Scholar Signs: Visible Language, reviewed. PLUS: The Keller-Bell letters, parsed!

Miranda Medugno and Sarah Anne Sillers (C. Stanley Photography)

Miranda Medugno and Sarah Anne Sillers (C. Stanley Photography)

My review of Visible Language, an ambitious original musical in English and American Sign Language being performed at Gallaudet University, is in today’s Washington City Paper. One of the play’s concerns is Alexander Graham Bell‘s relationship with Helen Keller, whom he met as his student, but who became a close friend of Bell and his wife, Mabel.

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, undated photo.

Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan, undated

I’ll say. While researching this review I found several pieces of correspondence spanning a 25-year period between Bell and Keller in the Library of Congress. I haven’t made anything approaching a serious attempt at scholarship here, but I read the letters I found and I was moved and amused by the story they tell, or at least suggest.

In chronological order, to the extent possible:

This one, which Keller wrote to Bell on George Peabody College for Teachers letterhead, is dated only with a month and day. It’s purely cordial. She talks about addressing the German Scientific Society of New York in English and German, and telling them “every deaf child should have a chance to learn to speak.” Which was Bell’s belief, too, according to the musical. His rival, Edward Miner Gallaudet, believed that sign language, rather than speech, should be the primary method of teaching the deaf to communicate. That’s the conflict that drives Visible Language.

This 1893 letter from Bell to Keller’s teacher, Anne M. Sullivan, finds Bell thanking Helen for “the very beautiful poem she sent me” while lamenting that it has…

…not yet been read before the Literary Society, because the meeting was postponed until May 6.
Helen’s effort compares most favorably with the juvenile producation (sic) of our great poets, and indeed surpasses most of them in maturity of thought and beauty of expression. What may we not expect from her in the future?

Letter from Annie M. Sullivan to Alexander Graham Bell, May 3, 1893.Sullivan’s somewhat dismissive reply is at left; click on the image to enlarge it to legible size. Sullivan puts condescending quotation marks around the word poem, continuing:

She worked very hard to comply with your wishes; but as it was written in haste she did not have time develop her ideas fully and express them as well as she would otherwise have done. I feel that I ought to say this much in justice to Helen.

Maybe it’s relevant that Keller was 12 years old when Sullivan sent this letter, but still: thanks, teach.

In this one, from June 2, 1899, Helen writes Bell, “there will be but one drop left to fill my cup to the brim— if it is granted me by fickle Fortune, and that is success in my examinations!” No 18-year-old has ever been so excited about finals. She goes on to tell her old teacher she is reading The Iliad and The Odyssey, and finding Cicero difficult to translate from the Greek. “How is a school-girl to interpret such genius? Why, I should have to be a Cicero, to talk like Cicero!”

A school-girl. Don’t sell yourself short, Helen Keller.

In 1900, she asked “my dear Dr. Bell” to give her some money to go to Radcliffe College, after saying she wishes “that we could renew the beautiful times we had together at the World’s Fair!” (Radcliffe was her backup school, as Harvard University did not accept women at the time. Maybe they do now; I haven’t checked that.) Graduating from Radcliffe in 1904, Keller became the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree, says Wikipedia. It also says that Standard Oil tycoon Henry Huttleston Rogers paid her tuition there. I hope she wrote him a poem.

Then, in 1905, Bell sends Keller $194 to buy Sullivan a wedding present. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index inflation calculator doesn’t even go back that far, but $194 in 1913 money would be the equivalent of $4,664 today. I wonder what she gave her old teacher who dissed her poetry-writing skills in that lavish price range?

Smokin' hot 1907 letter from Helen Keller to Alexander Graham BellBut this epistle (click at right to enlarge, wink-nudge), which Keller wrote to her old friend Bell in 1907, when she was 26, is so smokin’ Penthouse Letters hot I almost think we shouldn’t be reading it. Never consider for one moment when you’re writing a letter or a hilarious Tweet that it could end up immortalized in the Library of Congress.

Helen reports that after “a contest with a pirate most redoubtable, bronchitis,” she is on the mend. Except she would never say anything so unsexy and lame.  What she says is, “I feel the spring coming into my body as well as into the fields and woods.” And that if Bell does not recover from his unnamed illness, she (and Sullivan, presumably) will “come to Washington with all our forces to Mount Guard over you.”

Later, this astonishingly articulate woman writes, “So inadequate are words to express the heart’s warmest emotions!”

And then:

“I should write to you oftener if there were anything piquant enough for a letter. But events occur here as rarely as birds return to last year’s nest,” which sounds like a, how you say, worldly observation.

The letter concludes with a speculative discussion of the nascent field of aviation.

I long to be with you again and to see and hear what you are doing, and whether we are any nearer to flying. It would be fine if we took our flight across the Potomac some morning before breakfast. How it would air my whole soul to have such an experience! I wonder if this will ever happen. It seems more and more difficult for us humans to pull up anchor and sail away to skyey ports.

Skyey ports! Why didn’t we call them that?

And in fact, just a year later, Bell writes to Keller from right here in Washington, DC informing her of the progress of the Aerial Experiment Association’s “aerodromes.”

A decade passes before the next letter I found, wherein a 38-year-old Keller asks the 71-year-old Bell if he would consent to appear in the movie that’s being based on her life.

I believe it has been suggested that if you cannot come, some one might be “made up” to represent you, provided you would consent to such a substitute. But that would be only an imitation of you, not your dear self, and I should not know how to behave towards a mere substitute of you.

Dear Dr. Bell, it would be such a happiness to have you beside me in my picture-travels!

She goes on to explain that most of the other people she wanted to invite into the film are dead.

Phillips Brooks, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edward Everett Hale, Henry Rogers, Samuel Clemens and many others would have a place in the picture if they were living. You and Mrs. William Thaw are almost the only ones left who entered the acacia walk with me where it begins in the sweet dawn of childhood.

Even before my teacher came, you held out a warm hand to me in the dark. Indeed, it was through you that she came to me. How vividly it all comes back!

1918 letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Helen KellerBell’s reply, from 13 days later (at left, click, etc.), is just so sweet. “I have the greatest aversion to appearing in a moving-picture,” he begins, but goes on to say he would do anything Keller asks.  He then points out that actors will have to be hired for the scenes of their early meetings, beginning when she was seven.

“You will have to find someone with dark hair to impersonate the Alexander Graham Bell of your childhood,” he writes. “And then perhaps your appearance with me in a later scene when we both are as we are now may be interesting by contrast.”

Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood would not be released for another 96 years.

(Thanks to WCP Arts Editor Christina Cauterucci for the headline, “Scholar Signs.”)

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