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The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller

 

Part II: Letters (1887 - 1901)

 

1899

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TO  MRS. LAURENCE HUTTON

12 Newbury Street, Boston,

January 17, 1899.

 

...Have you seen Kipling's "Dreaming True," or "Kitchener's School?" It is a very strong poem and set me dreaming too. Of course you have read about the "Gordon Memorial College," which the English people are to erect at Khartoum. While I was thinking over the blessings that would come to the people of Egypt through this college, and eventually to England herself, there came into my heart the strong desire that my own dear country should in a similar way convert the terrible loss of her brave sons on the "Maine" into a like blessing to the people of Cuba. Would a college at Havana not be the noblest and most enduring monument that could be raised to the brave men of the "Maine," as well as a source of infinite good to all concerned? Imagine entering the Havana harbor, and having the pier, where the "Maine" was anchored on that dreadful night, when she was so mysteriously destroyed, pointed out to you, and being told that the great, beautiful building overlooking the spot was the "Maine Memorial College," erected by the American people, and having for its object the education both of Cubans and Spaniards! What a glorious triumph such a monument would be of the best and highest instincts of a Christian nation! In it there would be no suggestion of hatred or revenge, nor a trace of the old-time belief that might makes right. On the other hand, it would be a pledge to the world that we intend to stand by our declaration of war, and give Cuba to the Cubans, as soon as we have fitted them to assume the duties and responsibilities of a self-governing people....

   

 

TO MR. JOHN HITZ

12 Newbury Street, Boston,

February 3, 1899.

 

...I had an exceedingly interesting experience last Monday. A kind friend took me over in the morning to the Boston Art Museum. She had previously obtained permission from General Loring, Supt. of the Museum, for me to touch the statues, especially those which represented my old friends in the "Iliad" and "Aeneid." Was that not lovely? While I was there, General Loring himself came in, and showed me some of the most beautiful statues, among which were the Venus of Medici, the Minerva of the Parthenon, Diana, in her hunting costume, with her hand on the quiver and a doe by her side, and the unfortunate Laocoon and his two little sons, struggling in the fearful coils of two huge serpents, and stretching their arms to the skies with heart-rending cries. I also saw Apollo Belvidere. He had just slain the Python and was standing by a great pillar of rock, extending his graceful hand in triumph over the terrible snake. Oh, he was simply beautiful! Venus entranced me. She looked as if she had just risen from the foam of the sea, and her loveliness was like a strain of heavenly music. I also saw poor Niobe with her youngest child clinging close to her while she implored the cruel goddess not to kill her last darling. I almost cried, it was all so real and tragic. General Loring kindly showed me a copy of one of the wonderful bronze doors of the Baptistry of Florence, and I felt of the graceful pillars, resting on the backs of fierce lions. So you see, I had a foretaste of the pleasure which I hope some day to have of visiting Florence. My friend said, she would sometime show me the copies of the marbles brought away by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon. But somehow, I should prefer to see the originals in the place where Genius meant them to remain, not only as a hymn of praise to the gods, but also as a monument of the glory of Greece. It really seems wrong to snatch such sacred things away from the sanctuary of the Past where they belong....

 

TO MR. WILLIAM WADE

Boston, February 19th, 1899.

 

Why, bless you, I thought I wrote to you the day after the "Eclogues" arrived, and told you how glad I was to have them! Perhaps you never got that letter. At any rate, I thank you, dear friend, for taking such a world of trouble for me. You will be glad to hear that the books from England are coming now. I already have the seventh and eighth books of the "Aeneid" and one book of the "Iliad," all of which is most fortunate, as I have come almost to the end of my embossed text-books.

 

It gives me great pleasure to hear how much is being done for the deaf-blind. The more I learn of them, the more kindness I find. Why, only a little while ago people thought it quite impossible to teach the deaf-blind anything; but no sooner was it proved possible than hundreds of kind, sympathetic hearts were fired with the desire to help them, and now we see how many of those poor, unfortunate persons are being taught to see the beauty and reality of life. Love always finds its way to an imprisoned soul, and leads it out into the world of freedom and intelligence!

 

As to the two-handed alphabet, I think it is much easier for those who have sight than the manual alphabet; for most of the letters look like the large capitals in books; but I think when it comes to teaching a deaf-blind person to spell, the manual alphabet is much more convenient, and less conspicuous....

   

 

TO  MRS. LAURENCE HUTTON

12 Newbury Street, Boston,

March 5, 1899.

