Part of the Historical Society of Easton’s Year of the Woman series.
In March of 1894, fourteen-year-old Helen Keller met Samuel Clemens for the first time at a gathering at Laurence Hutton’s New York home. Hutton was the literary editor of Harper’s Magazine at the time. After being introduced to Clemens, Helen sat on a couch beside him while he began to recount one of his many humorous tales. She listened by pressing her fingers across his lips.
From his autobiography, Twain’s own words about that first encounter: “I told her a long story, which she interrupted all along and in the right places, with cackles, chuckles and care-free bursts of laughter,” he recalled. “Then Miss Sullivan put one of Helen’s hands against her lips and spoke against it the question, ‘What is Mr. Clemens distinguished for?’ Helen answered, in her crippled speech, ‘For his humor.’ I spoke up modestly and said, ‘And for his wisdom.’ Helen said the same words instantly -‘and for his wisdom.’ I suppose it was mental telegraphy for there was no way for her to know what I had said.” From that initial encounter, an unlikely friendship began between an aging author and a brilliant young woman that would last beyond the years that Clemens would remain on this earth.
“Mr. Clemens told us many entertaining stories, and it made us laugh till we cried,” Helen would later write a friend. “I think ‘Mark Twain’ is a very appropriate nom de plume for Mr. Clemens because it has a funny and quaint sound that goes well with his amusing writing, and its nautical significance suggests the deep and beautiful things he has written.”
Eighteen months later, Clemens recorded his impressions of the young girl: “Helen Keller has been dumb, stone-deaf, and stone blind, ever since she was a little baby a year and a half old; and now at sixteen years of age this miraculous creature, this wonder of all ages, passes the Harvard University examination in Latin, German, French history, belles lettres, and such things, and does it brilliantly, too, not in a commonplace fashion. She doesn’t know merely things, she is splendidly familiar with the meanings of them. When she writes an essay on a Shakespearean character, her English is fine and strong, her grasp of the subject is the grasp of one who knows, and her page is electric with light. Has Miss Sullivan taught her by the methods of India and the American public school? No, oh, no; for then she would be deafer and dumber and blinder than she was before. It is a pity that we can’t educate all the children in the asylums.”
At the time, Clemens was nearly broke. He had invested his money poorly, losing most of his savings and a good deal of his wife’s inheritance. In the early 1890’s he had become good friends with Henry Huddleston Rogers, a principal in Standard Oil, who soon became his trusted financial advisor. With Rogers’ help, Clemens was able to profit from several European tours and speaking engagements and then slowly pay off his creditors over the final years of the 19th century.
Unable to financially assist Ms. Keller in her pursuit of a university education on his own, Clemens turned to his friends, the Rogers, with the following 1896 plea sent to Mrs. Rogers in a letter:
“For & in behalf of Helen Keller,
Mr. Rogers will remember our visit with that astonishing girl at Laurence Hutton’s house when she was 14 years old. Last July, in Boston, when she was 16, she underwent the Harvard examination for admission to Radcliffe College. She passed without a single condition. She was allowed only the same amount of time that is granted to other applicants, and this was shortened in her case by the fact that the question-papers had to be read to her. Yet she scored an average of 90, as against an average of 78 on the part of the other applicants.
It won’t do for America to allow this marvelous child to retire from her studies because of poverty. If she can go on with them, she will make a fame that will endure in history for centuries. Along her special lines she is the most extraordinary product of all the ages.
I beg you to lay siege to your husband and get him to interest himself and Messrs. John D. & William Rockefeller and the other Standard Oil chiefs in Helen’s case…to pile that Standard Oil Helen Keller College Fund as high as they please; they have my consent.”
As a result of that letter, the Rogers personally took on the responsibility of providing the funds for Helen’s education at Radcliffe. Clemens’ praise and admiration for Helen continued beyond her graduation and into her adult life.
The pair often exchanged notes and letters, and sometimes crossed paths at different literary events and social functions.
