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Joseph E. Chamberlin: Journalist and Early Advocate of Helen Keller

Head and shoulders photograph of Joseph E. Chamberlin

Joseph Edgar Chamberlin

As it turns out, in a certain generation, our family’s best memory keeper was Helen Keller.

I am indebted to the Helen Keller Archive at the American Foundation for the Blind for allowing me to come to know – four generations later – my great-great grandfather, the Boston author and journalist, Joseph Edgar Chamberlin. My current book in progress, called Letters from Red Farm, reveals new information about Helen Keller as it tells the untold story of her deep and enduring friendship with her beloved "Uncle Ed, " my ancestor, and Helen’s literary mentor and close friend for over 40 years.

The story of Helen’s friendship with my family was only superficially known to us until a few years ago when I first contacted the AFB.

Like millions of readers around the world, I grew up fascinated by books about Helen Keller. I was captivated by the story of the child who could neither see nor hear and whose inner potential and delightful personality were revealed by her teacher, Annie Sullivan. While reading, I had a unique and personal relationship to the story: books about Helen frequently talked of the times she spent with a family named Chamberlin at their home called Red Farm in Wrentham, a suburb of Boston. I knew that she had spent those happy hours with my great-great grandparents, Ed and Ida Chamberlin, and their children. Their fourth child was Elizabeth, my great-grandmother.

The fact that Helen spent parts of her childhood with my ancestors was the extent of my knowledge of the friendship until January 2012 when I called the AFB in New York, where most of Helen’s personal letters and papers are archived. From an online search, I knew there existed a box of materials related to the Chamberlins in their collection.

I telephoned Helen Selsdon, the archivist, and began by telling her that I was the great-great granddaughter of Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, a man who had been a journalist in the Boston area and friends with Helen Keller, and I was interested in doing some research.

I could hear the phone being jostled, repositioned. "Say that again?"

I repeated my story— not even sure at that point whether I had any business making this call. "Oh my goodness!" Ms. Selsdon said. "The Chamberlins were huge in Helen’s life. It’s so amazing to hear from you. Are you really of the family?"

She was eager to help me. Five days later, in the mail, I received a twenty-page list of hits in the Foundation database that involved the Chamberlins.

It was immediately obvious that the narrative revealed would not be the one I had expected. Somehow I had imagined I would discover a simple, pleasant, and straightforward tale about my friendly family who invited Helen and Annie for dinners and holidays at their home. Instead, I found a complex and multi-layered story that told of joys and talents, but also controversy, tragedy, and personal failings. It was clear that I had something bigger on my hands than merely a collection of family anecdotes.

Six months after my first call, I visited the AFB offices in New York. The Archives file room was filled floor to ceiling with neatly labeled boxes of letters and photographs, movie reels, and monographs related to Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. The hundreds of letters related to my search were organized by author and in chronological order. The earliest was a March 1892 letter from Ed to Annie Sullivan asking if Helen was giving thought to an earlier request from him to write "a little written account of her instruction" for the popular periodical he edited called The Youth’s Companion. I was thrilled to see for the first time the small, flowing handwriting of my great-great grandfather, written on Youth’s Companion letterhead. It was clear that Helen and her teacher were already acquainted with him, for he wrote, "You know me, I do not want a long story." Nine months later, in December 1892, Chamberlin writes a long, chatty letter to Keller, addressing her as “my dear Helen.” In it he writes about having received a "most pleasant and interesting little note" from her and then talked in charming detail about his children.

Those files provided the perfect starting point for my research. The AFB documents then led me to the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers digitally archived at the Library of Congress, which provided copies of many more letters. Joseph P. Lash’s epic work, Helen and Teacher, and Kim E. Nielsen’s 2009 biography of Annie Sullivan, Beyond the Miracle Worker, were both recommended by Selsdon and served as important references, filling in critical story details not provided by letters.

As a journalist for more than sixty years, Ed Chamberlin left a long and rich trail of his own. Online searches provided reprints of many of his Boston Transcript newspaper and Youth’s Companion articles, as well as several of his published books. The Perkins School Archive with its carefully kept scrapbooks of over a hundred years of newspaper clippings, was also invaluable.

