Helen Keller examines a bust of herself by the world-famous sculptor, Jo Davidson. The photograph was taken in Davidson’s studio near Philadelphia.

During the 1940s, Helen Keller corresponded from her home in Westport, Connecticut with her good friend Clare Heineman in Chicago. One letter, written by Keller on Independence Day 1942 is particularly wonderful and classically Helen Keller – sweeping in its subject matter and passionate in its descriptions of how she physically experienced the world around her.

The letter begins with gratitude for a 62nd birthday gift from Heineman. She writes that she will use the gift to purchase and plant more yew trees that she can touch and enjoy in her garden. The letter then shifts to a visit with her good friend the sculptor Jo Davidson who had created a bust of Helen the previous spring. In the letter, Keller refers to an exhibition she attended at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. of Davidson’s busts of South American leaders. She was thrilled to attend this on her birthday, June 27th and refers to South America’s “struggle of its people towards genuine democracy.” Here again she describes interacting with the world through touch when she touches the busts in the exhibition. She also mentions being introduced to Nelson Rockefeller at the show and comments “(I have met three generations of Rockefellers.)”

That evening, she and her companion Polly Thomson returned to NYC, Keller describes “the dimming of a world metropolis” a nightly safety measure taken during World War II to prevent attacks. She vividly draws a picture of walking from Penn Station to Grand Central, through an unlit city that was “ghostly quiet.”

Keller’s capacity to evoke a time and place was extraordinary, and on this Independence Day we salute a woman who was fully engaged in the world, and embodied independence.

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