Treasure trove of letters gives insight into Helen Keller

Frederick Stanton Elder and his family. 

The Kodiak Arts Council presented a Valentine gift to the community with the presentation of “Letters Aloud,” a reading of love letters written by well-known people.

There was a missing correspondence in the play: love letters between Helen Keller — a famous writer who was deaf, blind and mute — and Frederick Stanton Elder, a man who proposed to her.

The author of “Letters Aloud” didn’t have access to those letters, but Kodiak Island resident Kyle Crowe does. Elder was his great grandfather, who was a widower when he proposed to Keller. 

Crowe’s treasure trove of letters provides intriguing insights into both Elder and Keller as they discuss religion, politics and their mutual admiration.

Elder graduated from Princeton University with high honors. His diploma was signed by Woodrow Wilson, who became the 28th president of the United States. Elder was an atheist and ardent communist who published a pamphlet on how to live a good life. 

In one letter to Elder, Keller wrote, “Friends say that the complexion of my opinion is decidedly ‘red.’ I am sure they are. 

“I believe in Soviet Russia. I believe that the heroes of the Russian Revolution are men of lofty purpose, and that they are leading the way to a truer, saner, nobler, civilization. They seem to have yielded some important concessions to the old order. But in this present defeat I see future fulfillment. Anyway, the struggle going on in Russia inspires, yes, fills me with hope.” 

Keller let Elder know that she had empathy for the powerless. 

“Deafness and blindness have never made me unhappy because through them, I have found ways of helping others. My individual pain counts not a whit more than the outcry of one little child of humanity,” she wrote.

Keller also had something to say regarding Elder’s religious ideas.

“I gather from the tone of your letters more than from expressed opinions that you have an agnostic turn of mind,” Keller wrote. 

“My own mind rebels against skepticism and denial and responds with joy and eagerness only to indomitable faith and hope. For my part, I believe that the universe is made of the same stuff as I am. Surely there is no other key to unlock the meaning of existence.

“To me, the soul is a Land of Promise, the splendid with immortal youth and hope and inexhaustible possibilities. This conception fills me with a sense of expansion — sunshine without and sunshine within. 

“Because I cannot see or hear, (don’t suppose) life must be a blank to me. 

“(People) do not understand that things have other precious values beside color and sound. It never occurs to them to FEEL a flower and they do not know what they miss. 

“I cannot see the stars scattered like gold-dust in the heavens. But other stars just as bright shine in my soul, and by the way, my SOUL is very real and very important to me. The scientists may not have discovered the soul. Possibly there are a good many other things in the universe which they have not established scientifically. But the Thoughts of God are long, Long Thoughts, and even the wisest can turn only a few pages in the Book of Knowledge.” 

In spite of their ideological differences, Keller was flattered by Elder’s proposal. 

“Frankly, I am at a loss how to write what is to be written,” wrote Keller.

“But I realize that you are waiting to hear from me, and that further delay would be extremely unkind. It would be so much easier to say things if I knew you! As it is, we are like two boats signaling each other in a dense fog. I try vainly to visualize you in my thoughts as a real man. In spite of your very self-revealing letter, you seem remote, almost mythical.

“Let me thank you from the depths of my heart for your brave thought of me. Proud and full of pleasures I certainly am to know that a good man has had the courage to think of me as a possible wife. All the primitive instincts and desires of the heart, which neither physical disabilities or suppression can subdue, I leap up within me to meet your wishes. Since my youth, I have desired the love of a man.”

Elder responded, “Well, you are a modest woman, and an honest woman, which is nothing new to me. I could not possibly be interested in any other kind. And you are not a blind person or a deaf person to me.

“If I knew by any sort of scientifically accepted evidence that there are such things as souls in the accepted sense of the word, I should say that to me, you are a marvelous and beautiful human soul.”

In the end, Keller declined Elder’s proposal with an explanation:

“You have knowledge of human nature. You understand the workings of the normal mind. But I wonder if you know the consequences of the triple affliction of blindness, deafness and imperfect speech. You have read my  books. Perhaps you have received a wrong impression of me from them. One does not grumble in print or hold up one’s broken wings for the thoughtless and indifferent to gaze at. One hides as much as possible, one’s awkwardness and helplessness  under a fine philosophy and a smiling face.

“Now, dear friend — for so I shall always think of you. You have wished to be so kind, you have singled me out for such special favor and consideration. I would not have you imagine that I am a disappointed or unhappy woman. I am not tragic or desponding by nature.

“Temperamentally I am buoyant and hopeful. Through the darkness, I always see a light — a bright star that no misfortune ever quite hides from me. 

“Sometimes I think that star of faith shines brighter in proportion to my deprivations.”

In another letter she wrote, “With an embossed book on my knee, or seated at my typewriter, I am not conscious of any handicap. In spirit and mind I am untrammelled.”

Crowe isn’t the only Kodiak Island resident who has a connection to Keller. Elinor Ramos recalls her father’s account of meeting the lady in person. Rosabel Baldwin also had the honor of meeting Keller at a horse race in Arizona. Keller was fundraising for an organization that, no doubt, aided the blind.

Baldwin shook Keller’s hand. “She could talk, very broken, like a foreign language,” said Baldwin. 

“A woman interpreted” to Keller through a sort of “sign language, in the hand. Helen was smiling. She was very pleasant. I told her I was from Alaska. She made a comment” that revealed her interest in Alaska, said Baldwin.

Several years ago, Lissa Jensen directed the powerful play “The Miracle Worker,” which was based on Keller’s childhood relationship with her teacher, Annie Sullivan. 

Crowe has a treasure trove of letters that form the basis for another play about Keller. Considering the talent in this community, bringing this interesting chapter in Keller’s life to the stage has great potential. If fact, I think this story is bound for Broadway.

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