English 175

Literature and Disability: Helen Keller and Her Cultural Legacies

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2022 Sirianni, Lucy
MWF 10-11 Wheeler 104

Book List

Keller, Helen: Midstream; Keller, Helen: The Story Of My Life; Keller, Helen: The World I live In; Kleege, Georgina: Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller; Nielsen, Kim: The Radical Lives Of Helen Keller

Other Readings and Media

Course Reader;Film: The Miracle Worker


Every schoolchild knows the story of Helen Keller. We learn early that Keller became blind and deaf as a toddler, that after years without language, she was taught to sign, read and write, and eventually speak, that she was the first deafblind college graduate. Keller has captured our collective imagination, inspiring countless biographies, academic treatises, children's picture books, an Oscar-winning film, and even a Barbie doll. We quote her words, tour her childhood home, praise her teacher Anne Sullivan, speculate about her love life, and most of all, admire her indomitable spirit. But how much do we really know about Helen Keller? Has her story been obscured by the extent to which we have mythologized it? How can we seek out the truth of the story, and what does the impulse to mythologize it reveal about our ever-shifting understandings of disability and disabled identity?

We will begin our exploration by considering the writings of Helen Keller herself. Reading her autobiographies, essays, and letters, we'll examine the many roles she chose to take on throughout her long and multifaceted career. We'll discuss her work as a philosopher of the sensory who responded from her lived experience as a disabled woman to philosophers like John Locke, Samuel Molyneux, and Denis Diderot's theorizations about the blind and deaf's conceptions of sight and hearing. We'll talk, too, about Keller as a tireless activist—a feminist, a pacifist, an early supporter of the NAACP and ACLU, and of course a crusader for disability justice. We will then consider others' representations of Keller, examining how her story was alternately exalted, diminished, repurposed, and deployed. Why does Keller occupy such an enduring place in the non-disabled imagination, and how has her story been used? And how, in works like Georgina Kleege's Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller, have today's disabled thinkers built on, challenged, and celebrated Keller's life and legacy?

Because Keller was so prolific during her life and so constantly referenced thereafter, our analysis of her will serve as an introduction to the broader field of disability studies. We will learn, through our work on Keller, about the history, terms, and concepts integral to the field, and we will see how changing attitudes toward Keller reflect large-scale changes in attitudes toward disability itself. We will also prioritize attending closely to the textual details of Keller's exceptionally evocative writing, and as such, the course will serve, too, to give students a strong foundation in the value and techniques of close reading and literary analysis

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