[This AmericanStudier is going through a very, very tough time; at times like this, AmericanStudies becomes something different for me: a source of inspiration, an opportunity to remember some of the moments in which Americans have faced great adversity and responded with great power. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such moments, and would love to hear your nominations and thoughts for the weekend post.]
On one of the best American examples of turning adversity into triumph—and a whole lot more.
Thanks in no small measure to The Miracle Worker, both the 1957 William Gibson play and the 1962 Academy Award-winning film, I’d argue that most Americans have a good sense of the amazing life and story of Helen Keller. Left deaf and blind by an illness that hit her when she was just 19 months old, during a period (the early 1880s) when such childhood disabilities were even more affecting and challenging (to say the least) than they remain in our own era, Keller could very easily have become simply a tragic story of lost potential and family struggles, one of many in a century when childhood mortality rates were strikingly high. But thanks to dedicated parents, one truly pioneering and impressive teacher, and her own perseverance, Keller instead became, in the course of her nearly nine full decades of life, one of the nation’s foremost authors, lecturers, and activists.
The specifics of how Keller learned to overcome her disabilities and becoming a highly functioning member of society (indeed, one who functioned at a higher level than almost all of her peers, of all physical abilities), which of course are the famous heart of The Miracle Worker, would be inspiring in any era; again, in her own late 19th century childhood they were that much more impressive still. It’s important to reiterate that she did not accomplish those triumphs on her own; or, rather, that two equally impressive women, her mother Kate Adams Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan, significantly contributed their own inspiring perspectives and perseverance to her life and triumphs. Taken together, the lives and efforts of these three women exemplify not only the most ideal response to a tragic (or at least very adverse) situation, but also the degree to which community and collaboration consistently offer the best possibilities for hope and progress in the face of such adversities.
Yet I would also highlight one more individual and unique, and to my mind equally inspiring, aspect of Helen Keller’s life and identity: her socialism. While that political and social philosophy was not, in the late 19th and early 20th century moments when Keller first connected to it, nearly as controversial here in the United States as it became in the mid-20th century and remains in our own contemporary moment, neither of course was it in the American mainstream. (At least not overtly—as I have blogged elsewhere, the Pledge of Allegiance was authored in 1892 by an avowed socialist, to cite one subtle such presence.) But to my mind, what makes Keller’s socialism so impressive has nothing to do with political debates, and everything to do with what it reflects in her own trajectory: the fact that, having dealt with and overcome some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, Keller gravitated toward a philosophy that was grounded in significant measure in sympathy for, and a focus on alleviating the condition of, all those in desperate situations. It would be easy to imagine Keller embracing the “self-made” mantra that was at the core of many Gilded Age American narratives, but she went instead in the exact opposite direction: recognizing in response to her own challenges and triumphs that any and all such successes depend on community and support.
Next inspiring response to adversity tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Powerful responses to adversity you’d highlight?
10/24 Memory Day nominee: Annie Edson Taylor, the Civil War widow and retired schoolteacher who capped an impressive and inspiring subsequent life of travel and adventure by becoming, at the age of 63, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.