1998, 425 P
This is the biography that I should have read first, before embarking on Kim E. Nielsen’s The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. It is a much longer book, dealing with her whole life, right from birth until death, and it is not overtly written from a particular theoretical perspective. It draws heavily on the many works that Keller herself wrote, previous biographies, and correspondence between Keller and many correspondents, and between that network of correspondents themselves. Herrmann points out that a fire in 1946 destroyed much of Keller’s correspondence, which is of course unavailable to later biographers.
Although the focus is on Keller, this biography also examines her relationship with the two women who were the most important in tethering Keller to the sighted/hearing world: Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson, and to a lesser degree Nella Braddy Henney, who herself wrote a biography of Anne Sullivan. While these relationships are without question fundamental to understanding Keller, Herrmann at times is distracted by telling their stories at some length, to the extent that you wonder as a reader quite where she is going with this.
She casts a critical eye on Anne Sullivan in particular, suggesting that this complex, suffocating relationship brought limitations to both of them. Neither woman would have attained the fame she did without the other. There was one occasion in particular where I wondered how much evidence Herrmann was operating on when she offered a number of rather startling, left-field suggestions for a ‘secret’ alluded to by Helen Keller.
I like how ’rounded’ this biography is. She explores Keller’s sexuality, her politics, her financial situation and her spirituality. She follows through the full length of Keller’s long life, which demonstrated to me Keller’s resilience once she emerged from her grief at the death of Anne Sullivan, and later Polly Thompson. It is clear that Keller had her own politics and her own religion, quite distinct from the opinions of her companions. Perhaps because I’m getting older myself, I’m increasingly interested in the way that people embrace aging, and Keller certainly was active until she was quite old, and I’m glad that Herrmann has stayed with her to the end.
There’s a video interview with Dorothy Herrman here that demonstrates the richness of this biography.
Sourced from: borrowed from the Internet Archive. At a time of lockdown, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could get this here.
My rating: 8/10