Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Helen Keller and "subversive verses"

I was chatting with a couple of folks about how Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land morphed from a song that was critical of certain aspects of American society to one of our great patriotic standards through the omission of a couple of subversive verses. Suddenly Helen Keller came to mind.

Helen Keller was the blind and deaf girl who overcame adversity through the devotion of her teacher, Ann Sullivan. The story is told very movingly in The Miracle Worker. Who can forget that scene at the water pump--the patience of the teacher spelling "water" in her hand over and over, the look of wonder on Helen’s face when she suddenly understood?

What a story! And what a lesson for us all.

But Helen Keller's life didn't end there. As an adult, she became a socialist, disenchanted with much of American life. She toured slums and sweatshops, talked to the poor, and came to an understanding as profound as the one she learned at the water pump. "I had once believed that we were the masters of our fate," she wrote in her memoirs, "that we could mold our lives into any form we pleased. I had overcome blindness and deafness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life's struggle. But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to my birth and environment. I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone."

Helen Keller's childhood is a success story, a wonderful example of the American Dream, the idea that anyone, even a blind and deaf girl, can make it. It's a story we want to believe. But it's the opposite of the lesson she wanted us to draw from her life, and so the adult Helen Keller has disappeared from our national mythology--the "subversive verses" again forgotten.