When Helen Froze Over


In my post on stylistic analysis, I analyzed in depth the writing style, technique and application of literary tools used in an article to demonstrate how they affect a writer’s performance to their audience, while also attempting to provide examples to understand these concepts. In this post, rather than just analyze a piece and pick at different angles to reveal the literary tools in question, I will instead be making a case to prove there is a presence of Disputed Authorship, emphasizing plagiarism.

 Part 1: Looking Back

“Helen had sent a story she said she’d written, ”The Frost King,” to one of her many boosters, Michael Anagnos of the Perkins Institution in Boston. The institution’s alumni magazine published the tale, idiotically calling it ”without parallel in the history of literature.” When word of the plagiarism got out, the newspapers jumped on it. He responded by assembling a nine-member tribunal of Perkins officials, who cross-questioned the child mercilessly. She was acquitted her by a single vote, Anagnos’s, who then turned on both Keller and Sullivan, declaring, ”Helen Keller is a living lie.”


Is Michael’s accusation true? Is Helen Keller a fake, a plagiarist criminal? For the sake of this post, while it does seem that her variation of The Frost King bears a striking resemblance to Canby’s The Frost Fairies, this is her own creation, and she should be credited as a moral writer. 

The publication of Keller’s “The Frost King” is of a later date, 1892, and according to some personal accounts, the story was told to Keller earlier, somewhere between the summer of 1888 (four years prior to the conception and publication of the piece) to the autumn of 1892. Canby’s story, The Frost Fairies had an earlier publication date, a trait which is consistent with plagiarism.

Jopseph Lash, the other major biographer of Helen Keller’s life story, recounts, “While it was true that Helen did have an amazing intellect, and an incredible capacity for language, the most likely truth was that Helen had obtained a copy of the book Birdie and His Friends, by Margaret T. Canby, when Anne and Helen had spent the summer of 1888 with Mrs. S.C. Hopkins, who even remembered reading the story to Helen.” While there is investigation to suggest that Keller took Canby’s original work, suggesting that her story is “rife with many segments that are direct copies of at least seven or more words in a row–the concepts, characters, and basic plot [being] nearly identical”, there is speculation that Keller wrote the piece that was, is, her own, and should have been credited as the original writer.

 The general opinion, both from professionals and those close to Helen Keller, thought that she committed a great error that put her in a position of fraudulence, as well as dishonor. This further resulted in the credibility of Helen Keller to be reduced to practically nothing, however, there was some implication that as a disabled woman, thought impressive that she could write verbatim of the piece. “A friend of one of the Perkins teachers informed the Gazette that Keller’s story was a reproduction of “Frost Fairies,” from Margaret Canby’s book Birdie and His Fairy Friends. The Gazette ran both stories, and the editor commented that he believed it a deliberate attempt at fraud by Keller’s handlers. Keller insisted she had no memory of having read the book or having had it read to her, but passages in her letters from the period, which she describes as “dreams,” strongly resembled other episodes in the book.” This expert not only demonstrate the literary political struggle that tried to expose Keller’s work as a lie, but that the author herself intended to attempt to steal the credit.

 Contrary to the investigation and comparison of the two works, other advocates of Helen Keller argue that, despite it’s likeness, the work is her own, and that she deserved the credit, rather than the slander, as a writer. “Sullivan protested that ‘all use of language is imitative, and one’s style is made up of all other styles that one has met,’ and even Canby came forward to say that Keller’s version was superior to her own.” Both advocates have a strong reputation and credibility, not only with their title (Sullivan being an experienced teacher who knew Keller on a personal level, and Canby for being the original author), but also as experienced writers, particularly Canby. Both argued strongly in favor that Keller’s work was indeed her own, and though she may have “borrowed” Canby’s literary elements to create her own variation, it was Keller’s own story to tell, in her own style and liking. No one else, but Helen Keller, wrote The Frost King.


