Editor’s Note: Haverhill native Dr. Raymond F. Comeau commemorates the 129th anniversary of the passing of one of Haverhill’s favorite sons, John Greenleaf Whittier, with an essay on the poet’s friendship with Helen Keller. Now of Belmont, Comeau is a retired dean and current lecturer at Harvard University Extension School. He is also a trustee, emeritus, of the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace in Haverhill.
It was a sporadic relationship that manifested itself in only four letters and a single visit, and it lasted fewer than three years, but we can be sure that both Helen Keller (1880-1968) and John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) felt that knowing each other was a gift. As we will see, Keller was only nine when they met. She was at the beginning of a life built upon a stark work ethic and the unswerving support of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, enabling her to break through the prison of deafness and blindness to become an internationally known author and cultural icon. John Greenleaf Whittier, on the other hand, the ardent abolitionist and beloved national poet, was almost 82 and encumbered by failing health.
The friendship began in November, 1889, when John Greenleaf Whittier received a surprise letter at his family compound in Danvers. It began, “Dear Poet, I think you will be surprised to receive a letter from a little girl whom you do not know, but I thought that you would be glad to hear that your beautiful poems make me very happy.” It then continued:
Yesterday I read “In School Days” and “My Playmate,” and I enjoyed them greatly. I was very sorry that the poor little girl with the browns [brown eyes] and the “tangled golden curls” died. It is very pleasant to live here in our beautiful world. I cannot see the lovely things with my eyes, but my mind can see them all, and so I am joyful all the day long.
When I walk out in my garden I cannot see the beautiful flowers but I know that they are all around me; for is not the air sweet with their fragrance? I know too that the tiny lily-bells are whispering pretty secrets to their companions else they would not look so happy. I love you very dearly, because you have taught me so many lovely things about flowers, and birds, and people. I hope [you] will enjoy the Thanksgiving very much.
From your loving little friend,
Helen Keller (Keller 177)
The letter itself may have been a surprise to Whittier, but the personage of Helen Keller was already familiar to him, as his response on Dec. 1, 1889 showed:
My dear young friend!
I have read with surprise and pleasure your beautiful letter. My eyes are not strong, but I could read it readily, and I am happy to know that a little girl, unable to read or write or speak, has been pleased with my poems. I am glad you enjoy the garden flowers, and can understand that they are beautiful by their touch and fragrance.
I have read Mrs. Anagnos’ story of you in her report, and I hope everyone will read it. I think that Miss Sullivan must be a good and noble young woman, and I am glad you have such a teacher. I am with love and good wishes your friend
John Greenleaf Whittier (Pickard 573)
These letters, despite being written by two people at the opposite poles of life, demonstrate a common affinity with nature and an appreciation for beauty. They also depict two sympathetic souls instilled with the spirit of love. In other words, Helen Keller and John Greenleaf Whittier were kindred spirits.
Whittier’s reference to the report by “Mrs. Anagnos” may well have been the 1888 report written by Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, entitled “Helen Keller: A Second Laura Bridgeman,” in which he states that Helen is superior to Laura, another exceptional deaf and blind Perkins student, in “quickness of perception, grasp of ideas, breadth of comprehension, insatiate thirst for solid knowledge, self-reliance and sweetness of disposition” (Herrmann 63-64). This report, and others of his that followed, made Keller a celebrity in the United States and abroad, and they helped to create a Helen Keller legend (Herrmann 63-64).
Keller’s first letter was followed by another about a year later and dated Dec.17, 1890, Whittier’s birthday:
This is your birthday: that was the first thought that came into my mind when I awoke this morning, and it made me glad to think that I could write you a letter and tell you how much your little blind friends love their sweet poet and his birthday. This evening they are going to entertain their friends with readings of your poems and music. I hope the swift-winged messenger of love will be here to carry some of the sweet melody to you in your little study by the Merrimac. At first I was very sorry when I found that the sun had hidden himself behind dull clouds, but afterwards I thought why he did so, and then I was happy. The Sun knows that you like to see the world covered with beautiful snow, so he kept back all of his brightness so that the little crystals could form in the sky, and when they are ready they will softly fall and tenderly cover every object. Then the sun will appear in all his radiance and fill the world with light. If I were with you today I would give you eighty-three kisses, one for each year you have lived. Eighty-three years seems very long to me. Does it seem long to you? I cannot think about so much time. I received the letter which you wrote to me last summer, and I thank you for it. I am staying in Boston now, at the Institution for the Blind, but I have not commenced my studies yet, because my dearest friend, Mr. Anagnos, wants me to rest and play a great deal. Teacher is well and sends her remembrances to you. The happy Christmas time is almost here! I can hardly wait for the fun to begin! I hope your Christmas Day will be a very happy one and that the new year will be full of brightness and joy for you and every one (Quoted in Pickard 581).
