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The Clarence Darrow Letters

Helen Keller to Clarence Darrow, August 8, 1931

Keller refers to Carlo Tresca who was a well-known Italian-American editor and anarchist. Her statement about "your evolution-picture" is a reference to a film about evolution Darrow narrated and appeared in titled "Mystery of Life" in 1931. The film also featured Smith College Professor H.M. Parshley. It was distributed by Carl Laemmle, a founder and president of Universal Pictures Corporation.

Her reference to Darrow in Pittsburgh is about Darrow's speech at the 22nd annual conference of the NAACP in Pittsburgh which was held June 30 to July 5, 1931. Darrow spoke on July 5 along with Joel Springarn, president of the NAACP, and Walter White.

Click on the image to view as a PDF. A transcription of the letter is on the right.

Concarneau, Brittany, August 19, 1931

Dear Clarence Darrow,

I am touched in the secret places of my heart where all precious things are kept by your renewed expression of kindness towards me. Very soothing to my guilty conscience is your last letter. The praise of a valued friend is always sweet, and when it is undeserved, it has a salutary effect. One is humbled, and stimulated to start another page of affection.

I beg you, dear comrade, not to measure my appreciation of your letters by my prolonged silence. On one or two occasions I was silent because silence seemed less brutal than a grim refusal to foregather with you and other friends who wished to honor Carlo Tresca. I couldn't come for weary, dreary reasons. Other admirers of Carlo Tresca backed your more shining self in urging me to be present, I had to refuse. Things are complicated with me to the last degree.

As you know, I am engaged in an effort to raise an endowment fund of two million dollars for the American Foundation for the Blind. Because I have no sufficient income, I am obliged to accept a salary for services which I should gladly give under different circumstances. While doing this work, I feel obligated not to do anything that might lessen my effectiveness in securing donations. I needn't tell you that ninety-five percent of those who contribute belong to the capitalist class. To associate myself openly with radicals while soliciting money from the Rockefellers, Du Ponts, Fords and other captains of industry would be disingenuous, to say the least of it.

The great thing for my radical friends to understand is that my association with the rich and powerful isn't for personal ends. I am vexed and sorry that anything should prevent me from participating in other activities which are near to my heart, but I determined not to yield to my personal sympathies until my task is accomplished.

Please forgive my taking this occasion to explain myself. This is the sort of thing I particularly shrink from doing, yet I feel I owe you this frankness. It may be that I must go on for the rest of my days in this special work, even though I take the deepest interest in the greater problems of the world. No one knows better than I do that lifting the burden of the blind is only part of the larger task of equalizing the burdens of mankind. Once this attitude would have seemed to me hideous cowardice, but now I find that it requires greater courage to do only the work my handicap imposes upon me than to attempt tasks beyond my powers.

While I am in the mood of confession, I want to tell you that I am deeply grieved over the failure of the Socialists to show a spirit worthy of their high idealism. The pusillanimity of American Socialists is especially repellent to me. It is hard to be patient with the solemn, pompous, and ridiculous behavior of individual radicals such as Eastman, Giovannitti, Walling, Emma Goldman and Upton Sinclair, (though he has somewhat redeemed his record since the peace travesty at Versailles opened his eyes to the ineffectualness of President Wilson. But Eugene Debs and you, Clarence Darrow, handsomely and gallantly make amends for their mortal insipidity all of which, however, is so much more than I meant to throw back at your perfect benevolence!

I am glad you look upon my limitations as assets rather than as liabilities. I have always so regarded them. Indeed, if one is to "carry on," one must sail the sea of life with the frailty of a mortal ship and the courage of a Viking. Truly, self pity is a deadly sin. Blessed is the day when we stop thinking of ourselves and take a square look at our fellow-men! One searching look at their difficulties, denials and sorrows ought to show us that, as you say, we all live under one handicap or another. My overwhelmed sense of the prodigious miseries of humanity leaves me nothing to complain of. My Braille magazines keep me

shiveringly aware of what is going on about us --- the unemployment, the failure of every conference to accomplish anything and the inevitability of another world war. The horror of it all defies expression! One can but hope that the coming conference at Geneva may be more fruitful of good than the others have been. To hold on to such a hope, one must brace oneself mightily with faith in things unseen. But in proportion as one succeeds, one gains confidence, and confidence means force and courage --- as that is as far as we can go for the present.

There are fifty things I'd like to say to you about your evolution-picture, your brave journey to Pittsburgh to give a helping hand to the Colored People's Association, and many of your doings that have thrilled me. Do come to see us in Forest Hills. We sail for New York October 3rd on the President Roosevelt, unless a meeting of the International Council for the blind to take place in Paris the last of September delays us. I'll promise to keep the lid down on sombre subjects --- and break it, I suppose. At all events, I'll try to show you that I am not utterly surrendered to "our troubles," as the Irish say.

I shall have much to tell you about a visit to Yugoslavia this summer when we were very gay under the protecting wing of royalty, sailing on the Danube to the strains of gypsy music and drinking champagne punch under magnificent trees at the American Embassy! Yes, there'll be much to talk and laugh about. We'll manage some of the brew that warms and cheers too; so come, and not at too lame a gait, or we may be off on one of our begging expeditions. My teacher and Miss Thomson join in this invitation, and commend themselves to you.

Ever faithfully and affectionately yours,

Helen Keller


Mr. Clarence Darrow.




Helen Keller,

93 Seminole Avenue,

Forest Hills,

Long Island,

New York.