Pine Nuts: In defense of Helen Keller


If there’s one thing in God’s Green Acre I cannot abide, it’s a fraud. And I don’t come by this singular prejudice from my father nor my mother, no, I come by it from Mark Twain, who had an uncanny nose for frauds. It was Sam Clemens’s deep understanding of subjective human nature that allowed him to root-out sharpers and flesh-out humbugs like the king and the duke in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In this regard Samuel Clemens was limitlessly human. You could not walk a fraud past Samuel Clemens who could fool his smell test. It would be safe to say that his life’s work was dedicated to exposing and condemning hypocrisy and frauds.

So it strikes me to the heart to read the conspiracy theory bandied about these days, contending that Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan were frauds, because either such revisionism is ableist theory, or Mark Twain was bamboozled. It does not seem possible, to my mind, that Sam Clemens could ever be duped by a fraud for longer than 15 seconds, much less 15 years. So I dug into the Twain-Keller notes that I’ve compiled over the past 40 years to try to validate my confidence in Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.

Sam met Helen in 1895 when she was but 14 years old, and corresponded with her until the end of his life in 1910. He convinced his friend Henry Rogers to finance Helen’s schooling at Radcliffe, and Helen became the first person without sight to earn a bachelor of arts degree in America.

When Helen and Annie visited Sam’s Connecticut home, “Stormfield,” he read to them from his “Diary of Adam & Eve.” As Isabel Lyon notes in her journal, “He finished with Adam’s tribute to Eve while standing at Eve’s grave, ‘Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.’ Helen quivered with delight, and he, shaken with emotion, could hardly find his voice again. It was a marvel to behold.”

Helen could see herself in Eve, naming things as she learned about the world around her. She signed Sam’s guest book, “Eden Three Days –a Daughter of Eve, Helen Keller.”

Sam signed a photo as a gift to Annie Sullivan, referring to her as a, “miracle worker.”

That would become the title to playwright William Gibson’s play, “The Miracle Worker,” and subsequent movie by the same name.

Helen wrote, “Mr. Clemens told us many entertaining stories, and made us laugh till we cried. He told us he was going back to Europe this week to bring his wife & daughter back to America because his daughter, who is a school girl in Paris, had learned so much in three years and a half that if he did not bring her home she would soon know more than he did. I think ‘Mark Twain’ is a very appropriate nom de plume for Mr. Clemens because it has a funny & quaint sound that goes well with his amusing writings, and its nautical significance suggests the deep & beautiful things he has written.”

And Sam said of Helen: “She is the most marvelous person of her sex that has existed on this earth since Joan of Arc.”

As an impressionist of Mark Twain I’m delighted to deliver commencement speeches now and again, and I like to remind our graduates, “Fame is Beyoncé, greatness … Helen Keller.”

Learn more about McAvoy Layne at


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