For the past four months, I have been an intern in the Perkins Archives as part of the archives management program at Simmons College School for Library and Information Science. During this time, I have had the privilege of handling some of Keller’s first correspondence. My project was to scan the Arthur Gilman Helen Keller Collection so that it could be shared on the Internet Archive.
I encountered Helen Keller’s first handwritten letter as I was just starting to make my way through the collection. I paused, and took a deep breath, before moving it to the scanner because the significance was so evident. Although not structured with sentences, this first letter was my introduction to Keller's ability to create beautiful pieces of writing. Just a few pages later, there is an undated composition that represents this skill as she writes, “I want to say something to you myself. I cannot speak very well yet, but my heart is full of thoughts and I must express some of them.” Keller goes to on to write, “Kindness is like rain in April; it makes everything grow.”
There were many times that I felt like I was eavesdropping on conversations that took place many, many years ago. Letters back and forth between Arthur Gilman and Keller's benefactor, William Wade, discuss strategies to remove Anne Sullivan from Keller's side while she studies in Cambridge. Alongside these letters, are correspondence from Helen's mother, Kate Keller, offering her opinion on the matter. It is hard not to feel like you are hearing an ongoing discussion as you read these letters.
During the project, I read Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann that included many of the letters that I was scanning. Not only was it fun to recognize letters, the book provided context and a more complete story about those letters. One of the letters in the collection is written to Michael Anagnos from Helen Keller on November 4, 1891. She offers him a short story that she has written on the occasion of his birthday. This letter is an example of how context so greatly influences the meaning of an object. With information from the biography I was reading, it became clear that this was the letter that accompanied The Frost King. Keller was accused, and put on “trial,” for plagiarizing this story.
By the time I scanned the last letter in this collection, I felt like I had developed a relationship with Helen Keller. I went on to scan correspondence from the Nella Braddy Henney Collection that only strengthened this feeling. The Nella Braddy Henney Collection contains materials relating to Keller's adult life, allowing me to go further than her childhood and to follow her story even further. I began to recognize the handwriting of frequent contacts, like Keller's sister, Mildred. While the technical task of scanning these letters gave me experience that will help me in my career, the projects let me immerse myself in a small part of Helen Keller's life.