October 13, 2021

Revisioning Helen Keller II: Her Years as a Flaming Radical and Moral Crusader

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

In her twenties Helen Keller, whom the world had come to know and admire for her incredible triumph over her devastating childhood condition of total blindness and deafness, became a fervid and militant socialist. This astonishing transformation in her character shocked many of her followers and appalled her family. Those who had worked so hard, including her teacher, Annie Sullivan, to portray Helen as kind of a secular saint of almost angelic goodness, felt betrayed. It was as if a virgin had been discovered to be a whore.

How on earth did this happen? What had led Helen to begin to espouse and become actively involved in radical causes so at variance with the genteel southern social and political world in which she had been raised?

Here we come to another important man in her life by the name of John Albert Macy.

A few years older than Helen, Macy was a writer, literary critic, poet – and ardent socialist, the author of a staunch defense of socialism, Socialism in America, in which he also strongly endorsed the militant labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), generally and dismissively labeled, the “Wobblies,” who did not eschew violence in pursuit of their vision of social justice.

Macy, a Harvard graduate who had compiled a brilliant academic record with a Phi Beta Kappa key as a token of his achievement and scholastic promise, had entered the world of Annie and Helen while the latter was still enrolled in Radcliffe. At that time, Annie was suffering a great deal from poor eyesight and was very fearful that she would lose her vision altogether. And Helen, who was also under a great deal of emotional stress, was trying to work on a series of articles about her life that had been commissioned by the Ladies Home Journal. Helen actually found writing taxing and difficult, and with Annie unavailable to assist her, a friend suggested Macy might be able to help Helen by serving as her editor. His help was warmly welcomed by both Annie and Helen; he was seemingly a godsend.

In short order, he became an important and indeed vital part of Annie’s and Helen’s world, and he was of enormous help to Helen as an editor, working with her to develop her style as a writer. And more – he appointed himself Helen’s literary agent and before long had negotiated a very good contract with Doubleday for a book based on the articles she was writing for the magazine.

The Story of My Life was published in 1903 and is now regarded as a classic and is still in print. Indeed, in 1996 it was named one of the hundred most important books of the twentieth century by the New York Public Library. Helen did the writing, but much of the success of this book belongs to John Macy. Without his able assistance and agency for the book, it would probably never have attained the status it continues to enjoy.

Needless to say, both Annie and Helen were deeply indebted to Macy, who now became even more closely connected with the two women. He came to spend a good deal of time with Helen, escorting her on walks during which they had many stimulating conversations. And with Annie, there was more than friendship. They found themselves strongly attracted to each other and soon became lovers. They would eventually marry, even though John was twenty-seven at the time while Annie was eleven years older. No matter, they were in love! Helen was thrilled for them both.

The seed of Helen’s interest in socialism was actually first planted by Annie (who was not a socialist herself) when she recommended a book by the then very popular author, H. G. Wells, called New Worlds for Old. Wells was a socialist and was a prominent member of the Fabian Society, which was then a very influential organization advocating for socialism (and still exists) with a number of celebrities, including George Bernard Shaw, among its members. It was that book which in effect figuratively opened Helen’s blind eyes to the plight of workers under capitalism and to the oppression from which they suffered. Helen was immediately hooked and resolved to look into this further.

She already knew of course that John Macy was a committed socialist who was also a good friend of the well known socialist writer, Upton Sinclair, and who openly consorted with other socialist and radical thinkers. When Helen asked him what else she should read, he recommended some socialist tracts, but, more importantly, suggested that she read Marx and Engels in German Braille (by then Helen, who had a gift for languages, could read German fluently), including The Communist Manifesto, which concludes with these now famous stirring lines:

[Communists] openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries unite!

Helen was deeply moved by these words and by what she was reading in the socialist literature. All this spoke to her passion for justice. She saw immediately that this could be the vehicle for her to engage politically as an activist. But first she needed to learn more. Macy would be happy to show her the way, and he did.

