The Radical Lives of Helen Keller

193 pages

15 illustrations

April, 2009

ISBN: 9780814758144



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Kim E. Nielsen is Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies in the Department of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She lives in Green Bay, WI.

All books by Kim E. Nielsen

Several decades after her death in 1968, Helen Keller remains one of the most widely recognized women of the twentieth century. But the fascinating story of her vivid political life—particularly her interest in radicalism and anti-capitalist activism—has been largely overwhelmed by the sentimentalized story of her as a young deaf-blind girl.

Keller had many lives indeed. Best known for her advocacy on behalf of the blind, she was also a member of the socialist party, an advocate of women's suffrage, a defender of the radical International Workers of the World, and a supporter of birth control—and she served as one of the nation's most effective but unofficial international ambassadors. In spite of all her political work, though, Keller rarely explored the political dimensions of disability, adopting beliefs that were often seen as conservative, patronizing, and occasionally repugnant. Under the wing of Alexander Graham Bell, a controversial figure in the deaf community who promoted lip-reading over sign language, Keller became a proponent of oralism, thereby alienating herself from others in the deaf community who believed that a rich deaf culture was possible through sign language. But only by distancing herself from the deaf community was she able to maintain a public image as a one-of-a-kind miracle.

Using analytic tools and new sources, Kim E. Nielsen's political biography of Helen Keller has many lives, teasing out the motivations for and implications of her political and personal revolutions to reveal a more complex and intriguing woman than the Helen Keller we thought we knew.


  • "Constitutes an important contribution to both the bibliography on Helen Keller and the advancement of disability studies. . . . Nielsen draws on a diverse and revealing body of source materials to give shape and dimension to key topics and arguments. . . . Nielsen does a particularly effective job of giving voice to Keller by drawing on letters, writings, and the statements of others; the direct quotes from Keller that she includes—and there are a multitude—enliven the text and strengthen the reader’s sense of Keller as an intellectual and a person as well as of the times which she lived. This sophisticated use of sources and quotes yields a strong, riveting narrative."

    Sign Language Studies

  • ”As a person who has labored through numerous thick volumes on the life of this remarkable deaf-blind woman, I am delighted with Nielsen’s concise and refreshing scholarly work."

    Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education

  • "Radical Lives fills out an important dimension of our cultural memory of the adult Helen Keller."

    Ms. Magazine

  • "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."

    Dallas Morning News

  • "Stunning final chapter."

    The Yale Review

  • "If you have not read Kim Nielsen's The Radical Lifes of Helen Keller, then I highly recommend it. As a person who has labored through numerous thick volumes on the life of this remarkable deaf-blind woman, I am delighted with Nielsen's concise and refreshing scholarly work. She examines Keller's life from a Disability Studies perspective. The book is enjoyable and easy to read, and it captures Keller's political dimension with great detail, based on such additional-and sometimes chilling-sources as military intelligence and FBI files. Nielsen does great justice to both the subject of her book and to Disability Studies as an emerging field."

    Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education

  • "The Radical Lives of Helen Keller thus is an important, essential guide for any who would receive a well-rounded survey of her life."

    The Midwest Book Review

  • "The book's compactness, straightforward writing style, and revolutionary approach make The Radical Lives of Helen Keller invaluable for both teachers and scholars. Keller would be delighted that Nielsen allowed her her Scotch."

    Journal of American History

  • "Nielsen's book gives us a Helen Keller for our times. We meet a complex person whose politics defy our reductionist knowledge about her, whose lived experience makes for compelling reading. The Radical Lives of Helen Keller renders three-dimensional, perhaps for the first time, a figure who all too often is known to the world, but known in minimalist flatness merely as a symbol of overcoming disability. Nielsen shows us that there is so much more to Keller—a political activist, theorist, and intellectual with unconventional, and, yes, even uncomfortable, opinions. She forthrightly explores these contradictions, in lucid, readable prose, to allow a very real version of Helen Keller to emerge from the darkness."

    —Lennard J. Davis, author of Bending Over Backwards: Essays on Disability and the Body