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.