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Helen Keller's writings reveal the brave heart of a rebel

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``Helen Keller: Selected Writings,'' edited by Kim E. Nielsen; NYU Press ($35)


People who grew up in northern Alabama had to search long and hard for legitimate local heroes. In the arts, you could rightfully lay claim to the eccentric actress Tallulah Bankhead, and if you stretched the truth, you could also appropriate the writer Walker Percy, who lived in Birmingham before his father's suicide.

But both lived most of their lives outside the state, and their wealthy backgrounds certainly helped their rise to prominence. Only one prominent northern Alabamian truly had the cards stacked against her: Helen Keller.

Born in 1880 in the Tennessee River town of Tuscumbia, Keller and her struggles to overcome deafness and blindness were immortalized both on stage and screen in ``The Miracle Worker.'' And for anyone who had a rebellious streak against close-knit Southern society, her adult life as a writer was even more moving. Here was a woman who donated money to the NAACP decades before the civil rights movement. And here was a self-proclaimed suffragist, socialist and activist for people with disabilities.

For her time, Keller was nothing short of radical, as many biographies have detailed. Now we have a new collection of her public and private musings, ``Helen Keller: Selected Writings,'' edited by Kim E. Nielsen. The volume includes letters, articles, speeches and book excerpts and is divided into sections such as "Growing Up," "Politics" and "Friendships, Intimacies and the Everyday." Because of the organization, the reader is taken repeatedly back and forth in time, and the book lacks an easy narrative flow.

Still, the letters reveal Keller's understandable frustrations at being repeatedly dismissed for her disabilities. When she would speak out for civil rights or suffragism, various powerful people in both the North and the South would belittle her comments, as if they were coming from an inferior, as if blindness diminished her mental capacities.

Other people assumed that Keller didn't have a mind of her own, that her teacher, Annie Sullivan, was manipulating her. But the letters make it clear that Keller was indeed capable of profound and unconventional thought.

She was particularly incensed, for instance, by society's refusal to acknowledge that venereal disease, passed from fathers to pregnant mothers, was the chief cause of blindness in America. And she strongly lobbied for simple medical procedures for newborns that would combat sight problems.

With the help of the American Foundation for the Blind, editor 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.


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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