The Story of My Life

The Story of My Life Summary and Analysis of Part II: Letters


Part II of The Story of My Life is a selection of letters Helen Keller wrote throughout her education. It begins with an introduction by the editor, who explains that these letters are provided not just because they add further detail to her life story, but also because they display her growth in thought and expression over the course of her learning. Helen wrote many letters because she moved around the country and lived in different parts of it very often, which meant that she was frequently writing back and forth to keep in contact with her friends and relatives. Most of these letters are also of very high writing quality, since many of Helen's friends were distinguished people to whom she believed she had to write well to keep their respect. The letters provided in this section of the memoir are just a selection of the hundreds she wrote, and are arranged in chronological order.

Helen wrote her first letter three-and-a-half months after Miss Sullivan first arrived and began teaching her. It was to her cousin Anna on June 17, 1887. Like all of Helen's earliest letters, this one is hardly intelligible, written without punctuation, and featuring strings of simple phrases. According to an editor's comment, these letters, written in pencil, were also very difficult to read because her handwriting was so illegible. Helen's sentence construction improved the following fall when she sent letters to the blind children at the Perkins Institute as well as to Mr. Anagnos, when she was able to use full sentences and begin trying out punctuation.

Adjectives start to appear in the letters she writes in early 1888, when she mentions her impending summer trip to Boston in letters to her friends. She still does not properly conjugate verbs; however, her letters now have more detail and can be clearly understood. She writes often to Mr. Anagnos, and in one of her letters to him she narrates an instance that shows Miss Sullivan's commitment to teaching her: when she was at a picnic with other children, Miss Sullivan took her for a walk and taught her the names of the trees around her.

Helen spends many of her letters narrating the lessons she's learned, including her first history lesson about pilgrims from her visit to Plymouth, Massachusetts. By the beginning of 1889, Helen's grammar has improved drastically and her writing is certainly equal to—or even better than—that of any girl her age. Another friend to whom Helen writes often is Dr. Edward Everett Hale, a distant cousin; she tells him about the goings-on in her life and the lives of her family.

In the summer of 1889, Miss Sullivan is away from Helen for three-and-a-half months, the first time they had ever been apart. Only once more in the next fifteen years would the two separate for more than a few days at a time. Helen writes to Miss Sullivan while she is away, telling her what is going on at home and talking about how often she thinks of her. When Helen is in Boston in the fall of 1889, she writes home to her little sister Mildred, taking care to phrase the letter in simple sentences her young sister would understand. She tells her what she is learning in school. At one point she writes to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, whom she does not know at this time, and tells him that his poems make her very happy.

In summer 1890 Helen writes to her friend Reverend Phillips Brooks and asks him to hell her something he knows about God. He replies with a warm letter that tells Helen that God is there to talk to her himself if she listens, as long as she continues to value goodness and love. A few times she writes back and forth with Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who remarks at how well she has mastered language according to her letters. Every time Helen is in Boston she writes to her mother, Kate, to tell her how she is doing, and in one letter she describes the landscape outside the window on her train journey with beautiful, articulate prose; for example, she remarked about the hills in Virginia that "Jack Frost had dressed them in gold and crimson" (pg. 77).

Before this point, the memoir has provided the entirety of every letter it has chosen to include. Beginning with letters from 1892, however, the editor begins omitting certain passages, since Helen's letters have become longer and more complex. In 1893 Helen writes to her mother about her visit to Niagara Falls, and her subsequent visit to the World's Fair is described in another letter to Mr. John P. Spaulding, and one more to Miss Caroline Derby, a friend of hers in Boston. When she arrives to attend school in New York in 1894, she writes to both Caroline and her mother about that, telling stories about her visit to the Statue of Liberty and reporting on the progress of her lessons.

In 1896 and 1897 she writes her letters from Cambridge, Massachusetts, having begun her preparations for Radcliffe at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. In these letters, she mentions how difficult of a process it is for her to prepare her lessons, because they all have to be spelled out into her hand. She does, though, exclaim at how wonderful it is to be living and learning with the other girls, who are all seeing and hearing. The letters also reflect Helen's departure from the Cambridge School because of the disagreement over how hard her course load should be, and pick up when she begins her tutoring with Mr. Keith in Wrentham. While in Wrentham, she spends a lot of time talking about the outdoor activities she enjoys.

In the summer of 1899, Helen writes to her friends about her final Radcliffe exams, telling them she passed, but also discussing how braille made it difficult for her to complete her exams in mathematics, since she is used to having the numbers and formulas signed into her hand. We also learn her plans to remain in tutoring for one final year before she begins at Radcliffe. After entering Radcliffe, Helen sends a letter to Mr. John Hits talking about her friends' plans to start a school for deaf-blind children. At first she supported the idea, but soon realized it is not feasible. Dr. Alexander Graham Bell agreed, saying that it would deprive deaf-blind children the chance to learn from the world hands-on as Helen did. They decided, instead, to organize an association for the promotion of education for the deaf and blind. Many of the rest of Helen's letters in college talk about this idea, and report on the ways she herself has been able to be successful in college as a deaf-blind woman.


In the previous part of the memoir, readers received a full account of the major events in Helen Keller's youth as she remembers them. Part II tells the same story—but this time, it is in the form of letters written as these events were happening. Through these letters, we can see how Helen's education progresses in real-time. Her writing improves from barely understandable strings of words to full, rich, narrative passages about her experiences. This section shows readers, rather than merely telling them, how miraculous Helen's transformation really was. Thus, including them is an important way to impart to readers the impact of her education.

These letters are important not only because they show us the progression of Helen's writing skills, but also because they are primary sources, telling Helen's story as it occurred, not just in retrospect. They are more reliable than Helen's own memory, because it is likely that some events are distorted or forgotten when she is recounting them so many years after they happened. The letters add an additional dimension to this autobiography, affirming the events Helen talks about in the earlier section and giving readers a more tangible insight into Helen's experience.

Judging by the content of these letters, Helen is bold in the amount of information she shares with her friends. Many of her letters are extremely long and detailed, containing all sorts of stories about Helen's work in school, her trips to the north, her time with Miss Sullivan, and her opinions about the world. This is partly because she is separated from many of them by vast distance, but also because, as a deaf-blind person, writing is the best way for Helen to communicate a lot of information at once. The manual alphabet is slow, and few friends outside her family can use it with her. Her speech is slow, and sometimes difficult to understand. In writing, however, Helen can express herself freely and clearly, and it is impossible to distinguish her words from a person with sight and hearing. Her skills here are not at all inhibited by her handicaps, just as she always wanted.

Helen's letters do more than just relay information to their readers. Her words are prose that create a scene, and one would hardly know that she could not see and hear the things she talks about for herself. The way she writes gives insight into the way she listens, interprets, and observes the world. She gets her sensory information directly from touch and smell, and can glean far more from these senses than people who rely so heavily on sight and hearing can. She constructs the rest of a scene in her mind based on what the people around her—primarily Miss Sullivan, but also other family and friends—tell her. Then, she is able to put this entire experience into writing, beautifully creating her world anew in her letters.

While the letters serve as a great companion to the rest of the memoir, providing firsthand representation of the events and recollections readers were told about earlier, they also provide new information that we had not known before. A great example of this is the final letters, in which Helen discusses her and her friends' idea to create a school for the deaf and blind, which eventually evolves into an association for promoting their education instead. Because Part I of Helen's memoir was primarily about her own personal growth, she did not cover this initiative. In her letters, however, we get a brief glimpse at the activist she will be once she finishes college, tirelessly working to help others succeed the way she has.