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Helen Keller, the heroine whom time, teachers forgot

On the 100th anniversary of its publication, Helen Keller's The Story of My Life would appear to be the book that has everything: a university tribute, a New Yorker article, and a deluxe Web edition, slated to go online this fall.

In honor of the big event, two handsome new "restored" print editions, each at least 400 pages long, are duking it out on bookstore shelves.

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And yet something is missing as Keller's most famous book embarks on its second century.

A bestseller in its day, and a classroom staple well into the 1970s, The Story of My Life now finds itself cut off from perhaps its most reliable supply of young readers. Forces ranging from the civil rights movement to the rise of video games and the death of Victorian values have pushed the book off public school reading lists, leaving it to face an uncertain future.

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"The book has been unjustly forgotten and displaced in the schools, where [youngsters once] read it, and where it ought to be read," says Roger Shattuck, an editor of the Norton restored edition of The Story of My Life.

Keller's book, which recounts her experiences growing up deaf and blind in rural Alabama, started to disappear from schools in about 1985, according to Carol Jago, author of With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students.

Today, Jago says, she doesn't know a single person who teaches it.

"I think you could interview a lot of 8th graders and except for the jokes [about her disabilities] they wouldn't really know who Helen Keller is."

At a Borders Books store, a young cashier is jolted out of her rush-hour stupor by the sight of a hulking anniversary edition, emblazoned with a photo of Keller: "Did she write a book?"

And the story is the same at the bookstore coffee shop, where earnest students pore over recent purchases and dense scientific texts. "I had to read that play" about Keller, says medical student Jennifer Christensen, 21, referring to The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson.

But Keller's book?

"No. I wasn't really sure she wrote one."

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Internationally famous

The fate of The Story of My Life has long been linked to that of its author, and in the beginning, that was an unquestionable advantage. Keller, the pretty, intelligent and outgoing eldest daughter of a privileged Southern family, charmed the world with her tale of struggle and triumph.

Unable to see, hear or communicate at age 7 due to a childhood illness, Keller raged through her parents' house like a wild animal. Not long after meeting her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she had knocked out two of Sullivan's teeth.

But Sullivan persisted, spelling words into Keller's hand until, in the now-famous water pump scene, the connection between word and meaning finally clicked.

"Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten -- a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me," Keller wrote in The Story of My Life.

Keller, who published the best-selling memoir while still a student at Radcliffe College, went on to become an influential advocate for the blind and the author of 13 books. Winston Churchill called her "the greatest woman of our age." Mark Twain compared her to Napoleon and Shakespeare.

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"She was so famous that everyone in the entire world knew who she was and followed her career with avid interest, not only ordinary people, but kings and queens and presidents," says Dorothy Herrmann, author of the biography Helen Keller: A Life.

Keller's hold on the public imagination continued into the 1960s, when Gallup polls consistently showed her to be one of the most admired women in America, edging out such notables as Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace and Golda Meir.

But after Keller's death in 1968, her fame began to fade.

Changing values

Another factor in the book's struggle has been the rise of multiculturalism, or sensitivity to the concerns of racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

Multiculturalism, an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, has brought books about African-Americans, Latinos and Asians into the schools, with the idea that students should be able to read about people who resemble them, and that works by minority authors have been unjustly ignored.

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Multiculturalism isn't hostile to Keller, but it has taken up space on teaching plans, forcing schools to make tough choices.

"Something has to give," Jago says. "That's why people say they don't know why [Keller's book fell off reading lists]. Because it wasn't, 'Oh, let's get rid of Helen Keller.' But rather, 'Oh, what are we going to do? We can't get rid of Anne Frank.' "

Changing tastes and values have also created a challenge for Keller's book. Keller's flowery style was admired in the sentimental and slow-moving Victorian era, but today's readers, accustomed to relatively straightforward and streamlined communication, may find it frustrating and pretentious.

The contrast between Keller's relentlessly wholesome outlook and the irreverent Helen Keller jokes that now flood the Internet -- "How did Helen Keller burn her face? Bobbing for French fries" -- also points to the distance between her era and our own.

Today, a Google search for Helen Keller jokes yields 5,500 hits on the Internet; a search for Helen Keller fan pages yields 47. "She's become a kind of a cultural cliche, a set of jokes," says James Berger, editor of the Modern Library restored edition of The Story of My Life.

Compounding its problems, Keller's book is neither a great work of art -- even some of its strongest supporters stop short of calling it a stylistic masterpiece -- nor an easy read.

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The reading challenge was less problematic in the past, when teachers had less required material to cover in class and young people tended to be stronger readers, says Laurie Lawlor, author of Helen Keller: Rebellious Spirit, a biography for young people.

"Kids have so many choices and they would rather do something passive, watch TV or play video games or whatever, than to actually experience struggle," Lawlor says. "And reading is a wonderful experience for children, but it also requires effort."

That makes a book like The Story of My Life a tough sell -- at a time when busy teachers and overworked parents have less time to push it.

Finally, scholars say, the book has to contend with the saccharine-sweet reputation that has stalked Keller in the years after her death. "Her appearance and her age when she came on the international scene were such that she just seemed too good to be true, a goody-goody-two-shoes," Shattuck says.

In reality, Keller was a socialist, a suffragette and a pacifist who faced a major accusation of plagiarism at age 11 and drank martinis late in life in defiance of her doctor's orders, scholars and writers say. Possessed of what she called "a strong sex-urge," Keller at one point had a major love affair that was broken up by her relatives.

"She was sort of everything nobody wants to think of her as," Lawlor says.

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Missing the richness

No one is openly celebrating The Story of My Life's misfortunes. But the outcry is stronger in some quarters than in others, with Jago saying it's a "great shame" that kids aren't reading Keller's book.

"Her story is part of America's story," Jago says. "It is part of cultural literacy. And if all you know are stupid jokes about Helen Keller, you're missing the whole richness of what other people share and understand about what this woman achieved."

What will happen next is hard to predict. Anniversary events, including the debut of a multimedia Web edition of the book sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind and a tribute at the City University of New York with Stockard Channing, may attract new readers. And Berger sees hope in the appearance of the restored editions, which include supplemental materials such as letters written by Sullivan and give teachers a chance to present a more complex and intriguing portrait of Keller.

Jago, however, warns that the book's predicament is potentially permanent.

"It will soon be set in stone, because you'll have [a situation in which] your young teachers haven't read it, either," and won't feel compelled to share it with their students, Jago says.

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"That's when a book is never read at all."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing company.

Excerpt: 'The Story of My Life'

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten -- a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

"I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. ...

"I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them -- words that were to make the world blossom for me, 'like Aaron's rod, with flowers.' It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come."


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