CREAGH, Ronald

Dreaming America: How Utopian was the Icarian Experiment? (2)

1. Enthusiasm, Illusion and the Decline of Fraternity

UtopiaCREAGH, Ronald (1929 - ....)

- Introduction

- Part 2. Utopia and the Collective Imagination

Part 1. Enthusiasm, Illusion and the Decline of Fraternity

One of the most spectacular French emigration to the United States occurred in the year 1848. At 9 o’clock in the morning, on February the 3d, the steamship Rome slowly left the harbor of Le Havre, in France. The gendarmes had parted from the ship after having checked all passports and were on their rowboat. On the deck, sixty nine men, wearing black tunics, grey trousers, grey felter hats and Neapolitan shoes, proudly answered, each in turn, with a loud «Present!», to the call of their delegate.

Straight off, all sixty-nine men intoned the famous patriotic hymn, «Le chant du départ», composed to celebrate the fall of the Bastille. But the poem of André Chénier, had been replaced by new verses :

Stand up, Working Man, stooping in the dust,

Now comes the time of the awakening

See the banner of the holy Community

Floating on the American shores

Never again vice, no longer pain

No more crime, no sorrow anymore

Equality, the majestic, is moving forward;

Proletarian, dry your tears.

We’re going to found our Icaria,

We, the soldiers of Fraternity

We’re going to establish in Icaria

The welfare of Humanity [1]

As the ship slowly drew on, the people ashore answered with the chorus:

Go and lay the foundations of our Homeland

You, the Soldiers of Fraternity

Then all the men sang their stanza, after which they were succeeded by the women, who in turn were followed by the choir of young women:

Do you see, o my sisters, this new aurora

Of the day when our shackles will fall?

Stand up, God’s daughters, let us go full of zeal

To regenerate the universe.

No, let us not fear the return

Of a fatal tyranny.

Under the divine law of love

Woman is the equal of man [2]

These were dramatic moments, when the separation from the beloved, the long travel to an unknown country, the venture of a whole life’s investment, suddenly were displaced to the background, and gave place to the power of community, the intense feeling of fraternity, the collective engenderment of a new homeland.

Four days before, on January 29, the Parisian pioneers had been hailed at the railway station by a huge crowd, and when Etienne Cabet, the founding father, suddenly appeared and started coming down the main stairs of the hall, an impressive silence suddenly occurred and all the men removed their hats in sign of respect. Later, in the city of Rouen, people waited all night to see the train pass and salute those pioneers, the avant-garde of a new world.

The long voyage from France to Texas had two dimensions; it was both an experience and a theatrical performance. The participants lived a series of dramatic events but at the same time, because all of France, or at least all the Icarians were watching them, their actions and discourse depicted a cosmic event, the birth of a new world based on fraternity. Their eventful voyage also had a symbolic meaning. It could have been an initiatory journey, had the participants been humble enough to listen and learn. But their mission was to save the world, and the travel turned into propaganda.

The journey had not been all roses. On landing in America, at New Orleans, they heard the guns fire; the city was celebrating the French revolution of 1848. Louis-Philippe had been overthrown. The long awaited Republic, the subject of their dreams and conversations, had been proclaimed in France, and they had missed the event.

Some decided to return to France; one of the physicians, keeping all the money with which he had been entrusted to buy medicine, and some of the most literate people of the group, including an architect, deserted the company and were, of course, considered traitors.

Land had been bought in Texas, near the future city of Dallas. The French expedition traveled by boat and was compelled to stop at Shreveport, on the Red River, in Louisiana, some 80 miles from Texas. The river was not navigable beyond this point as it was blocked by an immense, permanent log jam.

Yet, to judge from the letters, there was considerable elation. The arrival in Shreveport was described in idyllic terms. Crocodiles were gentle and eatable; rattlesnakes were kind enough to let people know when they arrived; fruit trees were covered with prunes, plums and cherries; numerous wild vineyards promised future pleasures. Everything seemed to grow easily and Americans welcomed all newcomers. [3] Another letter described the mood: «We are buoyed up less with hope than with reality». [4]

Undaunted, the enthusiastic Frenchmen, «totally inexperienced in coping with the wilderness, stored most of their goods and set off overland with one wagon drawn by oxen. They did not even know how to manage the wagon and oxen. They broke down and became stuck in marshes. They ran out of food, but at last they reached the site of Icaria, and met the land agents of the Peters Land Company.

