good queen.

 

You will be pleased, dear Mother, to hear that a kind lady whose name is Miss Hooker is endeavoring to improve my speech. Oh, I do so hope and pray that I shall speak well some day!...

 

Mr. Munsell spent last Sunday evening with us. How you would have enjoyed hearing him tell about Venice! His beautiful word-pictures made us feel as if we were sitting in the shadow of San Marco, dreaming, or sailing upon the moonlit canal.... I hope when I visit Venice, as I surely shall some day, that Mr. Munsell will go with me. That is my castle in the air. You see, none of my friends describe things to me so vividly and so beautifully as he does....

 

Her visit to the World's Fair she described in a letter to Mr. John P. Spaulding, which was published in St. Nicholas, and is much like the following letter. In a prefatory note which Miss Sullivan wrote for St. Nicholas, she says that people frequently said to her, "Helen sees more with her fingers than we do with our eyes." The President of the Exposition gave her this letter:

TO THE CHIEFS OF THE DEPARTMENTS AND OFFICERS IN CHARGE OF BUILDINGS AND EXHIBITS

 

GENTLEMEN--The bearer, Miss Helen Keller, accompanied by Miss Sullivan, is desirous of making a complete inspection of the Exposition in all Departments. She is blind and deaf, but is able to converse, and is introduced to me as one having a wonderful ability to understand the objects she visits, and as being possessed of a high order of intelligence and of culture beyond her years. Please favour her with every facility to examine the exhibits in the several Departments, and extend to her such other courtesies as may be possible.

 

Thanking you in advance for the same, I am, with respect,

Very truly yours,

(signed) H. N. HIGINBOTHAM,

President.  

 

TO MISS CAROLINE DERBY

Hulton, Penn., August 17, 1893.

 

...Every one at the Fair was very kind to me... Nearly all of the exhibitors seemed perfectly willing to let me touch the most delicate things, and they were very nice about explaining everything to me. A French gentleman, whose name I cannot remember, showed me the great French bronzes. I believe they gave me more pleasure than anything else at the Fair: they were so lifelike and wonderful to my touch. Dr. Bell went with us himself to the electrical building, and showed us some of the historical telephones. I saw the one through which Emperor Dom Pedro listened to the words, "To be, or not to be," at the Centennial. Dr. Gillett of Illinois took us to the Liberal Arts and Woman's buildings. In the former I visited Tiffany's exhibit, and held the beautiful Tiffany diamond, which is valued at one hundred thousand dollars, and touched many other rare and costly things. I sat in King Ludwig's armchair and felt like a queen when Dr. Gillett remarked that I had many loyal subjects. At the Woman's building we met the Princess Maria Schaovskoy of Russia, and a beautiful Syrian lady. I liked them both very much. I went to the Japanese department with Prof. Morse who is a well-known lecturer. I never realized what a wonderful people the Japanese are until I saw their most interesting exhibit. Japan must indeed be a paradise for children to judge from the great number of playthings which are manufactured there. The queer-looking Japanese musical instruments, and their beautiful works of art were interesting. The Japanese books are very odd. There are forty-seven letters in their alphabets. Prof. Morse knows a great deal about Japan, and is very kind and wise. He invited me to visit his museum in Salem the next time I go to Boston. But I think I enjoyed the sails on the tranquil lagoon, and the lovely scenes, as my friends described them to me, more than anything else at the Fair. Once, while we were out on the water, the sun went down over the rim of the earth, and threw a soft, rosy light over the White City, making it look more than ever like Dreamland....

 

Of course, we visited the Midway Plaisance. It was a bewildering and fascinating place. I went into the streets of Cairo, and rode on the camel. That was fine fun. We also rode in the Ferris wheel, and on the ice-railway, and had a sail in the Whale-back....

 

In the spring of 1893 a club was started in Tuscumbia, of which Mrs. Keller was president, to establish a public library. Miss Keller says:

 

"I wrote to my friends about the work and enlisted their sympathy. Several hundred books, including many fine ones, were sent to me in a short time, as well as money and encouragement. This generous assistance encouraged the ladies, and they have gone on collecting and buying books ever since, until now they have a very respectable public library in the town."

TO  MRS. CHARLES E. INCHES

Hulton, Penn., Oct. 21, 1893.

 

...We spent September at home in Tuscumbia... and were all very happy together.... Our quiet mountain home was especially attractive and restful after the excitement and fatigue of our visit to the World's Fair. We enjoyed the beauty and solitude of the hills more than ever.

 

And now we are in Hulton, Penn. again where I am going to study this winter with a tutor assisted by my dear teacher. I study Arithmetic, Latin and literature. I enjoy my lessons very much. It is so pleasant to learn about new things. Every day I find how little I know, but I do not feel discouraged since God has given me an eternity in which to learn more. In literature I am studying Longfellow's poetry. I know a great deal of it by heart, for I loved it long before I knew a metaphor from a synecdoche. I used to say I did not like arithmetic very well, but now I have changed my mind. I see what a good and useful study it is, though I must confess my mind wanders from it sometimes! for, nice and useful as arithmetic is, it is not as interesting as a beautiful poem or a lovely story. But bless me, how time does fly. I have only a few moments left in which to answer your questions about the "Helen Keller" Public Library.

 

1. I think there are about 3,000 people in Tuscumbia, Ala., and perhaps half of them are colored people. 2. At present there is no library of any sort in the town. That is why I thought about starting one. My mother and several of my lady friends said they would help me, and they formed a club, the object of which is to work for the establishment of a free public library in Tuscumbia. They have now about 100 books and about $55 in money, and a kind gentleman has given us land on which to erect a library building. But in the meantime the club has rented a little room in a central part of the town, and the books which we already have are free to all. 3. Only a few of my kind friends in Boston know anything about the library. I did not like to trouble them while I was trying to get money for poor little Tommy, for of course it was more important that he should be educated than that my people should have books to read. 4. I do not know what books we have, but I think it is a miscellaneous (I think that is the word) collection....

 

P.S. My teacher thinks it would be more businesslike to say that a list of the contributors toward the building fund will be kept and published in my father's paper, the "North Alabamian."

H. K.

 

TO MISS CAROLINE DERBY

Hulton, Penn., December 28, 1893.

 

...Please thank dear Miss Derby for me for the pretty shield which she sent me. It is a very interesting souvenir of Columbus, and of the Fair White City; but I cannot imagine what discoveries I have made,--I mean new discoveries. We are all discoverers in one sense, being born quite ignorant of all things; but I hardly think that is what she meant. Tell her she must explain why I am a discoverer....

   

 


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