Biographics -- a bumper crop; The Triumph of Helen Keller; Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy, by Joseph Lash. New York: Delacorte. $17.95.
My only reservation about this splendid book is the (doubtless unreasonable) wish that Joseph Lash had begun it four years sooner, and offered us his full-scale portrait of these two estimable women during the bicentennial year. For, by any standard, their triumph over physical limitation and social indifference and inertia is one of the great American stories.
Lash begins it with an account of Annie Sullivan's childhood struggles against poverty and partial blindness, her hunger for education, and her virtual self-creation as an intensely innovative teacher of the blind. Then the focus shifts to the upper-middle-class Alabama family whose bright, "favored" infant daughter fell ill and became blind and deaf, an almost unreachable" young animal" -- until the Kellers hired Annie Sullivan to live with them and become Helen's teacher.
Perhaps it was her sensitivity to "the arrogance of these Southern people," her powerful intuition of contrast and conflict, that liberate Annie's protean (and contagious) energies. Something,m at any rate, produced the "miracle" of making Helen understand that hand signals stood for words, and words stood for things:m It was the pivotal event in the process of bringing Helen Keller "into the world."
Indeed, once she had learned to speak, and become an accomplished writer (graduating from Radcliffe, in 1904), Helen -- always accompanied by her vigilant and indispensable "teacher" -- would be an interntionally beloved advocate of libertarian causes ("she dreamed revolution and general strike . . . she embraced the movements against child labor and capital punishment, Margaret Sanger's crusade for birth control and, . . . woman suffrage"). She labored tirelessly for the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Foundation for the Blind. She was an influential friend of the famous (Mark Twain) and powerful (Franklin Roosevelt); and, in the Joseph McCarthy era, her fiery liberalism even drew some allegations of "redness." She is so much a part of our moral heritage that it is surprising to be reminded she passed on as recently as 1968.
While he is properly deferential to Helen Keller's nearly saintly qualities, Lash emphasizes that both pupil and "teacher" were real women, with all-too-human imperfections. He argues that it was Helen's determined "sublimation of her sexual energies" which motivated her to overcome her handicaps. He details the sad story of Annie's failed marriage to the poet and critic John Macy (it was an "arrangement" that necessarily included Helen, and was undoubtedly doomed from the start). He deals candidly with the forever unresolvable issue of "plagiarism" in Helen's writings (drawn, as they must be, from what she had been told, and been readm ). He is sensitive to the distinctive pathos of a life lived with total dependence on other people -- and makes us see how this was perhaps the severest of Helen's "infirmities."
Joseph Lash seems to me to be a master biographer (his "Eleanor and Franklin" is generally considered the best recent American biography), in the way that one can be a master carpenter or bricklayer: He's a superbly skilled professional who fits everything into place, and doesn't make a mistake. But he has given "Helen and Teacher" (as, I'm sure, the subject gave to him) extra dimensions of resonance, of almost mythic impress and significance. This emphathic and always judicious book is both a respectful celebration of two remarkable lives and a brilliant contribution to feminist studies.