Helen Keller Dies: On This Day, June 1

When Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, the world mourned. The American Federation for the Blind summarized her life: "Her story is, in brief, that of a half-wild creature become a highly intelligent and sensitive citizen with a definite place in the history of our time." Keller was one of the most famous Americans of the twentieth century—her story has been told and retold in venues from magazine serials to Oscar-winning films. The backyard pump at her childhood home, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, where a young Helen had her "breakthrough" is still a powerful symbol of human potential.  Helen Keller with Martha Graham, n.d. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

But there are some things about Helen Keller that today the average American might not know. She was a close friend of Mark Twain, who is quoted in the blurb for her best-selling memoir, The Story of My Life, as saying Keller and Napoleon were the two most interesting people in the nineteenth century.  It was Twain who convinced one of his own sponsors to fund Keller’s college education at Radcliffe. Few might also be aware that Keller was a noted socialist and feminist.

The Gilder Lehrman Collection contains several documents that highlight Keller’s beliefs and celebrity. In a letter from 1941, she writes to a dear friend, the actress Katherine Cornell, about a pleasant evening spent in the company of Mrs. Travers, more widely known as the creator of Mary Poppins.

In another letter from 1943 commenting on a dinner party where, after the "marvelous spaghetti," the guests turned to the nature of truth and women’s place in the world. The conversation among the women showed, said Keller, "how completely we have broken with a still near past when woman let herself be regarded as a flower to be protected, a toy, even a chattel." Along with that letter, Keller posted a copy of "Soviet Power" as recommended reading. She signed the letter "affectionately your rebel."

Signature from a letter, Helen Keller to Nancy, Nov. 5, 1943. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)