Although Helen would later claim that Macy did not attempt to “convert” her to socialism or to foist the books he suggested upon her, he did quickly educate her about the goals of socialism and the Socialist party in America, which were then essentially to wrest control from the capitalists and institute democratic and collective control over private enterprises, such as railroads, telegraphs and telephones, and other forms of transportation and communication, the banks, mines, oil wells, etc. The socialists also wanted there to be equal suffrage for men and women. Furthermore, Macy informed her that many distinguished figures were already a part of a growing socialist movement whose motto became “Socialism is not a theory – it is a destiny.” Among these worthies were such celebrities of the day as William Dean Howells, Alfred Russel Wallace, Anatole France and Maurice Maeterlinck. [He might also have mentioned the recently deceased and disgraced Oscar Wilde, the author of the famous essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” but probably thought better of it.]

All this lit a flame of passion inside Helen. Socialism was her truth, too, and would be her destiny. She would soon become a fiery radical on behalf of socialism – and women’s suffrage.

Perhaps many people today are not aware of how vital and widespread the socialist movement was in America during the years when Helen became involved in it. This was a time of tremendous strife in the field of labor, with many strikes and much violence, all of which Helen now followed closely and was sickened by. It was also a period of often crushing exploitation of workers and the continuing use of child labor and “sweat shops” for immigrant women – all of which was grist for the socialist mill. Socialists, naturally, were on the side of the working class and opposed to the oppressive rule of the capitalist bosses and magnates. If you were to read such works as The Iron Heel by Jack London, another rabid socialist, you would find a novelistic reconstruction of this period. (Frankly, I could never quite get through it, as it is essentially a socialist tract masquerading as a novel.)

But the socialist movement, both in the United States and in Great Britain, was surprisingly strong and effective in countering these trends. During this period in America socialists held something like 1200 political positions, including 79 mayoral offices. And Eugene Debs, the Bernie Sanders of his day, captured almost a million votes when he ran for President in 1912, about 6% of the total. There were many progressive people, and not just workers or radicals, who were either socialists themselves and sympathetic to them.

Into this turbulent current of unrest and agitation Helen jumped with both feet, figuratively speaking of course, as she could hardly march in the many protests of that time. But she could speak, with Annie’s help, and she did with great effectiveness, often to very large, boisterous and appreciative audiences. Once she had to be protected by six policemen from an admiring crowd after delivering a fiery speech to two thousand people in New York, which was met with “thunderous applause.” On another occasion, one of her fervent fans started to rip off her dress (I suppose as a souvenir) while another snatched roses from her hat before she could be rescued from the crush of well wishers.

As a personal aside, I confess I had had no idea about Helen’s involvement in radical causes until I happened to see a documentary about her in which a number of her speeches were excerpted. It was then I learned how powerful a figure she was in those days and what a large following she had. Some people said that she was even more influential than Teddy Roosevelt who was President during that period. Many years later, four years before Helen died, then President Johnson conferred on her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor. And the following year, Helen was elected to the Women’s Hall of Fame. She and Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom Helen enjoyed a warm friendship, received the most votes. She was indeed a mighty force for the many causes to which she had devoted her life.

But with that digression behind us, we must now return to the young Helen during the years when she was such an indomitable presence in socialist and radical circles. During that time, she was also a fierce supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and in her mind, it was intimately linked to her socialist views. “I am a militant suffragette, “ she asserted, “because I believe suffrage will lead to socialism and to me socialism is the ideal cause.” And she was an ardent champion of militant suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst who advocated such tactics of hunger strikes and window smashing. Of course, some, perhaps many, of Helen’s devoted admirers were shocked that she would endorse such actions, but, according to Dorothy Herrmann, her biographer, she seems to have relished her notoriety, saying that it would make people think about socialism and the women’s movement.

She was also meeting and becoming personal friends with many anarchists and radical leaders of the period. The famed journalist, John Reed, who would soon become an active supporter of the Bolsheviks as the author of the bestseller, Ten Days That Shook the World, was one. Another was one of the most prominent and fearsome anarchists of the time, Emma Goldman, who would eventually be deported. And here we must pause to say a little bit about another of Helen’s anarchist friends, Arturo Giovannitti, whose poetry Helen loved. All these people were welcome guests in the home that Annie and Helen shared at the time.

