'I saw a romantic structure wrought by human brains & hands that is to the burning eye of the sun a rival luminary'
Helen Keller visits the Empire State Building
The following letter was written exactly 90 years ago, which means that today you must, according to international law, read it in full, even if you’ve read it before. This stunning piece of writing can also be found in the book, Letters of Note: New York, and the scan of Keller’s signature, which I hope sits elegantly at the bottom of the letter, exactly where I placed it, is from Lorena A. Hickok’s book, The Story of Helen Keller (via Wikipedia).
Helen Keller was, by all accounts, an incredible woman. Born in Alabama in 1880, she was the author of 12 books, including an autobiography published when she was just 22, and a tireless activist and lecturer who campaigned for numerous causes. She was also deaf and blind, following an illness that changed her life when she was still a baby. In 1932, after seeing the above photograph of Keller atop the newly-opened Empire State Building in Manhattan, Dr. John Finley, President of the New York Association for the Blind, wrote to her and asked what she really “saw” from that height. Keller responded with this magnificent letter—one of the most evocative descriptions of the skyscraper and its surroundings ever to have been written. It was soon reprinted in the New York Times.
January 13, 1932
Dear Dr. Finley:
After many days and many tribulations which are inseparable from existence here below, I sit down to the pleasure of writing to you and answering your delightful question, “What Did You Think ‘of the Sight’ When You Were on the Top of the Empire Building?”
Frankly, I was so entranced “seeing” that I did not think about the sight. If there was a subconscious thought of it, it was in the nature of gratitude to God for having given the blind seeing minds. As I now recall the view I had from the Empire Tower, I am convinced that, until we have looked into darkness, we cannot know what a divine thing vision is.
Perhaps I beheld a brighter prospect than my companions with two good eyes. Anyway, a blind friend gave me the best description I had of the Empire Building until I saw it myself.
Do I hear you reply, “I suppose to you it is a reasonable thesis that the universe is all a dream, and that the blind only are awake?” Yes – no doubt I shall be left at the Last Day on the other bank defending the incredible prodigies of the unseen world, and, more incredible still, the strange grass and skies the blind behold are greener grass and bluer skies than ordinary eyes see. I will concede that my guides saw a thousand things that escaped me from the top of the Empire Building, but I am not envious. For imagination creates distances and horizons that reach to the end of the world. It is as easy for the mind to think in stars as in cobble-stones. Sightless Milton dreamed visions no one else could see. Radiant with an inward light, he send forth rays by which mankind beholds the realms of Paradise.
But what of the Empire Building? It was a thrilling experience to be whizzed in a “lift” a quarter of a mile heavenward, and to see New York spread out like a marvellous tapestry beneath us.
There was the Hudson – more like the flash of a sword-blade than a noble river. The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head! Why, I thought, the sun and the stars are suburbs of New York, and I never knew it! I had a sort of wild desire to invest in a bit of real estate on one of the planets. All sense of depression and hard times vanished, I felt like being frivolous with the stars. But that was only for a moment. I am too static to feel quite natural in a Star View cottage on the Milky Way, which must be something of a merry-go-round even on quiet days.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the Empire Building so poetical. From every one except my blind friend I had received an impression of sordid materialism – the piling up of one steel honeycomb upon another with no real purpose but to satisfy the American craving for the superlative in everything. A Frenchman has said, in his exalted moments the American fancies himself a demigod, nay, a god; for only gods never tire of the prodigious. The highest, the largest, the most costly is the breath of his vanity.
Well, I see in the Empire Building something else – passionate skill, arduous and fearless idealism. The tallest building is a victory of imagination. Instead of crouching close to earth like a beast, the spirit of man soars to higher regions, and from this new point of vantage he looks upon the impossible with fortified courage and dreams yet more magnificent enterprises.
What did I “see and hear” from the Empire Tower? As I stood there ‘twixt earth and sky, I saw a romantic structure wrought by human brains and hands that is to the burning eye of the sun a rival luminary. I saw it stand erect and serene in the midst of storm and the tumult of elemental commotion. I heard the hammer of Thor ring when the shaft began to rise upward. I saw the unconquerable steel, the flash of testing flames, the sword-like rivets. I heard the steam drills in pandemonium. I saw countless skilled workers welding together that mighty symmetry. I looked upon the marvel of frail, yet indomitable hands that lifted the tower to its dominating height.
Let cynics and supersensitive souls say what they will about American materialism and machine civilization. Beneath the surface are poetry, mysticism and inspiration that the Empire Building somehow symbolizes. In that giant shaft I see a groping toward beauty and spiritual vision. I am one of those who see and yet believe.
I hope I have not wearied you with my “screed” about sight and seeing. The length of this letter is a sign of long, long thoughts that bring me happiness. I am, with every good wish for the New Year,