It was late 1952, and the World Council of Peace was organizing a conference in Vienna. Diplomats and leftist scholars planned to converge on the Austrian city to denounce America’s aggressive stance toward the Soviet Union, and to advocate for Joseph Stalin’s vision of a “peaceful coexistence” between the two. Just one month before the gathering, the organizers announced they had received an endorsement from an American icon: Helen Keller, then seventy-two years old.
Keller’s leftist sympathies were known to anyone who had been paying attention. For decades, she had publicly extolled Vladimir Lenin as one of the greatest figures of her time. More recently, though, people close to Keller had been urging her to keep those opinions quiet. In a New York Times profile occasioned by her seventieth birthday, she seemed to take this advice, denouncing communism as “another kind of tyranny over human minds and bodies.” But as the historian Max Wallace writes in his trenchant After the Miracle: The Political Crusades of Helen Keller, the Times article didn’t represent Keller’s true views. The profile was likely arranged by one of her powerful friends in the philanthropy world in a bid to rehabilitate her image.
But Keller’s radicalism always tended to resurface. When her colleagues at the American Foundation for the Blind heard about her support for the Vienna conference, one of them dispatched a telegram to the others. For “GOD’S SAKE,” it read:
STOP ANY FURTHER ATTEMPTS ON THE PART OF HELEN KELLER OR ANYONE ELSE CONNECTED WITH THIS INSTITUTION TO WRITE ANY MESSAGE WHICH WOULD BE READ AT THE WORLD COUNCIL TO MEET IN VIENNA DECEMBER 10.
Ultimately Keller did agree to sign a clarification, asserting that she did not “believe in despotism in any form.” But she declined to offer a blanket denunciation of Soviet Communism.
Many decades later, there’s a disconnect in the way we remember Helen Keller. Her long, extraordinary career (she lived to be almost ninety) as an international activist was sustained by an incredible work ethic. She was so deeply invested in politics that she routinely read newspapers in several languages. She authored fourteen books, and delivered hundreds of speeches around the world. But for most of us, Keller’s name conjures a sentimental image of a six-year-old girl at a water pump, her teacher Annie Sullivan spelling out the word “water” on her palm as Keller experiences the first flash of linguistic revelation. That scene—popularized in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker—puts Sullivan at the center of the story of Keller’s life, and makes Keller a passive recipient, rather than an active agent, of social progressivism. One of the questions Wallace sets out to answer in After the Miracle is how that came to be.
Leftist radicalism was hardly part of Keller’s birthright. She was born in northwest Alabama in 1880 to a wealthy family. Her father had been a captain in the Confederate army and was distantly related to Robert E. Lee. He was also rumored to be the first Ku Klux Klan member in Alabama. But Keller was cut off from that environment at a young age. Annie Sullivan took over her education when Keller was six and brought her to the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts the following year.
Keller was already famous by the time she reached adulthood. She was not the first deafblind person to learn to read and write, but the pace at which she acquired these skills, and the degree of her eloquence, was unmatched by others with her disabilities. By the time she was a teenager, she had spent time with William James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mark Twain (who would become her dear friend), and Grover Cleveland.
Keller announced her socialist views to the world in 1912, several years after her graduation from Radcliffe College at Harvard. In a profile first published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and later syndicated across the country, Keller decried the “social blindness” of Americans who failed to see “the fundamental conditions underlying relations between the workpeople and their employers.” When the reporter suggested that poverty was applauded in the New Testament, Keller fiercely corrected him. When Christ said, “blessed are the poor,” she explained, he only meant they’d be blessed in the future as compensation for their suffering.