 

...I am now sure that I shall be ready for my examinations in June. There is but one cloud in my sky at present; but that is one which casts a dark shadow over my life, and makes me very anxious at times. My teacher's eyes are no better: indeed, I think they grow more troublesome, though she is very brave and patient, and will not give up. But it is most distressing to me to feel that she is sacrificing her sight for me. I feel as if I ought to give up the idea of going to college altogether: for not all the knowledge in the world could make me happy, if obtained at such a cost. I do wish, Mrs. Hutton, you would try to persuade Teacher to take a rest, and have her eyes treated. She will not listen to me.

 

I have just had some pictures taken, and if they are good, I would like to send one to Mr. Rogers, if you think he would like to have it. I would like so much to show him in some way how deeply I appreciate all that he is doing for me, and I cannot think of anything better to do.

 

Every one here is talking about the Sargent pictures. It is a wonderful exhibition of portraits, they say. How I wish I had eyes to see them! How I should delight in their beauty and color! However, I am glad that I am not debarred from all pleasure in the pictures. I have at least the satisfaction of seeing them through the eyes of my friends, which is a real pleasure. I am so thankful that I can rejoice in the beauties, which my friends gather and put into my hands!

 

We are all so glad and thankful that Mr. Kipling did not die! I have his "Jungle-Book" in raised print, and what a splendid, refreshing book it is! I cannot help feeling as if I knew its gifted author. What a real, manly, lovable nature his must be!...

   

 

TO DR. DAVID H. GREER

12 Newbury Street, Boston,

May 8, 1899.

 

...Each day brings me all that I can possibly accomplish, and each night brings me rest, and the sweet thought that I am a little nearer to my goal than ever before. My Greek progresses finely. I have finished the ninth book of the "Iliad" and am just beginning the "Odyssey." I am also reading the "Aeneid" and the "Eclogues." Some of my friends tell me that I am very foolish to give so much time to Greek and Latin; but I am sure they would not think so, if they realized what a wonderful world of experience and thought Homer and Virgil have opened up to me. I think I shall enjoy the "Odyssey" most of all. The "Iliad" tells of almost nothing but war, and one sometimes wearies of the clash of spears and the din of battle; but the "Odyssey" tells of nobler courage--the courage of a soul sore tried, but steadfast to the end. I often wonder, as I read these splendid poems why, at the same time that Homer's songs of war fired the Greeks with valor, his songs of manly virtue did not have a stronger influence upon the spiritual life of the people. Perhaps the reason is, that thoughts truly great are like seeds cast into the human mind, and either lie there unnoticed, or are tossed about and played with, like toys, until, grown wise through suffering and experience, a race discovers and cultivates them. Then the world has advanced one step in its heavenward march.

 

I am working very hard just now. I intend to take my examinations in June, and there is a great deal to be done, before I shall feel ready to meet the ordeal....

 

You will be glad to hear that my mother, and little sister and brother are coming north to spend this summer with me. We shall all live together in a small cottage on one of the lakes at Wrentham, while my dear teacher takes a much needed rest. She has not had a vacation for twelve years, think of it, and all that time she has been the sunshine of my life. Now her eyes are troubling her a great deal, and we all think she ought to be relieved, for a while, of every care and responsibility. But we shall not be quite separated; we shall see each other every day, I hope. And, when July comes, you can think of me as rowing my dear ones around the lovely lake in the little boat you gave me, the happiest girl in the world!...

   

 

TO  MRS. LAURENCE HUTTON

[Boston] May 28th [1899].

 

...We have had a hard day. Mr. Keith was here for three hours this afternoon, pouring a torrent of Latin and Greek into my poor bewildered brain. I really believe he knows more Latin and Greek Grammar than Cicero or Homer ever dreamed of! Cicero is splendid, but his orations are very difficult to translate. I feel ashamed sometimes, when I make that eloquent man say what sounds absurd or insipid; but how is a school-girl to interpret such genius? Why, I should have to be a Cicero to talk like a Cicero!...

 

Linnie Haguewood is a deaf-blind girl, one of the many whom Mr. William Wade has helped. She is being educated by Miss Dora Donald who, at the beginning of her work with her pupil, was supplied by Mr. Hitz, Superintendent of the Volta Bureau, with copies of all documents relating to Miss Sullivan's work with Miss Keller.

   

 

TO MR. WILLIAM WADE

Wrentham, Mass., June 5, 1899.

 

...Linnie Haguewood's letter, which you sent me some weeks ago, interested me very much. It seemed to show spontaneity and great sweetness of character. I was a good deal amused by what she said about history. I am sorry she does not enjoy it; but I too feel sometimes how dark, and mysterious and even fearful the history of old peoples, old religions and old forms of government really is.

