In recognition of January as National Braille Literacy Month, I would like to salute Helen Keller (1880-1968), one of the great chroniclers of life in New York City, in braille or any other writing system. Deaf and blind since early childhood, Keller wrote fourteen books and lectured widely with her teacher Anne Sullivan and was also a political activist who campaigned for women’s suffrage and labor rights.
Keller visited New York City many times, as she was drawn to its energy, palpable beyond what one can see or hear. In “I Go Adventuring,” from her 1929 book Midstream: My later Life, she writes:
Cut off as I am, it is inevitable that I should sometimes feel like a shadow walking in a shadowy world. When this happens I ask to be taken to New York City. Always I return home weary but I have the comforting certainty that mankind is real flesh and I myself am not a dream.
And later, in the same passage, she writes:
As I walk up Broadway, the people that brush past me seem always hastening toward a destination they never reach. Their motions are eager, as if they said, “We are on our way, we shall arrive in a moment.”
Tremulously I stand in the subway, absorbed into the terrible reverberations of exploding energy. Fearful, I touch the forest of steel girders loud with the thunder of oncoming trains that shoot past me like projectiles. Inert I stand, riveted by my place. …Another train bursts into the station like a volcano, the people crowd me on, on into the chasm—into the dark depths of awful forces and fates. In a few minutes, still trembling, I am spilled into the streets.
Keller did much of her writing in braille, though she also used a standard typewriter. Braille is a form of written language used by the blind and visually impaired where characters are represented by patterns of raised dots that are felt with the fingertips. Invented by Louis Braille who, blind from the age of three, developed this system of raised-point reading and writing in 1824, braille enables the visually impaired to read and write through touch.
Keller, Helen. Midstream: My Later Life. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1929