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David Wagner’s Latest Book Illuminates Controversies in the Education of Helen Keller

The "Miracle Worker" and the Transcendentalist

Helen Keller, America’s deafblind phenomenon, was accused of plagiarism at age 11, leading to attacks on her tutor Annie Sullivan’s teaching methods. USM Professor of Sociology and Social Work David Wagner’s book, “The ‘Miracle Worker’ and the Transcendentalist,” recently released in paperback, explores how gender, class, ethnic background, religion and disability shaped one’s life in America during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.

Wagner explains the role of Harvard-educated, transcendentalist, reformer and educator Franklin Sanborn had in removing Sullivan from a Massachusetts poorhouse and placing her in the Perkins School for the Blind, only to become her major detractor. Professional jealousies, gender, class, and religion all contributed to a very public smear campaign against America’s heroines Sullivan and her student, Keller.

In his book, Wagner illustrates how Sanborn used his upper class, Protestant, Yankee background in an attempt to debunk the lower class, Irish-Catholic Sullivan’s seemingly miraculous achievement educating Helen Keller, and how Keller and Sullivan retaliated.

David Wagner’s work, both in scholarship and activism, have centered on poverty, homelessness, social inequality, and social welfare history and policy. He is the author of several books, including “The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution” “Ordinary People: In and Out of Poverty in the Golded Age,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It?: A Critical Look at American Charity,” and “Checkerboard Square: Culture And Resistance In A Homeless Community.”