Hands On Display

“I need not go into any particulars about Helen Keller.  She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals.  She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.”

-From Autobiography of Mark Twain, March 30, 1906

Mark Twain is a known exaggerator, and so if we discount him thirty percent for embroidery, as his mother did, we may find that what is left is “perfect and priceless truth, without a flaw in it anywhere.” 

In his March 30 autobiographical session Mark twain recalls the first time “he ever saw Helen Keller” Helen was fourteen then.  He describes a gathering at the writer Laurence Hutton’s house on a Sunday afternoon where “twelve or fifteen men and women had been invited to come and see her.”  Note that he says come and see her not meet her, and before you accuse me of being an overly sensitive politically correct whiny blind person, construing even the words of Mark Twain, read this and tell me how to expunge the wildlife adventure quality of his narrative:

“After a couple of hours spent very pleasantly, someone asked if Helen would remember the feel of the hands of the company after this considerable interval of time and be able to discriminate the hands and name the possessor’s of them.”  Miss Sullivan assured them all that Helen would have no problem with that, and indeed she did not except for a man who had worn gloves the first time around and took them off for the second, which seems like a nasty trick to me. 

But for Twain, Clemens, the real “miracle” came when he was leaving early from the lunch and patted her on the head as he passed by:

“Miss Sullivan called to me and said stop Mr. Clemens, Helen is distressed because she did not recognize your hand.  Won’t you come back and do that again?  I went back and patted her lightly on the head and she said at once, ‘Oh, it’s Mr. Clemens.”  Perhaps someone can explain this miracle, but I have never been able to do it. Could she feel the wrinkles in my hand through her hair?  Someone else must answer this.  I am not competent.   

I offer the following by way of explanation, taken from her book The World I Live In, where she describes “the hands of others”:

“It is interesting to observe the differences in the hands of people.  They show all kinds of vitality, energy, stillness, and cordiality.  I never realized how living the hand is until I saw those chill plaster images in Mr. Hutton’s collection of plaster casts.  The hand I know in life has the fullness of blood in its veins, and is elastic with spirit.  How different dear Mr. Hutton’s hand was from its dull, insensate image!  To me the cast lacks the very form of the hand.  Of the many casts in Mr. Hutton’s collection, I did not recognize any, not even my own.    

“But a loving hand I never forget.  I remember in my fingers the large hands of Bishop Brooks, brimful of tenderness and a strong man’s joy.  If you were deaf and blind and could have held Mr. Jefferson’s hand, you would have seen   in it a face and heard a kind voice unlike any other you had known.  Mark Twain’s hand is full of whimsies and the drollest humors, and while you hold it the drollery changes to sympathy and championship.”


The autobiography of Mark Twain was published for the first time in full last year, marking one hundred years since his death, you can find out everything you might want to know about it and him at The Mark Twain Project:


The quote from Helen comes from her second book published in 1908 called The World I Live in, and can be found for free at Project Gutenberg:


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