The Radical Lives of Helen Keller

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Overview

Several decades after her death in 1968, Helen Keller remains one of the most widely recognized women of the twentieth century. But the fascinating story of her vivid political life-particularly her interest in radicalism and anti-capitalist activism-has been largely overwhelmed by the sentimentalized story of her as a young deaf-blind girl.

Keller had many lives indeed. Best known for her advocacy on behalf of the blind, she was also a member of the socialist party, an advocate of women's suffrage, a defender of the radical International Workers of the World, and a supporter of birth control-and she served as one of the nation's most effective but unofficial international ambassadors. In spite of all her political work, though, Keller rarely explored the political dimensions of disability, adopting beliefs that were often seen as conservative, patronizing, and occasionally repugnant. Under the wing of Alexander Graham Bell, a controversial figure in the deaf community who promoted lip-reading over sign language, Keller became a proponent of oralism, thereby alienating herself from others in the deaf community who believed that a rich deaf culture was possible through sign language. But only by distancing herself from the deaf community was she able to maintain a public image as a one-of-a-kind miracle.

Using analytic tools and new sources, Kim E. Nielsen's political biography of Helen Keller has many lives, teasing out the motivations for and implications of her political and personal revolutions to reveal a more complex and intriguing woman than the Helen Keller we thought we knew.

Kim E. Nielsen is associate professor of history and women's studies in the department of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She lives in Green Bay, WI.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Constitutes an important contribution to both the bibliography on Helen Keller and the advancement of disability studies. . . . Nielsen draws on a diverse and revealing body of source materials to give shape and dimension to key topics and arguments. . . . Nielsen does a particularly effective job of giving voice to Keller by drawing on letters, writings, and the statements of others; the direct quotes from Keller that she includes—and there are a multitude—enliven the text and strengthen the reader's sense of Keller as an intellectual and a person as well as of the times which she lived. This sophisticated use of sources and quotes yields a strong, riveting narrative."

-Sign Language Studies,

"As a person who has labored through numerous thick volumes on the life of this remarkable deaf-blind woman, I am delighted with Nielsen's concise and refreshing scholarly work."

-Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education,

"Radical Lives fills out an important dimension of our cultural memory of the adult Helen Keller."

-Ms. Magazine,

"Nielsen has compiled an outstanding collection, including many letters and photos that are being published for the first time. And even if you didn't grow up in Alabama, you may still marvel about how a little girl from Tuscumbia not only beat the odds but also blazed trails."

-Dallas Morning News,

"Stunning final chapter."

-The Yale Review,

Library Journal
This brief biography by Nielsen (history, Univ. of Wisconsin, Green Bay; Un-American Womanhood) examines Helen Keller's radical politics and the various reasons her political views were so often neglected. As the ultimate symbol of the "perpetual overcomer," Keller proved to be the perfect emissary for the United States during the Cold War but only because, to her frustration, everyone ignored her own relatively radical politics. On the other hand, Nielsen points out, Keller's positions with respect to disability were conservative. She advocated trying to make the blind and deaf "perform" as if they were sighted and hearing-hence her replacing her own eyes with glass eyes and her support of finger-spelling rather than American Sign Language. Thus, she did nothing to destigmatize disability. Though she offers a different view of Keller, Nielsen's description of Keller's politics and beliefs is sometimes unclear. For specialized collections, particularly in disability studies.-Cynthia Harrison, George Washington Univ., Washington, DC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814758137
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2004
  • Series: The History of Disability Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 194
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Kim E. Nielsen is associate professor of history and women's studies in the department of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She lives in Green Bay, WI.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Timeline
Introduction 1
1 I Do Not Like This World As It Is: 1900-1924 15
2 The Call of the Sightless: 1924-1937 47
3 Manna in My Desert Places: 1937-1948 65
4 I Will Not Allow Polly to Climb a Pyramid: 1948-1968 99
5 One of the Least Free People on Earth: the Making and Remaking of Helen Keller 125
Notes Bibliography 167
Index 175
About the Author 178
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