A Conversation in Books and Flowers

Three books and a letter sent by Helen Keller to her friend, the florist Max Schling.

In 1938, Helen Keller sent a copy of her newest book Helen Keller’s Journal, to her friend Max Schling, inscribing it to “the Wizard of Flowers, who gives me un-utterable joy.” Two more of Keller’s books bear similar inscriptions. Schling (1874-1943), a florist and fixture of New York City’s social scene between WWI and WWII, began selling flowers in Manhattan from around 1901, and became especially known for promoting bouquets and arrangements for New York’s elite. Through established clients and well-placed gifts, he was able to position himself and his shop in Manhattan as a central space for socialites and influential people to visit. Schling also used his reputation to popularize gardening among a broader audience, selling seeds and bulbs by mail and authoring books on the joys of growing plants at home. 

Like Schling, Keller also used objects to create and cement social ties. Schling and Keller appear to have known each other from her activities in New York during the time of her residence in Forest Hills, Queens, between 1917 and 1938. In 1927, Keller inscribed a copy of her first book The World I Live In (1908), and subsequently sent him others after they were published. Although Schling is not mentioned in her published writings, her autobiography Midstream (1929, inscribed in 1930) mentions her travels to and from New York City, and has passages about her retreating into her garden to smell flowers and trees as they bloomed. She also spent time traveling to other natural parks and monuments, and attention to smell and touch as sensory inputs feature heavily in her writings, as they did in the work of earlier blind authors such as Lansing V. Hall and Helen Aldrich de Kroft.  

Keller’s inscription to Schling in Midstream echoes the sensory descriptions of nature in her published work.

Correspondence from Schling, preserved in the Helen Keller Archive at the American Foundation for the Blind, shows both advocate and gardener bonding over non-verbal communication. A month after receiving Midstream, Schling wrote to Keller, thanking her not just for the book but “for the dear lines on its first page,” and praised Keller for her gifts of communication and imagination.

Helen Keller’s Journal at one time contained a separate letter, written near the end of Schling’s life, and now preserved in the Elizabeth Austin Papers in Special Collections. In an attempt to console her sick friend, Keller recounts the many wonderful things that Schling had done for her and for her companions, notably Polly Thompson, over the years, and sheds light on the interactions of Keller and her close associates as they corresponded widely within local and national circles.

After Schling died in February 1943, the three books passed to his daughter, Elizabeth Austin, and her husband, Oliver. Both of the Austins were well-known ornithologists, and both worked at the Florida State Museum (later the Florida Museum of Natural History). Eventually, the Austins donated these books, along with their papers, to the Libraries.

Inscribed books can transport us to specific moments in time, usually when a book changes hands. Put together, they can show a longer-running conversation between people, places, and the objects that they keep. Looking across the books and letters, we can gain a better sense of the social ties that Keller and her friends cultivated, in and out of the archive.

Engraving of a blind student being taught to read using a raised Roman alphabet, 1817.

This Spring, a new exhibition, The Learning and Labor of the Blind, will feature books written and made for blind readers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The exhibition will run from January 24th – April 28th in the second-floor gallery of Smathers Library.

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