Sunday, March 11
Mark Twain and Helen Keller’s Relationship
They first met in March 1895 at a luncheon held in Keller’s honor at West 34th Street in NYC. It was the home of Laurence Hutton, an editor and critic who was Twain’s friend and one of Helen’s early benefactors.
Henry Rogers was there with Twain and about a dozens others to welcome & wish Helen well during her stay in NYC where she had come to study speech at the School for the Deaf.
During the luncheon the two spent time together and Helen seemed to feel more at ease with Twain than with any of the other guests. Hutton later said: “He was peculiarly tender and lovely with her-even for Mr. Clemens- and she kissed him when he said good-bye.”
Helen had read some of his work and asked him to explain the origin of his pseudonym “Mark Twain”. After explaining its meaning to steamboat pilots he added that the name suited him because he “was sometimes light and on the surface, and sometimes-”
“Deep,” she interrupted, surprising him with her quickness and intelligence.
“His voice is truly wonderful,” she later recalled. “To my touch, it was deep & resonant…he spoke so deliberately that I could get almost every word with my fingers on his lips.”
“Mark Twain has his own way of thinking, saying and doing everything. I can feel the twinkle of his eye in his handshake. Even while he utters his cynical wisdom in an indescribably droll voice, he makes you feel that his heart is a tender Iliad of human sympathy.”
How she felt the “twinkle of his eye”
When Helen was talking with an intimate friend, her hand went to her friend's face to see, "the twist of the mouth." In this way she was able to get the meaning of those half sentences which people complete unconsciously from the tone of the voice or the twinkle of the eye.
To the astonishment of all the guests at this luncheon, Helen shook the hands of all the guest and thanked them by name as they left.
For whatever reason, Twain decided to quickly pat her on the head as he passed by, to his astonishment…she knew who did it!
He later said: “Perhaps someone else can explain this miracle, but I have never been able to do it. Could she feel the wrinkles in my hand through her hair?”
He found out how when she visited him at Redding in 1909: “I smelled you” was her honest reply.
Twain’s Letter to Mrs. Henry Rogers Asking $$$ to Support Keller’s Education (Twain himself was bankrupt at this time)
“For & in behalf of Helen Keller,
Mr. Rogers will remember our visit with that astonishing girl at Lawrence Hutton’s house when she was 14 years old. Last July, in Boston, when she was 16 she underwent the Harvard examination for admission to Radcliffe College. She passed without a single condition. She was allowed only the same amount of time that is granted to other applicants, & this was shortened in her case by the fact that the question-papers had to be read to her. Yet she scored an average of 90, as against an average of 78 on the part of the other applicants.
It won’t do for America to allow this marvelous child to retire from her studies because of poverty. If she can go on with them she will make a fame that will endure in history for centuries. Along her special lines she is the most extraordinary product of all the ages.
I beg you to lay siege to your husband & get him to interest himself and Messrs. John D. & William Rockefeller & the other Standard Oil chiefs in Helen’s case…[to] pile that Standard Oil Helen Keller College Fund as high as they please; they have my consent.”
The result of this letter was that Mr. Rogers personally took charge of Helen Keller’s fortunes, and out of his own means made it possible for her to continue her education and to achieve for herself the enduring fame which Mark Twain had foreseen.
Twain's Reaction to this News:
“It is superb! And I am beyond measure grateful to you both. I knew you would be interested in that wonderful girl, & that Mr. Rogers was already interested in her & touched by her; & I was sure that if nobody else helped her you two would; but you have gone far & away beyond the sum I expected—may your lines fall in pleasant places here, & Hereafter for it!
Ever sincerely yours,
S. L. CLEMENS.”
Examples of Public and Private Praise for Keller from Twain:
“…at sixteen years of age this miraculous creature, this wonder of all the ages, passes the Harvard University examination in Latin, German, French history, belles lettres, and such things, and does it brilliantly, too, not in a commonplace fashion. She doesn't know merely things, she is splendidly familiar with the meanings of them.
Has Miss Sullivan taught her by the methods of the American public school? No, oh, no; for then she would be deafer and dumber and blinder than she was before. It is a pity that we can't educate all the children in the asylums!”
-from a Mark Twain Speech
Below is a letter from Twain to Helen in 1903:
Riverdale - on - the Hudson
St. Patrick's Day, 1903
I must steal half a moment from my work to say how glad I am to have your book and how highly I value it, both for its own sake and as a remembrance of an affectionate friendship which has subsisted between us for nine years without a break and without a single act of violence that I can call to mind. I suppose there is nothing like it in heaven; and not likely to be, until we get there and show off. I often think of it with longing, and how they'll say, "there they come--sit down in front." I am practicing with a tin halo. You do the same. I was at Henry Roger's last night, and of course we talked of you. He is not at all well--you will not like to hear that; but like you and me, he is just as lovely as ever.
Every lovingly your friend (sic)
“Blindness is an exciting business, I tell you; if you don't believe it get up some dark night on the wrong side of your bed when the house is on fire and try to find the door.”
- Mark Twain quoted by Helen Keller, in her book Midstream
Keller Visits Twain in Redding:
Helen Keller visited Twain for three days in January of 1909. She was 28 years old and had recently released her second major work: “The World I Live In”
The copy Twain received was inscribed:
“Dear Mr. Clemens, come live in my world a little while/Helen Keller.”
In response, he had said that she must come to his world first, and to bring Annie (Sullivan) Macy & John Macy with her.
“I command you all three, to come and spend a few days with he in Stormfield.”
Of all the visitors to Stormfield none wrote a more vivid description of the place than Helen Keller.
