by Elizabeth Emerson
Thanks in large part to the Helen Keller Archive at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), I have been fortunate to be able to come to know—almost 100 years later—my great-great grandfather, Joseph Edgar (Ed) Chamberlin, his wife Ida, their children, and their life.
Beginning with the first letter that I found in the Helen Keller Archive from Ed Chamberlin to Anne Sullivan, dated March 22, 1892 1, and ending with Helen Keller’s last letter to Ed’s widow in July 1935, I have been able to piece together not only the deep and decades-long friendship between Helen and my great-great grandfather, but I have also come to know Ed Chamberlin, my ancestor. I am confident that we would have loved each other.
Ed Chamberlin was a popular Boston newspaper columnist and magazine editor when he met Helen and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, in 1888 or 1889.2 Soon thereafter, Helen and Anne began spending weekends and holidays with the Chamberlin family at their home called Red Farm in Wrentham, a small rural town outside of Boston. For Helen and Anne, it was the home they retreated to from the rigors of academic life. Eventually, in 1897, they moved in with the Chamberlins, by this time calling the couple “Uncle Ed” and “Aunt Ida.”
Helen reminisced for American Magazine in 1912: “What a solace it was to turn from the harassments of learning to the frolicsome company of that household. What a joy it was to desert the wanderings of the ‘Anabasis,’ and go with three lovely children on real excursions by the shore of the lake and into the dusky woods!”
Because of his work, Ed had influence in literary circles across New England and New York, but it was his gentle and nurturing personality that drew people into his personal world. At Red Farm, Helen and Anne were surrounded not only by the Chamberlins, but also by a Bloomsbury-like circle of theologians, writers, artists, and musicians&mdashmany of them eccentric, but all of them creative and progressive.
Helen wrote of Ed: “At Wrentham he gathered about him a host of friends—men and women already distinguished in their profession, as well as young men and women hoping to become famous and much in need of his unfailing help. Many young writers owe their start to Mr. Chamberlin.”
As Helen wrote: “Mr. Chamberlin’s thought, as he expresses it to his friends, is far in advance of his written work. His conscience is alive to the wrongs and perils of our social institutions. The work of a journalist is for the greater part anonymous, so that Mr. Chamberlin’s name may be unknown to many readers of these words. The affections and services of friends are also anonymous. The influences which most enable and sweeten my life may be hidden from fame; but they live immortal in other lives.”3
Among those who surrounded Helen and Anne at Red Farm were leading figures of the time, including the world-famous theologian and social reformer Reverend Edward Everett Hale; writers Louise Guiney, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Hamlin Garland, Bliss Carman, and Archibald Lampman; and artists such as Uruguayan-born painter F. Luis Mora, and Angel De Cora, the latter Smith College’s first Native American graduate. The photographer F. Holland Day, who pioneered photography as an art form and lived near Wrentham was a prominent figure in the circle as well, and took many photographs of the Chamberlin children and friends in the area around Red Farm.
Others who were often in attendance were magazine editors, Boston literary society members, and social reformers. It was a lively and energetic circle that consistently stimulated, challenged, and nurtured Helen Keller’s thoughts as she grew from a child to adulthood.
The Chamberlins left Wrentham in 1901, but Ed and Helen remained in close communication. Years later, in a July 1934 letter to Ed’s widow, Jenny LeRoyer Chamberlin, Helen wrote intimately of her dear friend of more than forty years, saying: “…We remember how he always understood and appreciated us both. The tears come as I think how bound up he is with the fateful experience of our lives…I live over and over the merry play-time with Uncle Ed’s children, the delights of woodland peace and roadside beauty we shared. What a wealth of thought he introduced me to in books and the talk of his friends who looked at things in a fresh way, so that their world grew young again with their new interpretation of it! His attitude towards my limitations was noble. He looked beyond them to my soul dowered with imagination and the desire to know. There was nothing sense-arrogant about him, I found it easy to talk on any subject or be silent.
She continued: “…We saw him seldom after he left Wrentham, but the thought of his personality shed warmth upon me, and now that he is gone, the world will not seem quite the same again.”4
Now—happily for me, and other historians wanting to study Helen’s life—I am able to conduct a great deal of research online and to share Ed Chamberlin and Helen’s friendship with a broader audience. Thanks to the Helen Keller Archive at AFB, as well as the funders who are supporting the digitization project, the extensive collection of Helen Keller materials becomes ever more accessible.
These documents bring the past to life – and allow me personally to know my ancestors in intimate ways and to share a significant and untold part of Helen’s life.
Note: 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 the late 1880s 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.
Joseph Edgar Chamberlin to Annie Sullivan, March 22, 1892. Courtesy Helen Keller Archive, American Foundation for the Blind.
Joseph Edgar Chamberlin as “The Listener of the Boston Transcript,” April 10, 1889.
Helen Keller. “Joseph Edgar Chamberlin,” The American Magazine, February 1912, Vol. 73, p. 421-422.
Helen Keller to Jenny LeRoyer Chamberlin, July 7, 1935. Chamberlin Family Papers, Courtesy Elizabeth Emerson.