Helen Keller’s Socialism Has Been Whitewashed

You wouldn't know it from the whitewashed image of her as an angelic, unthreatening icon, but Helen Keller — yes, that Helen Keller — was a socialist.

A portrait of Helen Keller in 1956 holding a Braille volume, surrounded by shelves containing books and decorative figurines. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

John Gianvito’s new film, Her Socialist Smile, is a moving experiment in conveying Helen Keller’s left-wing politics. That we know so little of her avowed socialism is astonishing, because she was an extroverted firebrand who delivered hundreds of radical speeches during “a fifty-year run on the lecture circuit.”

Gianvito’s dedicates about a third of the film to some of the most remarkable passages from those speeches. This one, for example, Keller delivered during the run-up to the US’s entry into World War I, when the government was spending a billion dollars in preparation, recruiting a million soldiers, and on the verge of making it a crime to give speeches “interfering with recruitment”:

What have you to fight for? National independence? That means the masters’ independence. The laws that send you to jail when you demand better living conditions? The flag? Does it wave over a country where you are free and have a home, or does it rather symbolize a country that meets with you clenched fists when you strike for better wages and shorter hours?

Critics attacked Keller for her defiant radicalism. “It manages to practically destroy her angelic image,” one wrote. For generations, Keller’s angelic image was preserved largely due to assiduous whitewashing by the institutional forces of the press, the publishing houses, and the educational system, which united in presenting Keller as a model of spiritual strength and moral uplift.

In her own lifetime, Keller was angrily aware that self-styled guardians of the public good were eager to purify her legacy of the supposed taint of radical politics:

So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me “arch priestess of the sightless,” “wonder woman,” and a “modern miracle.” But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics — that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world — that is a different matter!

Keller was one of the most internationally celebrated figures of her time — as famous, say, as her good friend Mark Twain. But what we think we know is the Miracle Worker version of her life: After a bout of fever at the age of nineteen months, Keller emerged blind and deaf, seemingly unable to speak. Her devoted parents, affluent Alabamans, were devastated by her condition and allowed her to run wild. It was Keller’s legendary “Teacher,” Anne Sullivan, who found a way to reach Helen, schooling her in how to read and write Braille, and, miraculously, to speak by the age of ten.

Helen Keller with Mark Twain, circa 1895.

The hugely successful 1957 television production and Broadway play The Miracle Worker, in addition to the award-winning 1962 film directed by Arthur Penn, have cemented Keller in the public mind as a victim of catastrophically disabling conditions who, through the dedication of “Teacher,” nevertheless transcended them. She was, in this telling, a secular saint.

Gianvito’s documentary foregoes that popular fable and plunges immediately into the orations of adult Helen Keller, socialist.

We hear Keller speaking at the beginning of the film, her voice high and atonal, saying: “This is Helen Keller. You are not familiar with my voice.” A “translator” repeats each sentence, because her voice is difficult to understand for the unaccustomed. Keller used the same method when making her innumerable public speeches: she studied with a vocal coach for two years, determined to develop more intelligible speech, but she suffered tormenting stage fright over what she considered her “defective voice.”

Several threads structure Her Socialist Smile. There are lengthy speech excerpts throughout — white letters on a black background, shown in silence, except for a scene when Keller embraces a more radical socialism by leaving the Socialist Party and joining the Industrial Workers of the World, because “I found out that the Socialist Party is too slow.” Then the lettering changes to red.

There are interludes, shot in black and white, showing us the film’s narrator in the recording studio, settling in her seat and shuffling her papers before recounting contextual aspects of Keller’s life. The activity of speaking for public reception, with all its difficulties and mistakes, is emphasized again and again.

There are recurring sequences shot in an ornate, empty, old-time vaudeville house like the ones where Keller would make more entertainment-oriented public appearances in the form of question-and-answer sessions. These exchanges between Keller and her interlocutor are typed out over the background of the theater images. They are generally amusing, but also frequently political.