During the period when America was becoming embroiled in WW I, many people who had been involved with such organizations as the Wobblies were arrested, not because they had committed any crime, but because of the notorious Espionage Act of 1917, they were considered a danger to the republic. Giovannitti was just one of Helen’s anarchist friends who was rounded up and jailed. Moreover, virtually every prominent socialist leader including the party’s perennial Presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, was prosecuted and imprisoned. As were Emma Goldman and her lover, Alexander Berkman, who were eventually deported.

Helen was furious. Like other socialists, she was adamantly opposed to America’s entry into the war, not because she was a pacifist, but because she believed that the war was really an imperialistic enterprise that would further damage the interests and well being of the working class. And she was outraged at the injustice being done to many of her friends.

So she took action. Not being able to wield a pen, she sat down at her Braille typewriter and wrote a long letter to President Wilson with whom she had previously communicated, and with some success, to get him to intercede in cases she felt were unjust.

The letter is too long to quote in its entirely, but in order to give you some sense of the way Helen was able to marshal her eloquence in the service of her friends and to protest the abrogation of their civil rights, I will excerpt a few paragraphs from it. The preamble, which I will quote here, eventually leads to a plea for justice for her friend, the poet, Arturo Giovannitti, and several other of her anarchist colleagues. It will also reveal something I will discuss later, which made Helen even more controversial – her sympathy for the Russian revolution. Dated December 17. 1917, the letter begins:

The danger from Prussian militarism is as clear, as intolerable to my friends and myself as it is to you or to any one fighting in France. It is because we think a similar despotism is beginning here that we are troubled. Rights we had thought ours forever -- rights hallowed by the blood and fortunes of our fathers -- rights we had been taught were the very bulwarks of our liberties -- rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution of the United States, are being openly violated every day. The voice of authority commanding silence has downed the voice of justice. Meetings of protest are forcibly broken up; newspapers expressing the opinions of radicals are debarred from the mails; individuals are threatened and clubbed for speaking their minds; many of them have been imprisoned, and excessive bails demanded. The intolerance of the newspapers amounts to fanaticism. Ministers of the gospel of Christ find humor in the flogging of Herbert Bigelow. A high government official condones the murder of Frank Little by a mob, thereby upholding mob rule and lynching. If such a state of affairs continues, our prisons will become holy shrines where thoughtful men will go and pray.

When they hung John Brown, Emerson said, "They have made the gallows as holy as the cross." Beware, lest the avenging hand of remorse be laid upon our generation for the persecution of those who uphold their downtrodden brethren.

Because the Kaiser is destroying freedom in Europe to preserve autocracy, must we destroy it here to preserve democracy? Is there no democratic way of accomplishing the noble enterprise we have undertaken? We want America safe for democracy, no matter what happens in Europe. We want peace and freedom for the world, and we believe that this can be attained only by substituting an industrial democracy for the present economic system. When we emphasize this phase of the world-struggle, we meet with opposition, intolerance and persecution.

It takes courage to uphold opinions opposed by all the forces of a strong government. It may require a Bolsheviki mind to do that. Perhaps you think that is the sort of mind I have. I have. For to me the Russian Revolution [which had taken place just two months earlier] seems the most wonderful thing that has happened in two thousand years. It is like a conscious sun bursting upon a gloomy, disastrous world -- a sun which shall heal the nations. Yet the New York Times characterizes it as "a wreck and ruin, not ameliorated by anything admirable, but attended with every circumstance of shame and disgrace from cowardice to treachery." What shall bridge the gulf between a Bolsheviki mind and a capitalist mind?

