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Helen Keller, I go adventuring (Review)

August 7, 2015

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.

Helen Keller sitting holding a magnolia flower, circa 1920 (Presumed Public Domain, from Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library)

Helen Keller sitting holding a magnolia flower, circa 1920 (Presumed Public Domain, from Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library)

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.

Helen Keller
“I go adventuring”
First published: In Midstream: My later life, 1929.
Available: Online at the Library of America

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim KABLE permalink
    August 7, 2015 10:53 pm

    A ‘by-the-way” aside to this lovely review – amid memories of NYC. Were you aware that Brooklyn (and the railway bridge across the Hawkesbury just to the north of Sydney) refers to NYC’s Brooklyn – the NSW railway bridge built by the firm and many of the men who had built the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC. The “Long Island” just to the west of the NSW village and bridge named for NY NY’s Long Island! I know I’m stretching this away from Helen Keller but…

    • August 7, 2015 10:59 pm

      Thanks Jim. I guessed Brooklyn might have been related to NYC’s Brooklyn, but I didn’t know that about the bridge. And I didn’t know of Long Island. I knew of Lion Island, and Dangar Island. Thanks for all this. Stretched from Keller somewhat, but that’s what reading and blogging are about – making interesting connections.

      BTW I’ve lunched at Brooklyn a few times in the last couple of years en route to Port Macquarie. A very pretty part of the world.

  2. August 8, 2015 11:29 am

    Loved this piece. When I was a child in late 50’s I could not get enough of this lady. Just admired her so much. Read everything I could find about her and even n Ade a rope harness for my pet German S hepherd one summer. We took turns being blind and our dog Hilda would lead us into roads and trees. This piece is new to me. Thanks for sharing.

    • August 8, 2015 1:29 pm

      Oh that’s lovely to hear Pam … you might have read it in the work from which it comes? But it’s lovely I think – shows her sensibility beautifully. Love your story about making a rope harness for your dog. One of my favourite books when I was a young girl was The first Lady of the Seeing Eye, about the beginning of guide dogs in the USA (as I recollect). I think the dog’s name was Lady, and she was a German Shepherd. I didn’t try making my beagle a guide dog though!

  3. August 8, 2015 10:39 pm

    I loved this piece too. I remember as a child being enthralled by Keller’s story. I hardly remember any details now – only the enthrallment! And I don’t believe I’ve ever seen (or remeber seeing) a photo of Keller. So it is wonderful to look at the beautiful one you’ve chosen. Thank you.

    • August 8, 2015 11:12 pm

      Oh thanks Michelle, I’m glad that I chose it to write up. Glad you like the photo too. I chose it because it was the closest I found to the date of this piece. I like that she’s holding a magnolia flower which is such a strongly scented flower as well as, I think, a very tactile one.

  4. August 9, 2015 9:25 am

    I love this “I shall do something different today !” thing, ST. 🙂
    Have no idea why New York it was that ‘brought you back’ to cities: anyone who isn’t swept away by Paris or Rome is a tough act to please … and I say that even though my very favourite city in the world is Milano.

    • August 9, 2015 9:41 am

      Ha, ha MR … I didn’t say brought me back did I? I just said made me understand them more. I still don’t like cities much. Give me a lovely bush capital any day! I’m not sure what it was about New York. It may just have been a timing thing, and weather. My introductions to those European cities were all in pretty bleak weather.

      I reserve my judgement on Milan, though, as I haven’t been there …

      • August 9, 2015 9:53 am

        It is not a WONDERFUL city in the same terms as Paris or Rome; in fact, no-one could understand my love of it. But each time we arrived there, I felt as if I were home.

        • August 9, 2015 10:08 am

          Interesting, isn’t it, MR, how some places just do that. And it’s not usually for anything we can explain rationally.

        • August 9, 2015 10:22 am

          Then it ain’t just me being me … 🙂

        • August 9, 2015 11:48 am

          It can be if you want it to be 😉

  5. August 12, 2015 6:27 am

    Helen Keller was such an amazing woman. I was obsessed with her when I was a kid and for a little while wanted to be a teacher of the deaf and blind. It’s been some time since I have read anything by her so this is a nice reminder of why I like her so much.

    On a side note, every morning when I go to work there is a blind couple that gets on the bus to go to work too. I hear them talking them using sight words all the time, they even talk about colors and say “see you later” to their neighbor who also rides the bus. So Keller using sight and hearing words seem like a weird or uncommon thing really.

    • August 12, 2015 9:30 am

      Interesting how she inspired so many of us in our youths isn’t it, Stefanie. I spent a lot of time with a blind girl in my last two years of school. She wasn’t in my friendship group but we did a lot of classes together so I tended to help her go from class to class and learnt “how” you do that. It came in handy when I used to drive a blind parent when my kids were at school to P&C (your PTA) meetings because she was keen to be involved. These people were both blind but not deaf but it was interesting how easy it was to assume deafness because they couldn’t see. I had to consciously remember that.

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