But the writer who provided the greatest insight and richest written accounts of life in the Chamberlin household was Helen Keller. Keller wrote that her Uncle Ed— whom she met when she was just eight years old, "most enabled and sweetened my life." She found him to be a tender and poetic man; a man who lived "in the service of words," cared deeply about social issues and the natural world, and was a sympathetic and understanding friend and mentor.1

Though she met countless famous literary figures throughout her life, Helen gave Chamberlin credit for launching her literary career. In a letter Helen Keller wrote to Chamberlin in 1934, she said, "it was not until we met you that our education in literature and literary ways truly began." From the earliest days of their friendship, Chamberlin advocated for Helen’s education and was an active supporter of the work of the Perkins Institution. Ed stepped in to defend Helen when she was accused of plagiarism as a twelve year old in 1892. When Radcliffe balked at admitting Helen as a student in 1900, Ed wrote to Dean Agnes Irwin and asked gently for her to please resolve the situation. Helen was admitted shortly afterward.

My great-great grandfather was convinced that Keller could, and should, lead a life with no limits. He also viewed Helen as capable of deciding her own future. When she and Annie abruptly left the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in 1897 under a storm of controversy, Ed empowered Helen to make a potentially life-changing decision: In a private conversation with her, he told her that it might soon be incumbent on her to decide whether she would stay with Annie Sullivan or go away with her mother. In response, Helen told him, "Uncle Ed, if I have to decide between my mother and Teacher, I will stay with Teacher." Ed would later say simply, "This decided me as to my own sympathies in the case." All of his subsequent actions and advocacy would be guided by Helen’s statement.2

In my search to uncover my family’s story, I realize that I have emulated my great-great grandfather the newsman—ferreting out information and following leads wherever they take me. Modern digital technology is giving me a huge advantage with my detective work. My work—and the work of fellow researchers—is no longer thwarted by our inability to travel to archives to undertake research in person – information is fully available at our fingertips.

Digitizing historical materials is key to my discoveries and I am delighted that the National Endowment for the Humanities and private organizations such as American Express and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation have enthusiastically funded the digitization and dissemination of a large portion of the Helen Keller Archive. I’m delighted that AFB recently received additional funding to digitize the press clippings and scrapbooks contained in Keller’s archive. I look forward to digging further and to uncovering more information about the times in which she lived. Keller’s battles, and indeed my great-great grandfather’s work for greater social equality are as relevant today as they were over a century ago. I look forward to sharing the story of the Chamberlin-Keller friendship on a broader basis.

The writer’s great-great grandparents, Joseph Edgar (Ed) and Ida Chamberlin were close friends of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, having met the pair in 1888 when they first came to Boston to attend Perkins. Ed Chamberlin was an important literary figure at the time, writing a popular daily column for The Boston Transcript and serving as an editor and staff writer for The Youth’s Companion, a nationally distributed family magazine. He and his family lived in Wrentham, outside of Boston, where their home called Red Farm was a gathering place for literary and artistic figures of the day. A former grant writer, Elizabeth Emerson is currently working on a book called Letters from Red Farm about the Chamberlin-Keller friendship and conducting research with AFB.

1. Helen Keller, “Joseph Edgar Chamberlin” in American Magazine, Vol. 73, p. 421-422. Retrieved at

2. J.E. Chamberlin to Nella Braddy Henney 6/10/1927. Nella Braddy Henney Collection, Courtesy of the Perkins School for the Blind.

Helen Keller's Friends: Famous and Progressive

Helen Keller in Martha's Vineyard with famous friends

Seen left to right are Joseph Lash, Trude Wenzel Lash, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Katharine Cornell, David Levy, Polly Thomson, and Adele Levy, 1954.

On a late summer’s day in 1954 a group of friends gathered in Martha’s Vineyard for tea and conversation. The setting was Chip Chop, a sprawling compound owned by the married actors Katharine Cornell (known to friends as Kit) and Guthrie McClintic, and a few photos were taken to mark the occasion. The image above is one of them.