A letter from Helen Keller to Samuel Clemens dated December 8, 1905 commemorating his seventieth birthday:
My dear Mr. Clemens,
I have just finished reading a most interesting account of the Thanksgiving dinner that was given in honor of your seventieth birthday more than a week ago in New York. Although I am somewhat in the rear of the great procession which brought you its tribute of love and admiration, yet you will accept my little handful of flowers gathered in the garden of my heart, will you not? They are not intended so much for the great author whom the world has crowned with its choicest blossoms as for the kind, sympathetic, noble man, the best of friends and champions with the heart of Santa Claus, who makes others good and happy. Your birthday shall always be a Thanksgiving Day to me. Indeed, I have thanked you a thousand times for the bright laugh that is like a drop of honey in things bitter that we must all taste, before we learn to know good from evil, and distil sweetness and peace from deprivation and sorrow. I thank you, too, for the flash and tingle along the veins when your fiery words smite the wrong with the lightning of just anger. Again, I thank you for the tears that soften the heart and make it compassionate and full of kindness. Your message to the world has been one of courage and brightness and tenderness, and your fellowmen make a feast on your anniversary, and give thanks for the many days that you have lived among them. And you are seventy years old? Or is the report exaggerated like that of your death? I remember, when I saw you last, at the house of dear Mr. Hutton in Princeton, you said, “If a man is a pessimist before he is forty-eight, he knows too much. If he is an optimist after he is forty-eight, he knows too little.” Now we know you are an optimist, and nobody would dare to accuse one on the “seven-terraced summit” of knowing little. So probably you are not seventy after all, but only forty-seven! But even at forty-seven we love you and wish you God speed! and the fulfilment of every desire that can bring you peace and joy. And should you really attain to that alpine height of seventy years, you shall still hear the voice of affection that springs upward like a flame, and carries warmth and comfort to the lonely climber who has met with bereavement and sorrow on his skyward pilgrimage.
Mrs. Macy and her husband join me in sending you sincere love and admiration.
In January of 1909, 28-year old Helen Keller visited Samuel Clemens at his home, Stormfield, in Redding. One might assume Easton’s most famous resident was simply paying a neighborly visit to Clemens a few miles away, but the fact is Helen Keller didn’t move to Easton until the late 1930’s when Gustav Pfeiffer convinced her to leave her home in Forrest Hills, New York to move to his little enclave at Aspetuck Corners. Pfeiffer donated the land and raised most of the funds to build Keller’s house, Arcan Ridge, from the plans drawn by architect Cameron Clark of Southport. The home was completed in 1939, and although it was destroyed by fire in 1946 while Ms. Keller and her companion Polly Thompson were in Europe, it was entirely rebuilt using Clark’s original plans for much of the house the following year. In all, Ms. Keller spent the better part of her final 39 years living in Easton.
The 1909 visit to Redding made a lasting impression on Helen. Perhaps it was one of the reasons she acquiesced to Pfeiffer’s request she move to Easton some thirty years later.
Before leaving Stormfield, Helen made this handwritten entry into Clemens’ guestbook:
“I have been in Eden three days and I saw a King. I knew he was a King the minute I touched him though I had never touched a King before.” – A Daughter of Eve. Helen Keller Jan. 11.
Helen’s unusual entry in Clemens’ guest book was explained by the “king” himself in a footnote after Helen’s comment: “The point in what Helen says above. Lies in this: That I read the “Diary of Eve” all through to her last night. In it, Eve poignantly mentions things that she saw for the first time but instantly knew what they were and named them though she had never seen them before. SLC Jan 8-11.” The mere fact that Clemens saw fit to explain that entry suggests that he fully realized the significance of her intellect and the possibility that her written words may one day become as well read and sought after as his own.
Accompanying Helen on the Stormfield visit was Anne Sullivan Macy and her husband, John Albert Macy. Their signatures appear just below Helen’s comments in Clemens’ guestbook. Macy and Sullivan married in 1905. Macy was 11 years junior to Anne and the marriage seemed more of a business relationship than a true romance – he was Keller’s manager & editor. Their marriage began to fall apart shortly after the Redding visit, yet they never divorced, and John lived in the Keller house until sometime in the 1920’s.
If you ever wondered how Helen’s companion and teacher Anne Sullivan first became known as the “Miracle Worker,” it came from the inscription that Samuel Clemens wrote on a copy of a photograph shown here, a gift he presented to Anne after the January 1909 visit to Stormfield. The inscription in Clemens’ own handwriting reads : “To Mrs. John Sullivan Macy with warm regard, and limitless admiration of the wonders she has performed as a miracle worker. Stormfield, Jan. 1909.” His signature as Mark Twain is at the bottom.
Samuel Clemens died in Redding in April of 1910. However, his friendship lived on in Helen Keller’s memory and writings for much longer. In 1939, thirty years after his death, she recalled memories of her visit with Clemens in Redding: “We gathered about the warm hearth after dinner, and Mr. Clemens stood with his back to the fire talking to us. There he stood—our Mark Twain, our American, our humorist, the embodiment of our country. He seemed to have absorbed all America into himself. The great Mississippi River seemed forever flowing, flowing through his speech, through the shadowless white sands of thought. His voice seemed to say like the river, “Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.”
What better way to remember a friend?
Up next: Black Thunder. An original Easton ghost story next Saturday on Halloween.