Helen Keller’s hands

Learning about Helen Keller and Polly Thomson’s hands from Nella Braddy Henney’s journal entries

Close up of Polly Thomson and Helen Keller's hands, writing.

Nella Braddy Henney was not only an editor and literary agent to Helen Keller, she was also a close friend of the “Three Musketeers” as she called them: Keller, Polly Thomson, and Anne Sullivan. (Read more about the “Three Musketeers” in a blog post.) Henney kept in close contact with the trio via frequent correspondence. One summer, Henney kept Keller apprised of a racoon family that was living near her house on Foss Mountain through her letters. In addition to almost daily letters, Henney kept a journal of her own activities and thoughts.

Henney’s journal, which has been digitized and is available on the Internet Archive, gives a glimpse into Henney’s life and relationships with Keller, Thomson, and Sullivan. Henney’s level of detail in her informal writing provides information that is unlikely to be found in well-known biographies. For example, Henney’s attention to and discussion and description of Keller and Thomson’s hands. Henney’s inclusion of such details reflects the important role that hands played in Keller’s life – as her primary method of communicating with people and learning about the world around her.

Polly’s hands

The photo above is a close-up of Helen Keller and Polly Thomson’s hands. Keller is writing with her right hand, with Thomson’s hand on top guiding her. In a journal entry dated February 17, 1947, Nella Braddy Henney describes Polly Thomson’s hands: “Two hands on one body could not be more different. The one that spells to Helen–and has been spelling to her for more than 30 years–is much bigger than the other.” She continues, “It has an entirely different shape and the muscles of the wrist as well as of the hand are underdeveloped.” 

Helen’s hands

Henney noticed that Keller was rubbing some of her fingers on March 31, 1947 while they were at lunch together. She asked Keller if they hurt – “not now,” she replied. Henney, however, wrote that Keller was “obviously lying, else she would not have been rubbing it.” Keller went on to explain that “it does sometimes. I get so fatigued reading and writing.” As she reflects on just how much Keller uses her hands, Henney concludes “frantically all she gets comes to her through her hands and sometimes it is pitiful.” 

On December 22, 1953, Henney wrote that she wondered and “must ask” if Keller’s hands “are less sensitive than they were when she was younger.” She notes that Keller spoke, “as she has to me several times,” about how “weary” her hands get. In March, Henney finally got around to asking Keller if her hands are less sensitive. As she had expected: yes, they were. Keller explained that “she has to warm them now before she can read with them.” Henney goes on that she is “included also to think that her other senses may be less keen, including smell, for when I was last at Arcan Ridge she identified a spike of stock as hyacinth.” 

Nella’s journal

Whether Henney intended for her journal to remain a personal record or one to be more widely read, she maintains a blunt honesty throughout her detailed and frequent entries. Notes about conversations, sometimes including quotes, gives her audience an invitation to join the friends in that moment. But Henney’s journals provide more than stories and opinions, they also include factual information. For example, from an entry in December 1957 we can learn that Keller “reads with the left hand, always holds out the right hand to receive spelling.”

Thanks to the inclusion of seemingly unimportant, little details, like the appearance of Thomson’s hands, researchers today are able to learn more intimate details about Keller and Thomson. Portrayals of Keller can be made more accurate knowing that she read with her left hand and held her right out to receive information. Reading about Keller’s hands becoming “weary” and less sensitive adds to a more complete picture of Keller as a human who changes as they get older – showing that Keller was more than the little girl at the water pump.

Works cited

Suggested citation

Coit, Susanna. “Helen’s Hands.” Perkins School for the Blind Archives Blog, Watertown MA. June 20, 2022. 

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