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Kent Rasmussen <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 18 Apr 2008 03:14:22 -0400
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I've just now seen Michel Stone’s April 10 note asking is there is any
evidence that Mark Twain coined the term "miracle worker" for Helen Keller's
teacher, Anne Sullivan. I don't recall having previously heard that
suggestion, but Michel is right is saying that the story is all over the
web. However, most of those web sources are not to be taken seriously. One
of them even seems to suggest that Mark Twain read William Gibson’s play
titled “The Miracle Worker.” For him to have read that play would have been
a miracle indeed. In any case, I find Michel’s question very interesting, as
“miracle worker” does seems like something that Mark Twain might have called
Sullivan. He had an extremely high regard for Keller and seems also to have
had a good opinion of Sullivan.

If Mark Twain really did call Sullivan a "miracle worker," one would think
he did so in something published well before 1961, which is when Gibson
completed his play. A search of my electronic files of Mark Twain's
published texts finds several interesting comments about Sullivan--in
Paine's 1924 edition of the autobiography (see vol. 2, p. 291f.); his March
29, 1906 speech "In Aid of the Blind" that Paine published in his collection
of Mark Twain's speeches; and a letter to H. H. Rogers published in Paine's
collection of Mark Twain's letters. All these passages praise Sullivan, but
there is no mention of a "miracle worker" or anything recognizably similar.
The autobiographical passage describes one of Keller’s talents as a
“miracle,” but I can’t find the phrase “miracle worker” in any Mark Twain’s
text. (My collection of texts naturally isn’t complete, but it probably
comes pretty close for pre-1961 publications.)

More interesting, perhaps, is a passage in chapter 61 of _Following the
Equator_ (1897), which discusses American education:

"Helen Keller has been dumb, stone deaf, and stone blind, ever since she was
a little baby a year and a half old; and now at sixteen years of age this
MIRACULOUS [my emphasis] creature, this wonder of all ages, passes the
Harvard University examination in Latin, German, French history, belles
lettres, and such things, and does it brilliantly, too, not in a commonplace
fashion. She doesn't know merely things, she is splendidly familiar with the
meanings of them. When she writes an essay on a Shakespearean character, her
English is fine and strong, her grasp of the subject is the grasp of one who
knows, and her page is electric with light. Has Miss Sullivan taught her by
the methods of India and the American public school? No, oh, no; for then
she would be deafer and dumber and blinder than she was before. It is a pity
that we can't educate all the children in the asylums."

Is it possible that someone who read this passage concluded that Mark Twain
regarded Sullivan as a "miracle worker"?	

Kent Rasmussen