 Besides Canby and Sullivan, another strong advocate makes an excellent point to Keller’s case, and he believes that all writing is plagiarism, or simply put, borrowed and recycled thought. “Years later, Mark Twain was so deeply touched by reading of this incident in one of her published works, that he wrote to her of his outrage over the chastisement. Twain pointed out that he himself had committed just such an incident of unwitting plagiarism in penning the dedication of his Innocents Abroad. Twain went on to argue that all human thoughts and writings were but repetition of earlier thoughts held by others, strung together in new variations. In fact, he added, [Keller’s] highly educated critics had themselves learned to parrot other people’s knowledge by attending college.” Twain strongly believes that all writing is not original, that there are strong connections to written pieces. He does not argue that style is the same, but rather that the elements that are the basis of any story share a commonality. Any story can look the same, but according to him, it is the presentation and independent writing that make the work “original.”


 According to Helen Keller, “the two stories were so much alike in thought and language that it was evident Miss Canby’s story had been read to me, and that mine was — a plagiarism. It was difficult to make me understand this; but when I did understand I was astonished and grieved…I had disgraced myself; I had brought suspicion upon those I loved best. And yet how could it possibly have happened? I racked my brain until I was weary to recall anything about the frost that I had read before I wrote “The Frost King”; but I could remember nothing, except the common reference to Jack Frost, and a poem for children, “The Freaks of the Frost,” and I knew I had not used that in my composition.” Even if Helen could not recall the time she was read the story, her work is still her own, because a writer’s style is independent of other writers, unless it is directly copied from the source. There is no indication that Keller owned a copy of Canby’s work, and there are other accounts that demonstrate she had an excellent memory, especially at her young age at the time she composed the piece. If she could not recall the time she was read the story, it is suggested that this incident is perhaps mere coincidence, or that she interpreted a subconscious memory in her own perceptive light.

 From this part of the investigation, Helen Keller should receive credit for writing The Frost King, and recognized as her own creation.

 Part 2: Seeing Deeper-Stylistic Analysis 

 From the previous post, we were introduced some concepts for stylistic analysis. Because this is a case of disputed authorship, I would like to start out with a comparison of the pieces of Canby and Keller, on a surface glance. Posted below are experts from both stories, along side each other. You may notice, as suggested by Keller’s critics, that some word structure is strikingly similar.

For a comparison of the two pieces, read more athttp://helenkeller.yottadot.org/frost_king.htm

(Margaret T. Canby) 


 The Three Arenas


This is perhaps the most important stylistic analysis portion, in terms of Keller’s ploy of being accused of plagiarism. When one looks for such a literary misdemeanor, usually, we tend to try and find words of verbatim, similar syntax, on point flow, and anything that shows unoriginality. While Keller’s text may use some of the same words, through analysis, it suggests that The Frost King is her own work. 

“King Frost lives in a beautiful palace far to the North, in the land of perpetual snow. The palace, which is magnificent beyond description, was built centuries ago, in the reign of King Glacier. At a little distance from the palace we might easily mistake it for a mountain whose peaks were mounting heavenward to receive the last kiss of the departing day. But on nearer approach we should discover our error. What we had supposed to be peaks were in reality a thousand glittering spires. Nothing could be more beautiful than the architecture of this ice-palace.”

Some critics argue that she uses exact words and word structure to form her variation of Canby’s story. In the argumentative stance of Mark Twain, most stories share the same words, and perhaps syntax, to express common emotions, scenes and actions. Analyzing Keller’s piece, there is enough variation and diversity to make it her own. She makes the flow much sooner, smoother and clearer than Canby, and uses her own writing technique to develop her own variation. Her word choice is her own, and she tells her own story. 


When Keller writes in the scope of the Social Arena, she turns the interaction from the words in her story, to that of her audience. It’s as if she is writing to them, rather than just telling a story—a literary voice if you will. Style is a powerful medium in any interaction. The fact that Helen Keller had a better literary style than Canby, and was able to communicate [the supposed] same message in a better way, suggests that this is her own work.

“Well, one day King Frost was surveying his vast wealth and thinking what good he could do with it, he suddenly bethought him of his jolly old neighbor, Santa Claus. “I will send my treasures to Santa Claus,” said the King to himself. ‘He is the very man to dispose of them satisfactorily, for he knows where the poor and the unhappy live, and his kind old heart is always full of benevolent plans for their relief.’”