Nothing escaped her senses, from the “tang in the air of cedar and pine” as she made her approach to the smell of “burning fireplace logs, orange tea and toast with strawberry jam” which were served shortly after her arrival.
That which she could not see was “spelled” into her hands by her teacher, Annie Sullivan Macy, a.k.a. “The Miracle Worker” as Twain called her.
It was not generally known that Keller had a great sense of humor, but it was one of the things Twain liked best about her.
When he showed her to her room on the first night at Stormfield, he told her that if she needed anything, she would find an ample supply of cigars and bourbon in the bathroom.
When he gave her a tour of the billiards room, he offered to teach her the game. She took the bait and innocently replied, “Oh Mr. Clemens, it takes sight to play billiards.” Not the way his friends played, he answered. “The blind couldn’t play worse.”
More Examples of Keller’s Sense of Humor
When she met Dr. Furness, the Shakespearean scholar, he warned her not to let the college professors tell her too many assumed facts about the life of Shakespeare; all we know, he said, is that Shakespeare was baptized, married, and died.
"Well," she replied, "he seems to have done all the essential things."
Once a friend, who was learning the manual alphabet, kept making "g," which is like the hand of a sign-post, for "h," which is made with two fingers extended.
Finally Miss Keller told him to "fire both barrels."
Back to the Visit to Twain’s Stormfield
The highlight of Helen’s visit came on the final evening when Twain read to her his short story: Eve’s Diary.
He sat in a big armchair by the fire while Helen followed the story with an ecstatic expression on her face. At the very last line: “Wherever she was, there was Eden.” (Twain’s tribute to his wife Livy) Helen became tearful.
In her journal, Twain’s secretary wrote: “She quivered with delight, and he was shaken with emotion & could hardly find his voice again. It was a marvel to behold.”
In the Guestbook of Stormfield she wrote:
“I have been in Eden three days and I saw a King. I knew he
was a King the minute I touched him though I had never touched a
~ A Daughter of Eve. Helen Keller Jan. 11
Twain understood her meaning so completely that he wrote beside it:
“The point of what Helen says above, lies in this: that I read the ‘Diary of Eve’ all through, to her last night; in it Eve frequently mentions things she saw for the first time but instantly knew what they were & named them- though she had never seen them before.”
In Keller’s ‘The Story of My Life’, she recalls the joy of learning the names of things after she acquired the gift of language: “…the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous & confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the World.”
As a way of thanking Annie Sullivan Macy for helping to bring Helen’s imagination to life, Twain handed her a small souvenir before she left Stormfield.
It was a postcard on which he wrote:
“To Mrs. John Sullivan Macy with warm regard & with limitless admiration of the wonders she has performed as a *miracle-worker.”
*It would take 50 years for the term “miracle-worker” to catch on, via the Broadway show about Annie by playwright William Gibson.
Twain was amazed that Helen had been able to transform everything around her into a reality only she could imagine.
“A well put together unreality is pretty hard to beat,” was his response to a friend who remarked that Helen’s “concept of things…must lack reality.”
In Huckleberry Finn- written long before he met Helen – Twain wrote:
“it’s lovely to live on a raft…nothing to hear nor nothing to see.”
Twain and Keller had a Lot in Common:
1. Mark Twain was a pre-mature baby with little hope of surviving, let alone succeeding.
Helen Keller lost her vision and hearing at 19 months and had little hope for success.
Both “survived” and became successful Authors, Public Speakers and Celebrities.
2. Over the course of her life Helen came to accept religious and political beliefs quite different from those of her family and friends.
In 1906, Twain pondered what future audiences (100 years later) would say about his unpublished comments on religious bigotry and social hypocrisy…
He noted that “The 2006 edition (of his Autobiography) will make a stir when it comes out.”
“In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.”
- Autobiography of Mark Twain
3. They both dealt with people who wished to take advantage of them.
"As she had her entire life, the luminous Helen inspired intrigues and power struggles, as her acquaintances and advisers fought with one another to gain possession of her."
The same can be said for Twain who endured a painful “power struggle” between his daughters and business associates in the final year of his life.
4. They were both well traveled but both chose Fairfield County as their final homes.
During her lifetime, Helen Keller lived in many different places—Tuscumbia, Alabama; Cambridge and Wrentham, Massachusetts; Forest Hills, New York, but perhaps her favorite residence was her last, the house in Easton, Connecticut she called "Arcan Ridge."
The same can be said about Samuel L. Clemens. He too lived in many places, and yet fell in love with the beauty of his final residence… Redding, Connecticut.
“I was never in this beautiful region until yesterday evening. Miss Lyon and the architect built and furnished the house without any help or advice from me, and the result is entirely to my satisfaction.”
“It is charmingly quiet here. The house stands alone, with nothing in sight but woodsy hills and rolling country.”
-Samuel L. Clemens letter to Dorothy Quick dated June 19, 1908
5. Both died of heart disease.
Helen Keller lived at 163 Redding Road in Easton, Connecticut. She died in her sleep on June 1, 1968 at the age of 87. The cause of her death was arteriosclerosis heart disease (Twain died of Heart troubles too. His were tied to his life long smoking habit).
Twain died in the twilight hours of April 21, 1910, at the age of 74.
6. Since their deaths, their names have lived on…
“She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith.”
Eulogy by Senator J. Lister Hill of Alabama
To celebrate the 176th anniversary of Twain's birth Google painted its logo using its patented "Doodle" to render the world of Twain's Tom Sawyer, who famously cajoled friends to whitewash a fence for him.
Mark Twain and Helen Keller's Relationship will be showcased at Easton, Connecticut's Public Library starting May 1st, 2012.