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Excerpt from After the Miracle by Max Wallace, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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After the Miracle by Max Wallace

After the Miracle

The Political Crusades of Helen Keller

by Max Wallace
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  • First Published:
  • Apr 11, 2023
  • Paperback:
  • Apr 2024
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Print Excerpt

Chapter One
Before the Miracle

She was among the most celebrated women of her generation. Newspapers and magazines throughout the world heralded the accomplishments of the remarkable girl who — afflicted by a terrible disease as an infant — was said to have been trapped in a void of darkness and despair before an extraordinary teacher single-handedly accomplished the impossible: taught the girl to communicate by spelling into her hand. Soon, she was reading and writing and, before long, had even mastered philosophy, history, literature, and mathematics. After the world's most famous writer publicized her story, she was inundated with letters from around the globe thanking her for humanizing people with disabilities. Until then, many assumed that people with her condition — "deaf, dumb, and blind" — were barely human. Now, celebrities flocked to meet her, and children everywhere knew her name.

But this was not Helen Keller. A half century before Helen came along, there was Laura Bridgman. And before Helen's teacher, Annie Sullivan, there was Samuel Gridley Howe. Bridgman and Howe are now mostly forgotten, but without their achievements, Helen's "miracle" would never have happened.

By the time Samuel Gridley Howe embarked on his first crusade in 1824, he was convinced he had been chosen by God for a noble calling.

From his upbringing in an undistinguished Boston family, Howe had coasted through his early life with few expectations placed upon him. Yet, unlike the city's Brahmin elite who claimed leadership of New England commerce and politics as their birthright, Howe was deter-mined to make his mark based on his own merits.

Perhaps because of their diminished social status, the Howes were always a little out of step with Boston society. The family notably rejected the conservative politics usually associated with the rigidly Federalist city, embracing instead the liberal ideas of Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans. It often left Howe a pariah at Boston Latin — the school he attended as a boy — where Howe was frequently bullied for his family's unconventional views. This almost certainly influenced his decision to attend the liberal Baptist college, Brown, instead of the Federalist bastion, Harvard. Attending Harvard would have given him a leg up in society but would have forced him to coexist with his secondary school tormentors.

Following graduation, he remained directionless, leaving many of his circle surprised at his decision to attend Harvard Medical School, especially since he shunned Harvard years earlier and had always scoffed at the practice of medicine. At the august institution, then considered America's finest university, he once again failed to distinguish himself, which confounded many who saw such promise in the bright young man. While his fellow students pored over anatomy charts and medical jargon, Howe could often be found reading his favorite poet, Lord Byron, long into the night. Byron's romantic epics had long inspired Howe's unquenched sense of adventure, but it was the English poet's real life escapades that would finally spur the young student to leave his old life behind in favor of a heroic calling.

Across the sea in Greece, a revolution was underway between the philhellenes, the partisans for independence, and the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled Greece for more than four centuries. The Turks were portrayed as barbaric oppressors in a ceaseless Christian propaganda campaign designed to summon young men to the Greek cause. It was a war of the "crescent against the cross," trumpeted Harvard professor Edward Everett during Howe's time there. After devoting much of his personal fortune to refitting the rebel fleet, Byron mustered his own brigade, which he was determined to lead into battle, but in the end, he contracted fever and succumbed before ever seeing the battlefield. Byron's demise came only weeks before Howe's Harvard graduation in 1824 and was very likely the impetus for the young man's sudden declaration that he planned to wade into the cause of Grecian liberty. Throwing himself into the Greek struggle, he fought in the siege of Athens and served as a ship's surgeon for a time, eventually rising to chief surgeon of the armed forces while periodically traveling back to the United States to raise funds for refugees displaced by the war.

Excerpted from After the Miracle by Max Wallace. Copyright © 2023 by Max Wallace. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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