The Industrial Age was an age of communication. Revolutionary new inventions such as the telephone and the telegraph had shrunk the vast distances that separated different parts of the United States and had brought Americans into closer contact with each other than ever before. One of the greatest innovators of the age, however, also was instrumental in facilitating communication of a different, more personal, nature. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was also a longtime teacher and advocate of the deaf, and in 1887 was introduced to a remarkable 6-year-old girl named Helen Keller.
Helen Keller had been deaf and blind since infancy and could barely communicate with her family. Bell took a personal interest in Helen’s education and helped direct her to a suitable school and an inventive teacher, Annie Sullivan. Sullivan, who had vision impairments herself, moved in with the Keller family and used innovative educational methods to introduce Helen to language. Within a year, Helen could read braille and write, and she happily carried on conversations using finger-spelling and manual lip-reading.
Word of her achievements spread quickly, aided by Bell, and Helen Keller soon became a celebrity. By the time she became a teenager she was a published author, and her poems, journals, and essays appeared in magazines nationwide. After graduating from Radcliffe College with honors in 1904, Keller launched a career as a writer, lecturer, and activist that would last a lifetime and would lead her to become one of the most widely read and widely recognized people in the world. Her friendship with Alexander Graham Bell endured until his death in 1922, and her best-known book, The Story of My Life, is dedicated to him.
In 1893, when she was 13, Helen wrote what she described as "a word picture of Autumn as I see it with the eyes of my soul." The poem would go on to be published in a magazine, but she typed this copy herself and inscribed it to Bell. As you read the poem, think about how writers communicate their personal thoughts and feelings with readers whose experiences may have been very different from their own.
For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.
- American Memory Timeline (Rise of Industrial America)
- America’s Library — Jump Back in Time (Gilded Age)