The man on the far left is author Joseph Lash; to his right, in order, stand his wife, Trude Wenzel Lash, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Katharine Cornell, David Levy, Polly Thomson, and Adele Levy. A little more than two decades after this photo was taken, Lash would undertake a biography of Keller (Helen and Teacher) using the AFB Helen Keller Archive. In it, he describes how this photo came to be:

Helen took time off to visit Kit at Martha’s Vineyard. Mrs. Roosevelt was visiting friends, and Kit Cornell invited everyone for tea. Helen eagerly explored Eleanor Roosevelt’s face with her fingers and read her lips. ‘I wish we might all have been together longer,’ Helen wrote her ‘dearest of Katharines’ afterward, ‘and nothing could have meant more to me than a real talk with Mrs. Roosevelt. . . .’ Nancy sent Nella prints of snapshots she made.

A web of professional and personal connections linked the figures in the photo, with Roosevelt and Keller at the hub of a wheel whose spokes included progressive politics, the arts, and child welfare. Eleanor first knew Keller during her husband’s presidential years, when Keller publicly supported Roosevelt and met with the president and his wife several times. Both were celebrated women who traveled extensively and took an active role in politics and civic affairs, known privately (Keller) and publicly (Roosevelt) for their commitment to human rights, women’s rights, and international cooperation in an era when anti-communism had put such positions under siege.

In 1939 Eleanor befriended Joseph Lash, then the leader of the radical student activist organization the American Student Union who had just testified as a hostile witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and they remained close. Summer residents since 1945 (and possibly the friends that Roosevelt was visiting on Martha’s Vineyard), it was natural that the Lashs should be at Chip Chop that day though curious that in his published description Lash fails to note that he, too, was at the tea and in the snapshots. Joseph and Eleanor were among the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, and he would go on to write the biographies Eleanor and Franklin (1971) and Eleanor, The Years Alone (1972); Eleanor had also recommended Trude for her job leading the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, an organization that Roosevelt founded along with, among others, Adele Levy, the daughter of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.

The Nancy that Lash identifies as having taken the snapshot was Nancy Hamilton, an actress and writer and Cornell’s longtime romantic partner (though described in print by Lash as Cornell’s “manager and close friend”). Cornell and McClintic had what has since become known as a “lavender marriage,” an arrangement that allowed people to remain in the closet in an era when being publicly identified as gay or lesbian could result in disastrous legal, social, and professional consequences. Cornell met Helen in 1939, and she and Hamilton quickly struck up a close friendship with her; they remained extremely close until Keller’s death in 1968. Hamilton directed Helen Keller in Her Story, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film in 1955.

Biographies of Keller reveal that these kinds of gatherings were frequent in her life; she had an intense interest in the world and wide-ranging political, intellectual, and artistic interests. In The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, Kim Nielsen quotes Helen as writing, "After the intellectual hunger I have often felt since Teacher’s going it is a priceless blessing to have such friends pour manna into my desert places."

Note: Ellen Noonan is director of the Archives and Public History program at NYU.

Helen Keller and the Love of a Metadata Specialist for Her Subject

Anne Bancroft and Helen Keller at an 80th birthday party for Keller.

Left to right are Anne Bancroft and Helen Keller at an 80th birthday party for Keller.

I thought I knew what I would find when I started my tenure as the Metadata Specialist for the digitization project of the Helen Keller Archive.

During my graduate school internship at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA, I processed several collections relating to the education and history of those who are blind and visually impaired. I knew all of the major Massachusetts players: Samuel Gridley Howe, Laura Bridgman, Edward Waterhouse, Dr. Edward Allen, Arthur Gilman, Michael Anagnos, etc. I knew what a braille writer looked like, how education for those with vision loss started in Europe and the United States, and all of the different tactile forms of communication throughout the years. Helen Keller’s life couldn’t be that different, right? Wrong. Most of my knowledge on the history of blindness took place before Helen was even born.

