They’ve boxed up Jabez for shipment back home because no one remembers anymore who he was. Taking his place in the National Statuary Hall Collection is a northwest Alabama native who’s considerably more famous. Her name is Helen Keller, and her statue is not only the first representation of a child and the first of a disabled person in the Capitol, but also likely the first bronze rendering of a radical socialist activist erected there.
You wouldn’t know it to look at her, or at least sculptor Edward Hlavka’s version. It shows Helen Keller as people usually imagine her, 7 years old, at a water pump, making the crucial connection between what Anne Bancroft — er, Annie Sullivan — has spelled into her hand and the wet substance flowing out of the pipe.
If all you know about the little girl from Tuscumbia is what you saw in The Miracle Worker , that’s OK. William Gibson wrote a taut three acts summarizing the struggle of one bereft of sight or hearing to make sense of the world around her, and the characters he limned, Keller and Sullivan, enact one of the great buddy stories in American theatre. Suitably inspirational, The Miracle Worker alone could have been reason enough to enshrine Helen Keller, if not Annie Sullivan as well.
It’s just that the story ends too soon. We get as far as 1887, Helen learns to say, “Wa-wa,” then the curtains fall with 80 years left to go in her life, just as it’s about to get interesting.
Perhaps she was destined to be a literary figure, because Helen’s parents discovered the key to her transformation in a travel journal by Charles Dickens, wherein he described the teaching of a Massachusetts blind girl to become a sewing instructor. The Kellers, in the tech-savvy 1880s, went a step further and contacted Alexander Graham Bell, not only the inventor of the telephone but also a nationally known advocate of teaching speech to the deaf. Through his son-in-law, Bell hooked them up with Annie Sullivan, proficient in spelling words into a pupil’s palm.
Later in life, Helen Keller explained that there was nothing supernatural about her ability to apprehend her environment and express her thoughts cogently. As The New York Times put it, “Her dark and silent world was held in her hand and shaped with her mind.”
That extraordinary mind, unlocked by Annie Sullivan, admitted no limits to what it could grasp. In one of her five books, Keller wrote, “The thought of going to college took root in my heart and became an earnest desire.” She entered Radcliffe College in 1900, Sullivan by her side, and graduated in 1904, just as her autobiography, The Story of My Life, was climbing what passed for the best-seller charts at the turn of that century.
Through the man who would marry Annie Sullivan, John Macy, Keller was introduced to a worldview that pitted working people against their exploitative bosses. In 1909 she joined the Socialist Party of America and became an active advocate on behalf of women’s suffrage, the birth control movement and the rights of laborers, along the way adopting some stridently anti-capitalistic attitudes. She spoke out against impending world war in 1914, donated publicly — a white Alabama woman! — to the NAACP in 1917 and helped found the ACLU in 1918.
Helen Keller became one of the most famous women in the world, so when she expressed her provocative opinions, people paid heed. Some of her opinions merit examination today. In a Labor Forum speech in 1915, she proclaimed, “The only moral virtue of war is that it compels the capitalist system to look itself in the face and admit it is a fraud. It compels the present society to admit it has no morals it will not sacrifice for gain.” Before thousands at Carnegie Hall in 1916, she warned, “We are not free unless the men who frame and execute the laws represent the interests of the lives of the people and no other interest.” When a capital-friendly Brooklyn newspaper suggested her ideas originated from what it called “the manifest limitations of her development,” Keller demanded a fair fight on the basis of intellectual discourse. Pointing out that she could read all the Socialist tracts she wished in English, German and French, she suggested the editor try reading some for perspective: “If I ever contribute to the Socialist movement the book I sometimes dream of, I know what I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.”
Though in the Twenties Keller turned her prodigious energies to working with the American Foundation for the Blind, she remained active in her quest for social justice. In her FBI file — how many other honorees in the Statuary Hall have one of those? — are innumerable citations of “questionable” behavior gathered by Edgar Hoover’s minions. There’s even a page on which both she and Albert Einstein are listed as members of the Communist Party.
Every president from Grover Cleveland to John Kennedy received Helen Keller at the White House, but her most recent appearance in Washington was surely the most delicious. One hundred years after joining the Socialist Party, Helen Keller, radical thinker, union sympathizer and antiwar activist, joined the patriotic pantheon of honor at the Capitol at the specific behest of... rock-ribbed Republican Governor Bob Riley.
As I say, through the years Alabama has had pretty good luck sneaking its progressive thinkers through enemy lines.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.