I Would Rather Walk With a Friend in the Dark Than Alone in the Light

Helen Keller? Anne Sullivan? Apocryphal?

keller02Dear Quote Investigator: Helen Keller was once asked about the price she would pay to gain the sense of sight. Her reported response was thoughtful and poignant:

I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than walk alone in the light.

What were the circumstances surrounding this quotation? I have been unable to find a solid citation.

Quote Investigator: In the early 1920s Helen Keller and her inseparable teacher Anne Sullivan faced a difficult financial situation, and they decided to earn money via appearances on the vaudeville circuit. The pair had already given performances on the Chautauqua circuit, and hence the experience of exhibiting themselves for remuneration was not alien.

The comprehensive dual biography “Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy” by Joseph P. Lash released in 1980 included a chapter about this interval spent in show business. The act of Keller and Sullivan “lasted only twenty minutes”. A question and answer period allowed Keller to deliver many witty and sharp observations about her life and society. But, she and Sullivan did make advance preparations: 1

Many of her quick sallies were not as spontaneous as they appeared. With businesslike foresight they began to list the questions usually asked, together with answers Helen might give. In the end the list ran to seventeen pages.

A list with dozens of Q&A pairs was given in the biography by Lash. The author did not state the provenance of the list, but he did have access to several key repositories, e.g., the Helen Keller archives at the American Foundation for the Blind and the archive at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf in Washington, D.C. Here is a small sample of five Q&A pairs. The first concerns President Warren G. Harding:

Q. What do you think of Mr. Harding?
A. I have a fellow-feeling for him; he seems as blind as I am.

Q. What is the greatest obstacle to universal peace?
A. The human race.

Q. What is the slowest thing in the world?
A. Congress.

Q. Do you think women are men’s intellectual equals?
A. I think God made woman foolish so that she might be a suitable companion to man.

Q. Do you desire your sight more than anything else in the world?
A. No! No! I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than walk alone in the light.

The last answer above corresponds to the statement under exploration. So there is good evidence that Keller did communicate this saying. However, variants of this quote were being used in the religious domain many years earlier as discussed below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1876 a magazine called “The Christian Pioneer” published a poem titled “He Knows” with the following lines. Here the accompanying figure is God instead of a friend as specified in Keller’s statement: 2

I would rather walk in the dark with God, than walk alone in the light;
I would rather walk with Him by faith, than walk alone by sight.

In 1881 a book of religious writings called “Pilgrim-Lays for the Homeward Bound” included a poem called “He Knows”. The last of the four lines below was a variant with “light” instead of “sight”: 3

I would rather walk in the dark with God
Than walk alone in the light;
I would rather walk with Him by faith
Than walk alone in the light.

The verses continued to circulate for many years. For example, in 1887 a character in a short story employed the lines which were placed between quotation marks within the text: 4

What does it matter if the way is dark? ‘I’d rather walk with God in the dark than walk alone in the light. I’d rather walk with Him by faith than walk alone by sight.’

The religious saying was being disseminated in the period shortly before the vaudeville performances of Keller, and she may have been exposed to it. Here is an example in published in 1919: 5

It is not affectation to say that one “would rather walk with God in the dark than walk alone in the light.” There are beauties of life which are brought out in darkness and unsuspected in the light.

Sometime in the early 1920s Keller communicated the following according to a 1980 biography as noted previously in this article:

I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than walk alone in the light.

Skipping forward several decades, in 1998 a television critic at the Washington Post reviewed a TV movie about Helen Keller that was broadcast on the CBS network. An instance of the quote was used in the movie: 6

The first hour is pretty much petrified mush, but in the second, things liven up. When Keller and Sullivan are low on money, they agree to appear on a vaudeville stage, talk about how Keller overcame blindness and deafness and the inability to speak, and answer questions from the audience.

One person asks if sight isn’t the sense Keller misses most: “Do you desire sight most of all?” Keller says no and adds, “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than walk alone in the light.” Gulp. This is where yours truly lost it.

In conclusion, there is good evidence that during a stage performance Helen Keller did respond to a question from the audience with the quotation under investigation. Her answer may have been prepared in advance, and it may have been influenced by an existing adage in the religious domain.

(Special thanks to Sherry Harris @rebelsher who asked about this quotation in a tweet.)

Notes:

  1. 1980, Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy by Joseph P. Lash, Chapter: On the Vaudeville Circuit , Start Page 487, Quote Page 496 to 498, A Merloyd Lawrence Book: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1876, The Christian Pioneer; A Monthly Magazine, Volume 30, Section: Poetry, “He Knows”, Quote Page 30, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1881, Pilgrim-Lays for the Homeward Bound and Words of Counsel and Comfort in Sunshine and Shade, Arranged by J. Williamson, Section; Trust, ‘He Knows” by Bainerd, Start Page 136, Quote Page 137, Hatchards, Piccadilly, London, Printed by Strangeways and Sons, London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1887 June, Manford’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 31, Number 6, Home-Health: Death of the Old Wife, Quote Page 348, T.H. & M.W. Tabor, Chicago. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1919 June 26, The Continent, Volume 50, Number 26, Editorial: Songs in the Night, Quote Page 780, The McCormick Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1998 November 14, Washington Post, Helen Keller Tale a ‘Miracle’ In Spite of Itself, Page G01, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)