Helen Keller? Anne Sullivan? John Macy? Margaret Davidson? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The remarkable story of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan has been told in books, television programs, and movies. Keller who was deaf and blind learned to communicate, obtained a college degree, and became a notable speaker and author. The following poignant words are attributed to her:
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.
Did she write this in one of her books?
Quote Investigator: A nearly identical statement does appear in one of Keller’s books. Intriguingly, the words were not credited to her. The book “The Story of My Life” by Helen Keller was published by 1905, and it included a letter dated June 8, 1891 from Keller to the Reverend Phillips Brooks. She was almost 11 years old when the letter was written, and it contained the following passage [HKAS]:
I used to wish that I could see pictures with my hands as I do statues, but now I do not often think about it because my dear Father has filled my mind with beautiful pictures, even of things I cannot see. If the light were not in your eyes, dear Mr. Brooks, you would understand better how happy your little Helen was when her teacher explained to her that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen nor even touched, but just felt in the heart. Every day I find out something which makes me glad.
An extraordinary woman named Anne Sullivan was Keller’s teacher starting in 1887. So, the quotation originated with Sullivan instead of Keller; however, the young girl did embrace the thought it expressed. The statement evolved over time. For example, the phrase “felt in the heart” became “felt with the heart” in the modern version.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The letter with the quote was written on June 8, 1891 as discussed above. The manuscript of “The Story of My Life” was available to reviewers by 1903, and it was reviewed in the journal “The Outlook” in May. The positive appraisal culminated with an excerpt from the letter to Reverend Brooks that included the quotation under investigation [TOHK].
In October 1903 the book was reviewed in “The Bookman” in an article titled “A Unique Psychological Study”. The reviewer was also impressed with the quotation and ended the review by reprinting a passage of the letter to Brooks that contained the saying [TBHK].
To quote her own words as a child—for her literary capacity even when a little girl was quite unusual—”If the light were not in your eyes dear Mr. Brooks, you would understand better how happy your little Helen was when her teacher explained to her that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen nor even touched, but only just felt in the heart.”
In 1921 an abbreviated version of the passage was printed in a book. This version credited the words to Keller, but it did not mention Keller’s teacher [SSHK]:
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, but just felt in the heart.” These are the words of the blind, deaf, and dumb girl, Helen Keller, the awakening of whose soul and intelligence is one of the great educational feats of our time.
In 1957 an interesting statement from a contest winning essay was printed in the Washington Post. The phrasing was reminiscent of the quotation [WPLI]:
A girl from Lithuania who described liberty as “something that is felt with the heart rather than seen by the eyes,” won the District “I Speak for Democracy” oratory contest yesterday.
In 1969 the educational publisher Scholastic released a short biography of Keller that concluded with the following text which incorporated the most common modern version of the saying [MDHK]:
Helen Keller was dead. But her spirit lives on. As she said so many times, “The best and most beautiful things in the world can not be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
In conclusion, the quotation evolved from a statement in a letter dated 1891. Helen Keller originally credited the saying to her teacher Anne Sullivan. It is possible that Keller later reiterated the same thought herself.
[HKAS] 1905 [Copyright 1904], The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, [Letter to Rev. Phillips Brooks dated June 8, 1891], Page 203, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Google Books full view) link (The Doubleday, Page and Company edition has also been placed online) link
[TOHK] 1903 May 16, The Outlook, Volume 74, Number 3, Section: The Books of a Season, Helen Keller, [Review of The Story of My Life by Helen Keller], Start Page 189, Quote Page 191, Column 2, Outlook Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[TBHK] 1903 October, The Bookman, A Unique Psychological Study by M. Beresford Ryley, [Review of The Story of My Life by Helen Keller], Quote Page 46, Hodder & Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link
[SSHK] 1921 [Copyright 1906], The Masters of Fate: The Power of the Will by Sophia P. Shaler, Page 191, Duffield and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[WPLI] 1957 December 08, The Washington Post and Times Herald, Lithuanian’s ‘Democracy’ Speech Wins, Page A15, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
[MDHK] 1969, Helen Keller by Margaret Davidson, [Scholastic Biography], Page 91, Scholastic, New York. (Verified on paper)