Skip to main content

Why Max Wallace wants to tell the underplayed story of Helen Keller’s activism

The Concordia grad is passionate about uncovering unconventional angles of historical icons
July 20, 2023
By David Silverberg

Headshot of a man with short grey hair and glasses leaning against a fence with green vines is wearing a black zip-up sweater Author Max Wallace, BA 90, first learned about Helen Keller’s activism when researching his 2019 book In the Name of Humanity: The Secret Deal to End the Holocaust. | Photo by Dashiell York

If there’s a thread running through the books written by Toronto author Max Wallace, BA 90 (journalism), it’s that he doesn’t take reality at face value. “I like to look beyond the conventional narrative,” he says.

That kind approach is at the heart of his new book, After the Miracle: The Political Crusades of Helen Keller (Grand Central Publishing, 2023), which delves into the overlooked activism of a historical figure normally associated with disability rights and the acclaimed 1962 film, The Miracle Worker (1962).

“A narrative persisted that Keller was apolitical in her later life, but she rallied against Nazism, capitalism and racism, and for some reason biographers and documentaries downplayed that part of her story,” Wallace says. 

He notes that Keller travelled the world to alert society as to how capitalism and cycles of poverty lead to disability. Those around her urged her to focus on her story of overcoming disability, but Keller rebuffed them and instead spoke out against commercial greed and poverty. She also sent shockwaves through her native Alabama when she issued a broadside against Jim Crow and declared that she was “ashamed in her soul” to be from the South. 

Wallace first learned of Keller’s activism while he was researching his 2019 book, In the Name of Humanity: The Secret Deal to End the Holocaust (Penguin/Random House). In exploring book burning in Nazi Germany, he discovered that Keller’s book of essays, How I Became a Socialist, was burned by the Nazis in May 1933. She soon became an outspoken opponent of Hitler and fascism. Later, she took on Joe McCarthy and his anti-Communist witch hunts.

Wallace is compelled by how celebrities use fame, whether intentionally or not, to influence people in real time or for generations after their death. He has written a New York Times bestseller about the late rock star Kurt Cobain, for example, and his influence on the dozens of teens who mimicked his downfall by committing suicide. 

Wallace’s 2000 book, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America (M. Evans & Company) followed another influential icon who used his celebrity power to amplify his activism for peace and social justice during the Vietnam War.

Unlike Ali’s, the full story of Keller’s activism has remained largely untold. “She linked class, gender, privilege, anti-Black racism and disability advocacy long before intersectionality became a catchphrase in academia,” Wallace says.

Developing an activist attitude’

Cover image of Max Wallace’s latest book, After the Miracle: The Political Crusades of Helen Keller After the Miracle: The Political Crusades of Helen Keller by journalism grad Max Wallace.

Writing about Keller and advocates for disability rights is on-brand for Wallace, whose side-hustle for 15 years, before it ended last year, was writing described video scripts for AMI TV, which helps visually impaired people follow the action in TV shows and films. 

Growing up in Montreal after his family left New York City when he was nine, Wallace worked on student newspapers at Dawson College, then wrote and edited stories for Concordia’s The Link. “I really liked its activist attitude, how the newspaper wanted to be an agent of change,” he recalls. He adds with a quick laugh, “I was woke long before it became a pejorative word on the right, being an activist involved in the anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear movements back then.

“I would sometimes sleep in The Link offices, and I admit, my classroom was The Link,” Wallace recalls.

Beyond his journalistic training, Wallace worked for several years with Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, recording the video testimonies of Holocaust survivors.

Ottawa music lovers will appreciate another entry in Wallace’s impressive biography: he was the director and co-founder of both the Ottawa Folk Festival and the Ottawa International Busker Festival. Working as a station manager at Carleton University’s CKCU FM in the early 1990s, Wallace found himself wondering why buskers weren’t respected as part of the musical milieu of the city, so he launched the busker festival in 1992, and a year later, founded the Ottawa Folk Festival.

Wallace’s time at Concordia stayed with him. He cites his involvement in a series of Homecoming events in 2017 celebrating the achievements of distinguished graduate and award-winning photojournalist Barbara Davidson, BFA 90, as evidence of his alma mater’s unique creative spirit.

“It reminded me that Concordia wasn’t at all a stuffy ivory tower like many universities, and that even a notorious rabble rouser like me could be welcomed back with open arms,” he says.

Back to top

© Concordia University