Looking deeper in the context of the social arena, Keller establishes a connection to the reader, using choice writing styles, and elaborate, descriptive writing to make that connection. It is possible that because we know her story, her struggles, and her accomplishments, that we are already willing to connect to Helen Keller as a writer. While her piece does not signify any cultural issue in her society [she was only 11 when she wrote this], there is a social context about innocence and a documentation of a child’s sense of imagery. Her vivid aspect in writing does play a significant role—telling the story that captures the reader’s interest and makes it more intimate. 


(Perkins Institution for the Blind) 


In regards to the piece itself, there is no indication of a particular reference to cultural aspect or issues that were relevant to Helen Keller’s society. However, if you are a literary buff, or love being a skeptic, it is possible that Keller’s writing is a suggestion for progression and growth, while also indicating a need for order.

This progression is made clearly here:

“[A]s he is a generous old monarch, he endeavors to make a right use of his riches. So wherever he goes he does many wonderful works; he builds bridges over every stream, as transparent as glass, but often as strong as iron; he shakes the forest trees until the ripe nuts fall into the laps of laughing children; he puts the flowers to sleep with one touch of his hand.” 

Here, Keller successfully is able to write about such powerful progression through a sort of divine influence, and seems to be able to relate to such a change. Because of her struggles and her need to grow and survive, this gives her a strong insight, which makes her writing style more personal, and tells of the cultural aspect of such changes. This aspect makes this her own work. She is able to change a simple story to a personal account of a culture of change, which makes the work her own. 

Literary Tools


The first part compares a part of Canby’s and Keller’s use of imagery, particularly in the introduction. Both writers set the scene, yet the structure and some key choice words differ, giving a different tone of imagery.

 “King Frost, or Jack Frost as he is sometimes called, lives in a cold country far to the North” (Canby)

 “King Frost lives in a beautiful palace far to the North, in the land of perpetual snow.” (Keller) 

 While both lines references a place in the North, and invoke a sense of ice and cold temperature, the feeling one has when reading these lines is different. Canby’s version is more descriptive, and sets the scene on point, where as Keller’s version invokes a different, more serene emotion, and clearly defines the scene she wants to set. It isn’t quite as on point as Canby’s, however, it is more imaginative to any reader.

 These comparisons can be constantly found throughout the piece, but it would be a better approach to point out Keller’s use of imagery, especially since Canby herself once claimed that Keller’s writing was superior to her own.

 For instance, “we might easily mistake it for a mountain whose peaks were mounting heavenward to receive the last kiss of the departing day” Keller’s use of imagery is clear, vivid and almost metaphorical. Her writing is very descriptive, in just a short sentence. If you look back to the comparisons of the whole pieces, Canby gets right to the point in her story, and takes longer to establish any use of imagery, whereas Keller demonstrates little, yet beautiful, effort in her images. While it is arguable that they are the exact images, Keller not only manages to use them as her own, and in her own variation, but betters them for the reader.

 Here, we also see her use of imagery in this manner, again. “The walls are curiously constructed of massive blocks of ice which terminate in cliff-like towers. The entrance to the palace is at the end of an arched recess, and it is guarded night and day by twelve soldierly-looking white Bears.” She, once again, uses her imagery to tell the story. In a little span of writing, she clearly describes the scene as she wants it, and her style is so vivid, it is astonishing to imagine that she could write such things in such detail, considering she is disabled in her senses. This is what Twain referenced later on. That though the elements may compare to Canby’s piece, Keller’s style is her own, and it is much more descriptive, clear, and entertaining.


 Based on the research and analysis, though Keller’s piece does bear a striking resemblance to Canby’s, the credit should go the Keller, and her piece should be known as an original. While it is true that because of the striking similarity, it comes off as a plagiarized piece, there is no disputed authorship. Again, referencing Twain, “How a Deaf-Blind child could so closely replicate the intricate plot details of a story and make it her own is a marvel in itself.  How can any [child] know the fine line between inspiration and stealing and direct copying?  It’s an impossibility!”

[Helen (left) & Annie (right)]







The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller 




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