 

Well, I must confess, I do not like the sign-language, and I do not think it would be of much use to the deaf-blind. I find it very difficult to follow the rapid motions made by the deaf-mutes, and besides, signs seem a great hindrance to them in acquiring the power of using language easily and freely. Why, I find it hard to understand them sometimes when they spell on their fingers. On the whole, if they cannot be taught articulation, the manual alphabet seems the best and most convenient means of communication. At any rate, I am sure the deaf-blind cannot learn to use signs with any degree of facility.

 

The other day, I met a deaf Norwegian gentleman, who knows Ragnhild Kaata and her teacher very well, and we had a very interesting conversation about her. He said she was very industrious and happy. She spins, and does a great deal of fancy work, and reads, and leads a pleasant, useful life. Just think, she cannot use the manual alphabet! She reads the lips well, and if she cannot understand a phrase, her friends write it in her hand, and in this way she converses with strangers. I cannot make out anything written in my hand, so you see, Ragnhild has got ahead of me in some things. I do hope I shall see her sometime...

 

 

TO  MRS. LAURENCE HUTTON

Wrentham, July 29, 1899.

 

...I passed in all the subjects I offered, and with credit in advanced Latin.... But I must confess, I had a hard time on the second day of my examinations. They would not allow Teacher to read any of the papers to me; so the papers were copied for me in braille. This arrangement worked very well in the languages, but not nearly so well in the Mathematics. Consequently, I did not do so well as I should have done, if Teacher had been allowed to read the Algebra and Geometry to me. But you must not think I blame any one. Of course they did not realize how difficult and perplexing they were making the examinations for me. How could they--they can see and hear, and I suppose they could not understand matters from my point of view....

 

Thus far my summer has been sweeter than anything I can remember. My mother, and sister and little brother have been here five weeks, and our happiness knows no bounds. Not only do we enjoy being together; but we also find our little home most delightful. I do wish you could see the view of the beautiful lake from our piazza, the islands looking like little emerald peaks in the golden sunlight, and the canoes flitting here and there, like autumn leaves in the gentle breeze, and breathe in the peculiarly delicious fragrance of the woods, which comes like a murmur from an unknown clime. I cannot help wondering if it is the same fragrance that greeted the Norsemen long ago, when, according to tradition, they visited our shores--an odorous echo of many centuries of silent growth and decay in flower and tree....

 

 

TO  MRS. SAMUEL RICHARD FULLER

Wrentham, October 20, 1899.

 

...I suppose it is time for me to tell you something about our plans for the winter. You know it has long been my ambition to go to Radcliffe, and receive a degree, as many other girls have done; but Dean Irwin of Radcliffe, has persuaded me to take a special course for the present. She said I had already shown the world that I could do the college work, by passing all my examinations successfully, in spite of many obstacles. She showed me how very foolish it would be for me to pursue a four years' course of study at Radcliffe, simply to be like other girls, when I might better be cultivating whatever ability I had for writing. She said she did not consider a degree of any real value, but thought it was much more desirable to do something original than to waste one's energies only for a degree. Her arguments seemed so wise and practical, that I could not but yield. I found it hard, very hard, to give up the idea of going to college; it had been in my mind ever since I was a little girl; but there is no use doing a foolish thing, because one has wanted to do it a long time, is there?

 

But, while we were discussing plans for the winter, a suggestion which Dr. Hale had made long ago flashed across Teacher's mind--that I might take courses somewhat like those offered at Radcliffe, under the instruction of the professors in these courses. Miss Irwin seemed to have no objection to this proposal, and kindly offered to see the professors and find out if they would give me lessons. If they will be so good as to teach me and if we have money enough to do as we have planned, my studies this year will be English, English Literature of the Elizabethan period, Latin and German....

   

 

TO MR. JOHN HITZ

138 Brattle St., Cambridge,

Nov. 11, 1899.

 

...As to the braille question, I cannot tell how deeply it distresses me to hear that my statement with regard to the examinations has been doubted. Ignorance seems to be at the bottom of all these contradictions. Why, you yourself seem to think that I taught you American braille, when you do not know a single letter in the system! I could not help laughing when you said you had been writing to me in American braille--and there you were writing your letter in English braille!

 

The facts about the braille examinations are as follows:

 

How I passed my Entrance Examinations for Radcliffe College.

 

On the 29th and 30th of June, 1899, I took my examinations for Radcliffe College. The first day I had elementary Greek and advanced Latin, and the second day Geometry, Algebra and advanced Greek.

