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Saturday November 26th

'Letters from Red Farm': Elizabeth Emerson sheds light on Helen Keller's life

"It's really a new telling of Helen’s life story, coupled with my family's story,” the Chapel Hill author said.

Chapel Hill author Elizabeth Emerson smiles for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Emerson.
Buy Photos Chapel Hill author Elizabeth Emerson smiles for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Emerson.

In September, Chapel Hill-based author Elizabeth Emerson published a book focusing on the friendship between Helen Keller and Emerson's great-great-grandfather, Joseph Edgar Chamberlin.

The book, titled “Letters from Red Farm: The Untold Story of the Friendship between Helen Keller and journalist Joseph Edgar Chamberlin," was in the making for about a decade.

Emerson said she began working on the book during a snowstorm in 2012. 

“I'd always kind of known about Helen's friendship with my great-great-grandfather since I was a little girl, but it was only really in the last, I would say 20 years, that I started to really think about it and wonder about it,” she said.

Emerson’s interest in their relationship was piqued when her father gave her copies of letters Keller wrote to Chamberlin.

“(Keller) was a wonderful writer and frequent letter writer,” Emerson said. “It was a story that I didn’t really know, my family didn’t know until I started investigating our various archives and finding all of these letters. It really weaves Helen’s life together with my family’s.”

When Emerson started her research, she said the letters were archived at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York. She traveled to the city in order to get access to the letters.

But the letters were eventually moved to archives in Kentucky and are now also accessible online. With this change, Emerson said she was able to transition to working from home.

Emerson said that from the letters, it was apparent that Chamberlin and Keller had been close for many years. She realized their close connection after reading a letter from Keller about Chamberlin's death in 1935.

"And so from that letter, I could tell that they had been very, very close for many, many years," Emerson said. "And I hadn't known that. I thought that they were just friends when she was a child but it was obvious from that letter that it was a much longer friendship."

Chamberlin lived on a farm outside of Boston with his five children and met Keller through a fundraising event at the Perkins School for the Blind.

“He invited her to come to his home and meet his children and have a normal childhood experience outside of her school,” Emerson said. “So their friendship evolved from that point.”

Laurie Block, executive director of the Disability History Museum, said Emerson’s book gave her a deeper understanding of who Chamberlin was. She had read many letters between Chamberlin and Keller, but gained new insights about them from Emerson's work.

Block also said the book anchors Keller's life history in a social and cultural context in a way that readers may not have heard before.

“I think Helen Keller's influential years and the people who influenced her deserve to be well known or certainly known better than they are,” she said.

Max Wallace, a Canada-based writer and historian specializing in the Holocaust, also said Emerson's book unearthed parts of Keller’s life that had never been explored before.

“It's very important,” he said. “It clears up a lot of questions that have never been answered about the evolution of her political views.”

Emerson said she felt privileged to be the one to write about the relationship between Keller and Chamberlin.

“There are a lot of dramatic episodes in the story that even Helen Keller scholars didn't know about,” she said. “So it's really a new telling of Helen’s life story coupled with my family's story.”


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