Library Collections: Document: Full Text

Is Helen Keller A Fraud?

Creator: Job Williams (author)
Date: 1892
Publication: American Annals of the Deaf
Source: Available at selected libraries

Page 1   All Pages

Page 1:


SINCE the appearance of the story of "The Frost King," there has been a great deal of sharp criticism of Helen Keller and sharper still of her teachers. That that story should have been allowed to go forth to the public as an original composition was certainly very unfortunate. As a reproduction, which it proved to be, it is still very remarkable, and had it appeared as such would have been received with marked favor. That the public felt a revulsion of feeling when they thought that they had been intentionally deceived is not to be wondered at.


If there was intentional deception on the part of those in charge of the child, the criticisms have been none too sharp and the condemnation none too severe. But was there intentional deception?


When the parallel quotations from the original story and Helen Keller's version of it first appeared, I sent a copy of the paper containing them to Director Anagnos, and asked him to give me the facts in the case. His prompt reply was, in substance, that the revelation was a perfect surprise to him, and that while the evidence left no doubt that the story was a reproduction, he could find no knowledge of the story among the teachers or officers of the Perkins Institution, and that Helen said that she did not remember ever having heard it. He was seeking for further light, and when he could learn the facts of the case would make them known.


With the Sixtieth Annual Report of the Perkins Institution, just received, comes from Director Anagnos the following explanatory note:


Since this report was printed, I have received evidence, through the Goodson Gazette, of Staunton, Va., that the story by Helen Keller, entitled "King Frost," is en adaptation if not a reproduction of "Frost Fairies," which occurs in a little volume, "Birdie and his Fairy Friends," by Margaret T. Canby, published in 1873. I have made careful inquiry of her parents, her teacher, and those who are accustomed to converse with her, and have ascertained that Mrs. Sophia C. Hopkins had the volume in her possession in 1888, when Helen and her teacher were visiting her at her home in Brewster, Mass. In the month of August of that year the state of Miss Sullivan's health was such as to render it necessary for her to be away from her pupil for a while in search of rest. During the time of this separation Helen was left in charge of Mrs. Hopkins, who often entertained her by reading to her, and, though Mrs. Hopkins does not recollect this particular story, I presume it was included among the selections. No one can regret this mistake more than I.


Now it does not seem to me that the sweeping condemnation of everybody who has had to do with Helen Keller is at all just. On the evidence before us, is it fair to set down her teachers as tricksters and deceivers, intentionally misleading the public? Is it not far more just to believe that, carried away by their intense admiration of the child's abilities and her frequent remarkable performances, they were ready to believe her capable of producing anything, and so were themselves misled in this case? We cannot believe them guilty of the folly -- the stupidity -- of trying to palm off on the public as an original composition what they knew to be a reproduction. The almost absolute certainty of discovery, first or last, and the consequent casting of suspicion on all of Helen's genuine work, to say nothing of higher motives, would have forbidden such an act.


The explanation, while destroying all claim to originality in conception, in imagination, or style, in this instance, yet increases rather than diminishes our wonder. That this story should sleep in the mind of this child for more than three years, until the fact of ever having heard it had faded from her memory, and then be reproduced by her almost verbatim is certainly a very marvellous display of verbal memory.


Were this the only instance exhibiting this faculty it would be almost past belief. Fortunately, it is not. The Report above referred to is full of evidence on this point. Of the many productions from Helen's pen there are very few which do not exhibit it unmistakably. We do not mean by this that the productions are not genuinely her own; that she has not absorbed them and made them her own. But, after all, much of the language is the reproduction (perhaps unconsciously so) of the language of her teachers. Her marvellous verbal memory, holding everything as in a vice, and her vivid imagination, enabling her to enter into and keep pace with the imagination of her teachers, account, in a very large degree, for the beauty of her style and the accuracy and felicity of her language, though these are aided by an excellent memory of facts and reasoning powers of a high order.


It will not do to write down Helen Keller as "a fraud, "humbug," "a back number," however much we may feel annoyed by the "Frost King" composition. She has been in the full blaze of public curiosity too long, and been tested by too many scientific men and educational experts, to be a successful deceiver. Every facility has been given for such tests, and I have never known of a failure.

Page 2:


Great verbal memory, though a rare gift, is present wherever the language faculty exists in a high degree. In fact, the latter is largely dependent upon the former, and could hardly exist without it. It is said of Macaulay, who had a marvellously wide range of information and was an omnivorous reader, that he could quote almost any fact which he wished to use in the exact words of the author from whom he obtained it.


With all men language is largely a matter of memory. Verbal memory is what gives the linguist his facility in language. He need not possess the reasoning power in marked degree, and great reason power is often accompanied by halting speech, showing the possession of inferior verbal memory.


The attempt has been made in some quarters to attribute Helen Keller's success in language to her articulation. It will not stand on that ground for a minute. Her rare language-gift was perfectly manifest long before she received her first lesson in articulation, and to her previous knowledge was largely due her success in learning to speak -- a success without a parallel in one deaf so young, I think it may fairly be said, on either side of the Atlantic. Hundreds of witnesses can testify to her fluency of speech. It is not natural, but it is intelligible -- the true test of speech. It would be no more fair to claim Helen Keller as a fair sample of the results of articulation teaching to the deaf than to maintain that Solomon was a fair representative of the graduates of the schools of Jerusalem, or that in inventive talent Thomas Edison is an ordinary specimen of the men of America.


No! No school, no method of teaching, no teacher, can claim the merit of Helen Keller's success in acquiring speech. In the rapidity and accuracy with which she gained it she stands alone among all deaf children who have learned speech without the aid of hearing.


Taking this child all in all, and making due allowance for every possible aid that has been given her and for all unconscious exaggeration due to friendly admiration, there yet remains so much that is marvellous as to place her beyond comparison with any other child of whom we have ever heard. The whole history of literature reveals nothing equal to her language productions from one of her years, even among those possessed of all their faculties. She is a genius, a prodigy, a phenomenon.


Principal of the American Asylum,
Hartford, Conn.

Page 1   All Pages

Pages:  1  2