Q: What is the most important question before the president?

A: How to keep the people from finding out they have been fooled again.

Q: What do you think of capitalism?

A: I think it has outlived its usefulness.

And there are many, many shots of beautiful woodland scenes. These are sometimes related to the subject matter being narrated, such as when a long close-up of a snail’s mesmerizingly slow progress is joined to a voiceover about Keller’s arduous period of political study:

It is no easy and rapid thing to absorb through one’s fingers a book of fifty-thousand words on economics. But it is a pleasure, and one which I shall enjoy repeatedly until I have made myself acquainted with all the classic socialist authors.

In general, however, the documentary gives no indication why we’re looking at so much natural beauty. I suspected that Keller’s great love of nature would eventually be mentioned, but that’s only because I was familiar with the whitewashed biography of Keller’s life.

As a kid I read The Story of Helen Keller, a 1958 children’s book that sat on one of my parents’ many bookshelves. No doubt a typical mid-twentieth-century account, it was full of inspirational stories about young Keller’s heroism in rising above her disabilities. The message for children was clear: if Helen could be so good and persevering and accomplished in spite of her afflictions, what excuse could you possibly have?

Only at the end of the film do we get Keller’s attestation to her favorite thing in life: walking in the woods. It’s an interesting strategy, this refusal to connect the dots for the viewer, but even I, a dedicated dot-connector, got a bit frustrated by the end. It would’ve been useful to overtly link Keller’s love of the natural world to her politics. For example, in the film’s section on Keller’s feminism and antiwar activism, she speaks about women as “natural conservationists,” seemingly in the broadest sense of women’s desire to conserve life. But did Keller also relate it to nature?

Helen Keller in 1904.

In her speeches, Keller often decried the urban poor’s terrible living conditions — a striking contrast to the lovely natural environment in which she had been raised (a luxurious Southern plantation) and later lived (a bucolic Massachusetts house she shared with Anne Sullivan from 1903 to 1917). All her homes seemed to afford beautiful walks on spacious grounds, through woods and fields.

How did Keller became engaged in politics in the first place? What motivated her to take up a demanding course of political study, which the documentary indicates began when Sullivan gave her a copy of H.G. Wells’s New Worlds for Old, an argument for “constructive socialism”? Unfortunately, this film offers only the sketchiest information.

Sullivan’s influence likely played some role. She was born to impoverished working-class Irish parents who emigrated to America to escape the Great Famine. She was partially blind after suffering from trachoma as a child. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was eight, and her father abandoned the family. She and her brother, Jimmy, were sent to live in Tewksbury Hospital, a charitable establishment that would soon be investigated for reports of monstrous cruelty, sexual abuses, and even cannibalism. Jimmy died there of tuberculosis.

While Sullivan was skeptical about the possibility of real political change in the United States — and unlike Keller never joined the Socialist Party — she was sympathetic to the essential aims of socialism. She admired Keller’s ability to sustain her ideals, her optimism, and her determination to fight for social transformation.

If you read up on Keller, you discover that Sullivan’s husband, John Macy, was a socialist and an instructor at Harvard. He had a direct political effect on Keller during the time she attended Radcliffe College, Harvard’s sister school. This continued while Macy and Sullivan’s short-lived marriage lasted, and Keller lived with them. Certain sources suggest that the experience of Radcliffe itself was the radicalizing influence, but that would seem to contradict the lively Keller quote in the documentary, dismissing Harvard and Radcliffe as “perhaps the most imposing monument to dead ideas in this country, where such monuments are numerous.”

Her Socialist Smile is a fascinating documentary that finds many methods of celebrating Helen Keller’s political language and encourages the viewer to revel in her spiky socialist utterances. It’s also highly welcome in dismantling the tiresome “angelic image” imposed on her. This, after all, was a woman whom FBI agents tracked for her supposedly dangerous views — and sent the reports to J. Edgar Hoover himself.