 

The college authorities would not permit Miss Sullivan to read the examination papers to me; so Mr. Eugene C. Vining, one of the instructors at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, was employed to copy the papers for me in braille. Mr. Vining was a perfect stranger to me, and could not communicate with me except by writing in braille. The Proctor also was a stranger, and did not attempt to communicate with me in any way; and, as they were both unfamiliar with my speech, they could not readily understand what I said to them.

 

However, the braille worked well enough in the languages; but when it came to Geometry and Algebra, it was different. I was sorely perplexed, and felt quite discouraged, and wasted much precious time, especially in Algebra. It is true that I am perfectly familiar with all literary braille--English, American, and New York Point; but the method of writing the various signs used in Geometry and Algebra in the three systems is very different, and two days before the examinations I knew only the English method. I had used it all through my school work, and never any other system.

 

In Geometry, my chief difficulty was, that I had always been accustomed to reading the propositions in Line Print, or having them spelled into my hand; and somehow, although the propositions were right before me, yet the braille confused me, and I could not fix in my mind clearly what I was reading. But, when I took up Algebra, I had a harder time still--I was terribly handicapped by my imperfect knowledge of the notation. The signs, which I had learned the day before, and which I thought I knew perfectly, confused me. Consequently my work was painfully slow, and I was obliged to read the examples over and over before I could form a clear idea what I was required to do. Indeed, I am not sure now that I read all the signs correctly, especially as I was much distressed, and found it very hard to keep my wits about me....

 

Now there is one more fact, which I wish to state very plainly, in regard to what Mr. Gilman wrote to you. I never received any direct instruction in the Gilman School. Miss Sullivan always sat beside me, and told me what the teachers said. I did teach Miss Hall, my teacher in Physics, how to write the American braille, but she never gave me any instruction by means of it, unless a few problems written for practice, which made me waste much precious time deciphering them, can be called instruction. Dear Frau Grote learned the manual alphabet, and used to teach me herself; but this was in private lessons, which were paid for by my friends. In the German class Miss Sullivan interpreted to me as well as she could what the teacher said.

 

Perhaps, if you would send a copy of this to the head of the Cambridge School, it might enlighten his mind on a few subjects, on which he seems to be in total darkness just now....

   

 

TO MISS MILDRED KELLER

138 Brattle Street, Cambridge,

November 26, 1899.

 

...At last we are settled for the winter, and our work is going smoothly. Mr. Keith comes every afternoon at four o'clock, and gives me a "friendly lift" over the rough stretches of road, over which every student must go. I am studying English history, English literature, French and Latin, and by and by I shall take up German and English composition--let us groan! You know, I detest grammar as much as you do; but I suppose I must go through it if I am to write, just as we had to get ducked in the lake hundreds of times before we could swim! In French Teacher is reading "Columba" to me. It is a delightful novel, full of piquant expressions and thrilling adventures, (don't dare to blame me for using big words, since you do the same!) and, if you ever read it, I think you will enjoy it immensely. You are studying English history, aren't you. O but it's exceedingly interesting! I'm making quite a thorough study of the Elizabethan period--of the Reformation, and the Acts of Supremacy and Conformity, and the maritime discoveries, and all the big things, which the "deuce" seems to have invented to plague innocent youngsters like yourself!...

 

Now we have a swell winter outfit--coats, hats, gowns, flannels and all. We've just had four lovely dresses made by a French dressmaker. I have two, of which one has a black silk skirt, with a black lace net over it, and a waist of white poplin, with turquoise velvet and chiffon, and cream lace over a satin yoke. The other is woollen, and of a very pretty green. The waist is trimmed with pink and green brocaded velvet, and white lace, I think, and has double reefers on the front, tucked and trimmed with velvet, and also a row of tiny white buttons. Teacher too has a silk dress. The skirt is black, while the waist is mostly yellow, trimmed with delicate lavender chiffon, and black velvet bows and lace. Her other dress is purple, trimmed with purple velvet, and the waist has a collar of cream lace. So you may imagine that we look quite like peacocks, only we've no trains....

 

A week ago yesterday there was [a] great football game between Harvard and Yale, and there was tremendous excitement here. We could hear the yells of the boys and the cheers of the lookers-on as plainly in our room as if we had been on the field. Colonel Roosevelt was there, on Harvard's side; but bless you, he wore a white sweater, and no crimson that we know of! There were about twenty-five thousand people at the game, and, when we went out, the noise was so terrific, we nearly jumped out of our skins, thinking it was the din of war, and not of a football game that we heard. But, in spite of all their wild efforts, neither side was scored, and we all laughed and said, "Oh, well now the pot can't call the kettle black!"...

 

 


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