Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXCVI

Mr. Rogers and Helen Keller

It was during the winter of ’96, in London, that Clemens took an active interest in the education of Helen Keller and enlisted the most valuable adherent in that cause, that is to say, Henry H. Rogers. It was to Mrs. Rogers that he wrote, heading his letter:

For & in behalf of Helen Keller, Stone blind & deaf, & formerly dumb.

DEAR MRS. ROGERS — Experience has convinced me that when one wished to set a hard-worked man at something which he mightn’t prefer to be bothered with it is best to move upon him behind his wife. If she can’t convince him it isn’t worth while for other people to try.

Mr. Rogers will remember our visit with that astonishing girl at Lawrence Hutton’s house when she was fourteen years old. Last July, in Boston, when she was 16 she underwent the Harvard examination for admission to Radcliffe College. She passed without a single condition. She was allowed only the same amount of time that is granted to other applicants, & this was shortened in her case by the fact that the question-papers had to be read to her. Yet she scored an average of 90, as against an average of 78 on the part of the other applicants.

It won’t do for America to allow this marvelous child to retire from her studies because of poverty. If she can go on with them she will make a fame that will endure in history for centuries. Along her special lines she is the most extraordinary product of all the ages.

There is danger that she must retire from the struggle for a college degree for lack of support for herself & for Miss Sullivan (the teacher who has been with her from the start — Mr. Rogers will remember her). Mrs. Hutton writes to ask me to interest rich Englishmen in her case, & I would gladly try, but my secluded life will not permit it. I see nobody. Nobody knows my address. Nothing but the strictest hiding can enable me to write my book in time.

So I thought of this scheme: Beg you to lay siege to your husband & get him to interest himself and Messrs. John D. & William Rockefeller & the other Standard Oil chiefs in Helen’s case; get them to subscribe an annual aggregate of six or seven hundred or a thousand dollars —& agree to continue this for three or four years, until she has completed her college course. I’m not trying to limit their generosity — indeed no; they may pile that Standard Oil Helen Keller College Fund as high as they please; they have my consent.

Mrs. Hutton’s idea is to raise a permanent fund, the interest upon which shall support Helen & her teacher & put them out of the fear of want. I sha’n’t say a word against it, but she will find it a difficult & disheartening job, & meanwhile what is to become of that miraculous girl?

No, for immediate and sound effectiveness, the thing is for you to plead with Mr. Rogers for this hampered wonder of your sex, & send him clothed with plenary powers to plead with the other chiefs — they have spent mountains of money upon the worthiest benevolences, & I think that the same spirit which moved them to put their hands down through their hearts into their pockets in those cases will answer. “Here!” when its name is called in this one.

There — I don’t need to apologize to you or to H. H. for this appeal that I am making; I know you too well for that:

Good-by, with love to all of you, S. L. CLEMENS.

The result of this letter was that Mr. Rogers personally took charge of Helen Keller’s fortunes, and out of his own means made it possible for her to continue her education and to achieve for herself the enduring fame which Mark Twain had foreseen.

Mr. Rogers wrote that, by a curious coincidence, a letter had come to him from Mrs. Hutton on the same morning that Mrs. Rogers had received hers from Tedworth Square. Clemens sent grateful acknowledgments to Mrs. Rogers.

DEAR MRS. ROGERS — It is superb! And I am beyond measure grateful to you both. I knew you would be interested in that wonderful girl, & that Mr. Rogers was already interested in her & touched by her; & I was sure that if nobody else helped her you two would; but you have gone far & away beyond the sum I expected — may your lines fall in pleasant places here, & Hereafter for it!

The Huttons are as glad & grateful as they can be, & I am glad for their sakes as well as for Helen’s.

I want to thank Mr. Rogers for crucifying himself on the same old cross between Bliss & Harper; & goodness knows I hope he will come to enjoy it above all other dissipations yet, seeing that it has about it the elements of stability & permanency. However, at any time that he says sign we’re going to do it.

Ever sincerely yours, S. L. CLEMENS.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00