From the first digital folder I viewed, I knew that I would need to bring my knowledge into the 20th century. I learned that this new knowledge would be on more than just history and Helen’s biography, but on the world as a whole. I could not imagine that I would be forced to look up when Puerto Rico was acquired by the United States (1917—right in the middle of Anne Sullivan’s visit), or the first prison to house Eugene V. Debs (West Virginia State Prison—Debs’ serial #2253). When did Ceylon became Sri Lanka? Who was the President of the YWCA in Cairo? What country is Bulawayo in now? Who were the major political players in the United States in the 1950s?

My research went beyond the English language. I had to learn how to identify all the major world languages by sight. I even had lists near my desk of how to say “deaf,” “deafblind,” and “mute” in various translations. I had to have Helen’s entire family tree for at least six generations on hand at all times and even found myself writing out Mark Twain’s family tree for at least four generations. I could honestly go on for pages about all of the information I had to look up and store in my brain while working on this collection. I haven’t even mentioned deciphering thousands of handwriting styles (I’m looking at you, Polly Thomson).

Therefore, it is safe to say that this collection is far more than just information about Helen’s life and work and more of a history of the world. Every major world event that took place during Helen’s life is somewhere in this collection—wars, union strikes, political elections, women’s suffrage, race relations. Helen either wrote about—or someone wrote to her—about all of it. If Helen didn’t write about it, it’s still in the collection as a newspaper article published next to one of her pieces, a postcard from a long-forgotten museum, or a ballet performed in her honor. Theatre, dance, movies, vaudeville, music, opera, sculpture, portraiture, literature—all forms of art are on display in this collection and all were beloved by Helen. Helen has become a part of my life and the lives of the many who have worked on this archive. We are on a first name basis with her. We refer to her as Helen and we think of her as Helen because she has become ours. Looking up the myriad of facts above was not done begrudgingly—we wanted to make sure the collection was as accurate and whole as possible. After all, our hard work was not in vain; because at the end of it all, we got to know an extraordinary woman.

Helen Keller
Web Accessibility

Born Accessible: The Digital Helen Keller Archive

Helen Keller seated at her home in Westport, CT. She is reading a book in braille.

Helen Keller seated and reading a book in braille, Westport, CT, 1960.

I have the honor of being an advisor for the Helen Keller Digital Archive, a project of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). One of the great aspects of a digital archive is that it makes the content more accessible to people with disabilities. AFB has gone even further to make the Helen Keller archive more usable by people with visual impairments or blindness. Helen Keller was one of the most famous social activists of the 20th century, and a notable campaigner in disability rights—I am thrilled that it will now be far easier for all people, including blind people, to dig in to the original documents and artifacts of this famous leader.

AFB’s efforts to make the archive more accessible is probably why I was asked to be an advisor. As the CEO of Benetech, I have a background in optical character recognition and digital accessibility. The archive uses optical character recognition to turn scans of typewritten documents (pictures of pages) into text versions. These text versions benefit everybody enabling an index of the full text of all of the typewritten documents in the archive, which makes it easier to find the right documents. And of course, the text of each scanned page can be accessed by blind people using synthetic speech or braille. Helen Keller was a huge fan of braille, since she was also deaf and relied on braille for so much of her communication.

In the 1950s, a deafblind person like Helen Keller had access to relatively few books in braille, and documents she received had to be hand-converted on a braille typewriter by her staff. With today’s technology advances and the ebook revolution, a blind person has access to hundreds of thousands of books in braille, and a person who is deafblind can independently surf the Helen Keller Archive with a digital braille display (think of it as an iPad for people who are blind), without depending on help from anybody else.

Exploring the archive is fascinating, and turns up controversial material still relevant today. One of the documents that surfaced quickly is the Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for information about Helen Keller. With today’s surveillance debates, it’s interesting to find out that the FBI was tracking Keller because of her contacts with socialist activists. Not everything in the archive is as serious as the FBI spying on Helen Keller. I really enjoyed stumbling around the archive (and Helen Keller’s life) and finding a photo of a medal "Order of the Sacred Treasure, Third Class" presented to her by the Emperor of Japan. It’s an impressive medal: I wonder what the first and second degree versions look like!

