Helen Keller, I go adventuring (Review)
My reading has been so disjointed recently that I thought I’d look at recent Library of America (LOA) offerings for inspiration, and came across Helen Keller‘s “I go adventuring”, an excerpt from her Midstream: My later life. It appealed to me because I haven’t read anything by Keller since I was a teenager, and because this piece is about New York. I couldn’t resist.
Firstly, Keller. What an amazing woman. Like many, I suppose, I have always been in awe of her ability to make a meaningful life for herself without sight or hearing. LOA’s always useful introductory notes discuss Keller being asked, in relation to another excerpt, “what she could possibly have ‘seen’ from the top of the Empire State Building”. She replied that
I will concede that my guides saw a thousand things that escaped me from the top of the Empire Building, but I am not envious. For imagination creates distances that reach to the end of the world … Well, I see in the Empire Building something else—passionate skill, arduous and fearless idealism. The tallest building is a victory of imagination.
The notes continue to say that throughout her adulthood, Keller “faced scepticism over her abilities and criticism for her choices of language”. On one occasion, she responded that the deaf-blind person “seizes every word of sight and hearing, because his [using the male pronoun common to her times!] sensations compel it. Light and color, of which he has no tactual evidence, he studies fearlessly, believing that all humanly knowable truth is open to him”. American novelist and essayist, Cynthia Ozick, LOA tells us, accepts Keller’s point, saying, simply, “She was an artist. She imagined”.
Secondly, New York. Before I first visited New York in the early 1980s, I’d lived in Sydney, and had visited great European cities like London, Paris and Rome. None of these interested me greatly because I really don’t much like cities. (Yes, I liked the museums and galleries, the historic sites, but as places to “be” they didn’t really appeal). But New York. There was something about it – and I finally “got” cities. I still don’t like them a lot, but I credit New York with opening my eyes to “city-ness”, if that makes sense, to the buzz and rush and life of them.
However, I’ve indulged myself enough now, so let’s get to Keller’s piece. She starts by referring to her situation:
Cut off as I am, it is inevitable that I should sometimes feel like a shadow walking in a shadowy world. When this happens I ask to be taken to New York City. Always I return home weary but I have the comforting certainty that mankind is real flesh and that I myself am not a dream.
See, that’s New York for you! She then talks about the great bridges, starting with Brooklyn Bridge, which she says is “the oldest and most interesting of them … built by my friend, Colonel Roebling”. In my first visit to New York, one of the places I had to visit was Brooklyn Bridge – because of Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary of the same name. It’s an old film now, 1981, but is well worth viewing if you haven’t seen it and get the chance. Keller, though, says she mostly uses the Queensborough Bridge. She writes that not all poetry is found in poetry books, that
much of it is written in great enterprises of engineering and flying, that into mighty utility man has poured and is pouring his dreams, his emotions, his philosophy. This materializing of his genius is sometimes inchoate and monstrous, but even then sublime in its extravagance and courage. Who can deny that the Queensborough Bridge is the work of a creative artist?
While we continue to build astonishing structures, continue to push the edges of what we can achieve, we are also, I think, more blasé about the achievements and more questioning about the value and implications. Keller’s admiration reminded me of the awe and wonder of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries towards engineering feats, though she too, with the word “monstrous”, is perhaps sensing some other ways of seeing?
Keller’s piece is really short, so I’m not going to commentate it all. She describes circumnavigating New York in a boat and talks about about life on the water, and she ends with a vivid description of the power of the subways. I want to close though on another reference to herself. She writes:
New York has a special interest for me when it is wrapped in fog. Then it behaves very much like a blind person. I once crossed from from Jersey City to Manhattan in a dense fog. The ferry-boat felt its way cautiously through the river traffic. More timid than a blind man, its horn brayed incessantly. Fog-bound, surrounded by menacing, unseen craft and dangers, it halted every now and then as a blind man halts at a crowded thoroughfare crossing, tapping his cane, tense and anxious.
With that, she conveys so beautifully, for sighted people, some of her experience of the world.
“I go adventuring”
First published: In Midstream: My later life, 1929.
Available: Online at the Library of America