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.