Seen the Glory
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched-they must be felt with the heart.” Helen Keller
300 N Commons St W, Tuscumbia, Alabama (opened 1954)
It would be difficult to refrain from crying while watching The Miracle Worker. Tears flow along with the water from the pump as Helen cried out, “Wah! Wah!” Helen Keller’s birth house, Ivy Green, is testimony to prevailing over seemingly impossible odds.
Mark Twain compared Helen Keller to Joan of Arc, and “fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals.” The story of Helen and Ivy Green began with Kate Adams, a relative of General William Tecumseh Sherman. At age twenty-two, she married the two-decade older widowed Captain Arthur Henley Keller, a second cousin of General Robert E. Lee. The Kellers lived in a cottage on Ivy Green, “The Little House,” until the 1880 birth of their daughter, Helen Adams Keller.
At nineteen months, Helen contracted what doctors diagnosed as “brain fever,” most likely scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left the toddler blind, deaf, and unable to formulate articulate speech. Kate’s life in Ivy Green was no ivory tower. The Kellers had a strained relationship, and Helen possessed the social skills of a feral child. She threw tantrums, snatched food from others’ plates, and smashed lamps. On one occasion, she locked her mother in a pantry; jealous of younger sister Mildred, she overturned her cradle. Relatives suggested the “mental defect,” be placed in an institution. Kate confided to a friend, “Fate ambushed the joy in my heart when I was twenty-four and left it dead.”
The Kellers took Helen to the inventor of the telephone, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell; whose practice centered on deaf patients as his mother and wife shared the same affliction. He suggested Arthur and Kate contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. One of the school’s teachers, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, whose wife, Julia, had penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic, had wrought wonders with the deaf-blind Laura Bridgman.
Dr. Bell’s son-in-law, Michael Anagos, the director of Perkins, recommended the twenty-year-old Anne Mansfield Sullivan as Helen’s tutor. At age five, Anne had contracted trachoma that had diminished her eyesight, and she was familiar with Braille and the manual alphabet.
For a salary of twenty-five dollars a month, Anne arrived at Ivy Green where chaos ruled the Keller roost due to Helen’s outbursts. On her first encounter with her charge, Helen ransacked Anne’s purse for candy; finding none, she threw a punch that knocked out the stranger’s tooth. The first order of business was to move with Helen to The Little House, away from her over-protective parents. The plan for unlocking language was to let Helen feel an object, followed by Anne signing into her palm. The magic moment occurred in 1887 at the pump in Ivy Green’s yard: Helen made the connection between the water and her memory of “Wah! Wah!” The water pump had transformed into her Tree of Knowledge. The adult Helen recalled, “I knew that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool thing that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.” After mastering her first word, Helen pointed to Anne, who spelled “teacher,” and teacher she was for the remainder of her days.
By June, Helen shared with Anagnos that Anne knew approximately 400 words, a fact he reported to the Boston newspaper who referred to the prodigy as “the wonder child.” By age twelve, Helen had read “Paradise Lost.” She wrote of the books wherein she could visualize a world closed to her, “Literature is my utopia… Here I am not disenfranchised.” President Grover Cleveland invited teacher and student to the White House; over the course of her life, Helen met with thirteen presidents. She was acquainted with writers Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Mark Twain, and celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Enrico Caruso, Sophie Tucker, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harpo Marx.
If fate had woven a different scenario, Helen would have likely trod Mildred’s path: marriage, motherhood, and an Alabama home. Instead, Helen attended Radcliff though higher education was mainly the provenance of men, and the Kellers could not have afforded the expense. Mark Twain introduced Helen to Standard Oil magnet Henry Huttleston who financed her education. Helen distinguished herself as the only deaf-blind student in the school’s history, and its only published author. On her Braille Hammond typewriter Helen wrote The Story of My Life that bore the dedication, “To Alexander Graham Bell Who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies.”
Tuscumbia’s daughter had scaled remarkable heights: graduation cum laude-an event that garnered international headlines, an autobiography that appeared in fifty translations. She had touched the faces of royalty, travelled the world, danced with Martha Graham. And yet sadness seeped in; in 1922, she wrote, “I have desired the love of a man.” She found her soul mate in journalist Peter Fagan who acted as her secretary when Anne took ill. The couple’s elopement collapsed when a Boston reporter discovered a newspaper entry with their names. Once again in the role of the over-protective mother, Kate ordered Fagan to stay away. Helen remarked that if she could see, “I would marry first of all.”
As life had denied Helen sight and sound, husband and child, she turned to social causes. An early opponent of Nazism, Joseph Goebbels consigned her books to the bonfire. In response, Helen penned a letter to German students, “You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels…” Her remarkable achievements flew in the face of Hitler’s Akton T4, a program of euthanasia for those who had physical or mental handicaps. The courageous crusader co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union, was an early supporter of the NAACP, and championed birth control. J. Edgar Hoover kept a file on Helen due to her leftist leanings.
In 1936, as Anne lay dying, Helen held the hand that had been her lifeline to the world for fifty years. Helen’s life, that had begun in Ivy Green, Alabama, ended in 1968, in Arcan Ridge, (so named after a Scottish village Helen had visited,) Connecticut. Death held no terror as it signified a reunion with Anne, and her acceptance of it is in her words, “Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.” Officials from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. held a commemorative service, and interred her ashes next to Anne Sullivan’s remains.
A number of laurels had graced Helen’s brow. In 1966, President Johnson had presented Helen with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Alabama placed her likeness on the state quarter, the only coin to feature Braille, with the caption: “Spirit of Courage.” A fifteen-cent postage stamp of the teacher holding her student’s hand debuted on the 100th anniversary of Helen’s birth. Amidst these memorials perhaps the greatest one is if her home-museum.
To serve as backdrop, several historic markers are scattered throughout the grounds. One of these bears the inscription, “IVY GREEN The family home of Captain Arthur M. & Kate Adams Keller was built in 1820, being the second house erected in Tuscumbia. Here on June 27, 1880 was born America’s first lady of courage HELEN ADAMS KELLER.” The white-framed house with the dark green shutters nestles in a grove of oak trees. The “whistle path,” connects the main house to the kitchen located at the rear of the home. The path received its name when slaves, carrying the dinner to the first residents of Ivy Green, whistled to ensure they did not eat the family’s food. Helen’s denunciation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, shows, unlike her father, her condemnation of antebellum Alabama. The highlight of the museum is the iron pump that unveiled the secret of language. To commemorate the water shed moment there is an all-white three-dimensional depiction of Helen and Ann at the pump. Visitors can view the family’s original furniture including personal mementoes, Helen’s Braille typewriter, her library of Braille books, photographs, (such as one where Hellen is touching President Eisenhower’s face,) paintings, letters, dishes, and clothing. The Little House consists of one room with a bay window and playroom. A walk in the extensive grounds includes a Japanese garden donated by the Māori of New Zealand in memory of Helen’s visit to their country. In the summer months, there are outdoor performances of The Miracle Worker. Ivy Green ignited the spark that allowed Helen Keller to experience the words of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, “Mine eyes have seen the glory…”
THE VIEW FROM HER WINDOW: When Helen gazed from her window, no doubt memory conjured Anne Sullivan. She wrote, “The most important day I remember in all my life is the one in which my teacher came to me. It was the third day of March, 1887.” She said the date was her soul’s birthday.
NEARBY ATTRACTION: Alabama Music Hall of Fame
The museum opened in 1990; its mission was to celebrate native musicians such as Hank Williams and Lionel Richie. Sweet Home Alabama.