Whittier wrote the following undated letter back:
My Dear Young Friend,
I was very glad to have such a pleasant letter on my birthday. I had two or three hundred others and thine was one of the most welcome of all. I must tell thee how the day passed at Oak Knoll. Of course the sun did not shine, but we had great open wood fires in the rooms, which were all very sweet with roses and other flowers, which were sent to me from distant friends; and fruits of all kinds from California and other places. Some relatives and dear old friends were with me through the day. I do not wonder thee thinks eighty three years a long time. But to me it seems but a very little while since I was a boy no older than thee, playing on the old farm at Haverhill. I thank thee for all thy good wishes, and wish thee as many. I am glad thee is at the Institution; it is an excellent place. Give my best regards to Miss Sullivan, and with a great deal of love I am,
Thy old friend
John G. Whittier (Pickard, 581)
Both letters are poignant, one for its zest for the present and future, the other for its gratefulness and nostalgia, yet it is clear that the communication is easy, personal, and respectful.
A little more than a year later, in the summer of 1892, Helen and Anne Sullivan visited Whittier in his Amesbury home. This visit took place only months before Whittier’s death on Sept. 7, 1892. Taken from Helen’s The Story of My Life, a memoir of her childhood to college days at Radcliffe, this description of the visit is the only one we have:
One beautiful summer day, not long after my meeting with Dr. [Oliver Wendell] Holmes, Miss Sullivan and I visited Whittier in his quiet home on the Merrimac. His gentle courtesy and quaint speech won my heart. He had a book o his poems in raised print from which I read “In School Days.” He was delighted that I could pronounce the words so well, and said that he had no difficulty in understanding me. Then I asked many questions about the poem, and read his answers by placing my fingers on his lips. He said he was the little boy in the poem, and that the girl’s name was Sally, and more which I have forgotten. I also recited “Laus Deo,” and as I spoke the concluding verses, he placed in my hands a statue of a slave from whose crouching figure the fetters were falling, even as they fell from Peter’s limbs when the angel led him forth out of prison. Afterward we went into his study, and he wrote his autograph for my teacher and expressed his admiration of her work, saying to me, “She is thy spiritual liberator.” Then he led me to the gate and kissed me tenderly on my forehead. I promised to visit him again the following summer; but he died before the promise was fulfilled (Keller 136).
The description reveals some noteworthy points. It shows, for example, that by 1892 Keller had been learning to speak. She had always wanted to speak like most people, and as soon a she heard in 1890, at the age of nine, that this was possible, she approached Sarah Fuller of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf for lessons (Herrmann 76-77). Although her language would always be “different,” she and her teacher continuously strove to improve it. It is touching to see how Whittier tried to encourage Helen’s initial attempts to conquer spoken language by saying that he had no difficulty understanding her.
The description also reveals that Keller got Whittier to say that he was the boy in his poem, “In School Days,” and the girl’s name was Sally. (Finding out more about “Sally” would be a good research project for a student of Whittier.)
Another interesting point has to do with the statue that Whittier handed to Keller after she “spoke the concluding verses” of his poem, “Laus Deo,” which celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. This statue was probably a small replica of Thomas Ball’s statue, “Emancipation Group,” which was unveiled in Park Square in Boston on Dec. 9, 1879. Whittier himself wrote the dedicatory poem for the event. The statue depicts Abraham Lincoln standing behind a kneeling black man whose shackles are falling off. It fell victim to the tenor of the times and was taken down on Dec. 29, 2020 following an online petition that gathered more than 7,000 signatures. It will be placed in another location.
Most important for the topic of this essay, however, is the quality of their relationship as seen through Keller’s eyes. She was struck by Whittier’s “gentle courtesy,” which put her so much at ease that she “asked many questions” about his poem “In School Days.” She also went to the trouble of memorizing and reciting part of Whittier’s poem, “Laus Deo,” probably as a thoughtful tribute to Whittier’s lifetime spent fighting slavery. She concludes by mentioning Whittier’s moving words about her beloved teacher, Anne Sullivan, and his tender parting kiss on her forehead.
Yes, this was a friendship prized by both parties.
Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. New York: Knoff, 1988. Print.
Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1905. Print
Whittier, John Greenleaf. The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. Vol. 3. Ed.
John B. Pickard. London: Harvard UP, 1975. Print.
© Raymond F. Comeau, PhD, July 2021