We hope that some day mankind will be free and wise and happy in a world where there shall be no want or fear, but bread and work and joy for every human being; and even if that wondrous day should never dawn, to have hoped and worked for it cannot be wrong. We believe in the oneness of humanity. We believe in peace and brotherhood. We believe in the elimination of poverty, ignorance and oppression by one or by many. We believe in industrial democracy as a solution of the economic problem. We grope for the wall -- the wall that shall support our weakness; we grope as those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon-day as in the night; therefore is understanding far from us, and justice doth not overtake us.

Helen was indeed a forceful advocate for righteousness at a time, like our own time now, when the safeguards of democracy were imperiled. But, like others, she was prepared to pay a heavy price for her courage and outspokenness.

A few years earlier, she had brought out a book of essays under the title of Out of the Dark. The book was her effort to explain what had caused her to turn to socialism and its values. As Herrmann notes that book nearly destroyed her angelic image:

No longer was she viewed by the public as a virginal young woman with a Braille book on her lap as she savored the sweet smell of a rose, but as a fierce revolutionary who kept a large red flag in her study.

And this altered view of Helen, which so damaged her reputation in the eyes of others, was not really unfair. For example, in addition to her vehement support of the Wobblies, she was ecstatic about the Russian revolution. In an impassioned speech in 1920 at New York’s Madison Square garden, she cried:

In the East a new star has risen! With pain and anguish the Old Order has given birth to the New… Onward, comrades, all together! Onward to the campfires of Russia! Onward to the Coming Dawn!

Of course, during those years many people on the left held romantic views about the promise of the Russian Revolution, influenced by such well known endorsements as that of the muckraking American journalist, Lincoln Steffens, who after a visit to Russia in 1919 famously proclaimed “I have been over into the future, and it works.”

Disillusionment for him and Helen would come later.

But at the time Helen plunged on with her vigorous advocacy of women’s suffrage, birth control, the reform of laws governing child labor and other policies that most socialists of her stripe favored.

Her family of course was completely dismayed at this turn in Helen’s life. They could neither understand nor countenance it. This simply was not their Helen. She did not make things any better when she spoke about racial injustice.

The outrages against the colored people are a denial of Christ. The central fire of his teaching is inequality. His gospel proclaims in unequivocal words that the souls of all men are alike before God. Yet there are persons calling themselves Christian who profit from the economic degradation of their colored fellow-countrymen. Ashamed in my very soul I behold in my own beloved southland the tears of those who are oppressed, those who must bring up their sons and daughters in bondage to be servants because others have their fields and vineyards, and on the side of oppression is power.

Her family may have been mortified to hear of Helen’s views about racial injustice, but one who was impressed by them was W.E.B. DuBois, one of the co-founders of the NAACP and for many years one of the most prominent spokesmen for the rights of what were then called “colored people.” He eventually befriended Helen and included the statement I have quoted in an NAACP publication.

And then there was vaudeville.

Yes! After her days of fierce and often strident support of radical causes had subsided, she and Annie took to the vaudeville stage. And they were stars! In fact, they were among the highest paid performers on the stage, earning two thousand dollars a week at the Palace and other theaters. Helen loved the theater and performing, and the money was really necessary for them since they were often strapped for cash. She was delighted finally to be earning her own living. She and Annie spent four years, beginning in 1920, on “their act.”

Typically, Helen, dressed up in a sequined evening gown “and looking mighty fine,” would tell her life story, with Annie actually doing the speaking, and afterward Helen would answer questions from the audience. Some of these answers have been preserved (I first saw them on the documentary I mentioned earlier), and Herrmann quotes some in her book.

You might be surprised to learn that Helen had a really good sense of humor and was quick on the quip.

Does Miss Keller think of marriage?
Yes, are you proposing to me?

Does talking tire you?
Did you ever hear of a woman who tired of talking?

What do you think of President Harding?
I have a fellow feeling for him. He seems as blind as I am. 

What do you think of the League of Nations?
It looks like a league of bandits to me.

I like to imagine Helen, with Annie by her side, sitting opposite Johnny Carson and causing him to guffaw with laughter at her clever witticisms.

What a woman was this Helen Keller!

And there’s more to come.

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