Our work at Benetech centers on accessibility to information for as many people as possible. Benetech operates the largest digital library serving people with disabilities, Bookshare, with over 625,000 accessible ebook titles. One of the reasons we have so many books is that over 800 publishers voluntarily contribute their ebook titles to Bookshare, in industry-standard ebook formats that happen to be highly accessible. It’s this universal design aspect of digital text that makes it usable by such a range of people. That’s why we’re driving forward with our Born Accessible campaign to encourage publishers that any content they develop that is "born digital," is also "born accessible." We’re excited about a new archive, like the Helen Keller Digital Archive, launching as a Born Accessible archive!

Having access to the full text of Helen Keller’s correspondence makes it easy to search the entire archive for everyone’s benefit. I hope that more and more archives follow the lead of the Helen Keller Archive in making text versions of all documents available and accessible!

Helen Keller: Persistence and Resistance

Helen Keller in 1960

Head and shoulders image of Helen Keller taken at her 80th birthday in 1960.

Helen Keller died 50 years ago today – just a few weeks short of her 88th birthday. As the archivist and caretaker of her collection, I initially wondered how I nearly overlooked this anniversary. Upon consideration, I have several theories about this that I’d like to share with you.

In the decade and a half of my professional role, I have never focused on her death date. Keller was fortunate enough to live a long life and she had the joy of witnessing the inroads she made to improve the lives of those with vision loss. But it's good to reflect on how far, or how far off we are in realizing Keller’s goal of equal rights for people with disabilities. Laws passed during her lifetime providing accommodations for those with vision loss still stand. And the progress continued; the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and even beyond legislation, perceptions of vision loss have changed.

However, a great deal remains to be done. On her 80th birthday in 1960, Keller was interviewed by Ann Carnahan. Carnahan asked her the following "What is your greatest personal wish?" Keller replied, "I would love to see the day when every blind child has an opportunity of an education and every blind grown-up has the chance for training and job placement." AFB continues to fight for education and employment rights to this day.

Another reason that I have never focused on the anniversary of her death, is that I always celebrate Helen Keller’s birthday in some shape or form, so I’ve been busily preparing for her 138th birthday on June 27th. This year I think she’d be thrilled, as this month marks the official launch of the digital Helen Keller Archive. The American Foundation for the Blind’s month-long June 2018 celebration focuses on the pioneering technology of the digital collection and the treasure trove of information it contains. We believe that the online archive is the most accessible archival collection currently available. This means that visitors who are blind, deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deafblind can navigate the website. A sighted visitor cannot tell that the site is different from any other website just by looking at the screen, as it is the back end of the system—the coding of the customized software—that enables visitors with disabilities to navigate the site with their own assistive technologies.

We are celebrating this landmark achievement of a fully accessible historical collection with blog posts throughout the month of June. These posts were written by archivists, scholars, a writer, film maker, and a leader in the field of accessible technology—so stay tuned!

And then there’s the pizza party at the New York Institute for Special Education in the Bronx! In preparation for my visit, 5th and 6th graders with visual impairments have been studying Helen Keller and learning how to navigate a digital archive. During my visit, we’ll talk more about Helen and we will continue to dig around the site. And of course, there will be candles to blow out!

And then there’s the new grant we’ve just received from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Due to the generosity of the NEH, over 163,000 digital images are currently available on the web site. This additional funding is allowing us to digitize and create metadata for the press clippings and scrapbooks contained in Keller’s archive. These materials, closed to the public due to their fragility, can provide information unavailable in other parts of the collection.

I hope that you’re getting the picture! Helen Keller is a living presence for me. Her unique archive is a constant reminder of the power and importance of persistence and resistance. It is up to us to learn from her life and advocate for the things we believe in.

We hope you enjoy exploring the Helen Keller Archive yourself!