The School of Media and Communication hosted Dr. Beth Haller of Towson University, who discussed her book, “Byline of Hope”, on Monday, March 7. The talk was part of the Office of Research and Graduate Studies Speaker Series.
Haller discussed her research on Helen Keller’s contributions to The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and Home Magazine.
Although Keller was known for writing books, Haller pointed out that her magazine writings were lost to history. Even one of Keller’s most recent biographers did not know about her Home Magazine columns from the 1930’s. Haller said she found the 57 columns unexpectedly when she was looking through card catalogs for fun.
Keller, who was blind and deaf, had to navigate her disability to write. She would type her writings in Braille, it would be retyped in English for editors, and then retyped to Braille for Keller to re-edit.
But despite these difficulties, Haller said, writing gave Keller another way to explore the world.
“People didn’t believe that she should write, because she doesn’t have vision or hearing,” she said. “They thought she can’t write anything people care about. She was trying to prove them wrong with a lot her writings.”
But Keller had an acute sense of smell and touch, senses she thought were underdeveloped in most sighted people. “She really thought a lot of us were blinded by our sight,” Haller said. “Because touch was so important to her, she really felt like a lot of us who had vision were missing out on a whole experience of the world.”
In her Home Magazine columns, Keller’s explored moral character and spirituality, socialism, women’s issues, children’s education, blindness, deafness and famous people.
Haller said Keller’s fame allowed her to write whatever she wanted and nobody ever asked her to stop.
Keller was a feminist at a time where women had few options outside of marriage and raising children. She wrote article entitled “Is Marriage the Highest Fulfillment of a Girl’s Life?”
“Writing something like that in the 1930’s was a pretty big deal because she was saying women have options now, which was radical at her time,” Haller said.
“She really felt she should be talking specifically to women, because a lot of women didn’t understand that they had power to make life better for the whole country,” Haller said. “They’d be raising the children and be teaching them about peace and nature and all the things going on but they could really have an important role in educating the next generation.”
Haller said she called the book “Byline of Hope” because one of these magazines, Home Magazine, included Keller’s actual signature as a byline, and her articles were always hopeful.
“She was a very optimistic person and would say yes were going through a lot of trials and tribulations, but we’re going to get through it, we’ve gotten through worse,” Haller said. “Coming from somebody who was deaf-blind, it could really resonate with people and make them understand that maybe they could cope.”
Keller was a true activist. She wrote about disability and education rights, and even helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. She worked with Industrial Workers of the World, an organization that promotes worker’s rights. Her writing even delved into public health, when she advocated for the use of silver nitrate drops in infants to prevent STD-related newborn blindness.
“She was on the right side of so many social issues of the 20th century,” Haller said.
Keller conveyed to her readers that although her disability made her different, she could still feel and understand the world. “She was experiencing the world in a very different way, but it was just as valid as a sighted person would experience it,” Haller said.
Haller said Keller was optimistic and always tried to get people to try and learn new things.
“I really think a lot of what she had to say is still very relevant today,” Haller said. “She talked about basic human qualities of happiness and trying to cope with adversity which happens no matter what decade we’re in.”