The advance party discovered that they had bought a hundred thousand, not a million, acres in the wilderness, two hundred and fifty miles from the river, allotted in checkerboard fashion, the alternate squares still in possession of the state. By the terms of the agreement, they were obliged to build a log house on each of their sections before July. Any land which was not occupied by a cabin and resident in each half-square mile would revert to the company, which would be glad to resell it at a dollar an acre.

There was no possibility of fulfilling the contract, but the pioneers set to work. Although many of them were skilled mechanics, almost none was a farmer or, curiously, a builder. They did not know how to plough, and the thirty-two cabins they were able to build were hovels. More and more people became sick, probably with malaria. Their doctor said it was yellow fever, but all of his diagnoses were for fatal diseases, and it soon turned out that he was insane». Most of the members became ill and one was killed by lightning. The Texas experiment was a fiasco.

On August 29, the Icarians welcomed a second group of ten people, led by Favard, a tailor, the brother in law of Céline, Cabet’s daughter. The freshly arrived group was thunderstruck: in contrast with the beautiful letters they had received from the pioneers, they could only see a land burnt by the sun, twenty nine miserable shacks; the fine and well dressed company that had left France had metamorphosed into bearded, dirty and feverish men. After a long night of debate within the group of newcomers, Favard was infuriated. He accused the avant-garde of laziness, ignorance and sabotage. He attributed their sickness to neglect of the most elementary rules of hygiene.

Favet decided that Gouhénant, the leader of the avant-garde, was a traitor and that he, Favet, was the only ruler of the group. Later, when he discovered in one of Gouhénant’s suitcases a number of religious oil paintings that the man had brought to adorn the dining room, he called together a new meeting and accused Gouhénant of Jesuitism: the defendant was expelled by a majority vote as having willingly betrayed the group. Gouhénant was shorn of his hair and left in the wilderness. Favard sold back all Icaria and ordered everyone to return to New Orleans, where they would wait for Cabet.

The Revolution of 1848 had created a very difficult situation for the Icarians in France. In the next few months, revolutionary leaders like the poet Lamartine, Cabet, his friend Louis Blanc, and others of the left were discredited, partly by their own mistakes, but even more by the organized opposition of the right and the Bonapartists. The situation was excruciating.

Cabet, who now was 59 and almost a blind man, decided to start a new life. On December 15, he sailed for America with almost five hundred new colonists. He met in New Orleans the shattered remnants of the pioneer settlement. He wished to return to Texas, but those who remained from the pioneer group rebelled. The winter was spent in bitter conflict, and eventually almost two hundred, mostly members of the group that had just come with Cabet, returned to France, and the others found temporary employment in New Orleans while Cabet shopped for a new site.

In the spring he bought all the available property of the town of Nauvoo in Illinois from which the Mormons had recently migrated to Utah. For a down-payment and a large mortgage he got a variety of mills and shops, a distillery, a large community dwelling, numerous family houses, the ruins of the burnt-out temple, and fifteen hundred acres of land. Two hundred and eighty faithful Icarians went up the river with Cabet to their new home. Typical of the fate that dogged them, twenty died of cholera on the way.

Those tragedies and other adversities were followed by a series of bitter conflicts, that even caused the exclusion of Cabet from Nauvoo. With a few faithful disciples, he went to St. Louis to start a new community; his untimely death in 1856, shortly afterwards, did not allow him to see the fruits of his devoted courage, but it did not put an end to these remarkable experiments. In spite of the various splits that resulted in new settlements in Iowa and in California, the Icarian movement lasted until the end of the nineteenth century, an honorable life span of about fifty years. Yet, in spite of those expectations, the building of a new world order was never realized.

- ContinuedPart 2. Utopia and the Collective Imagination

[1Lève-toi, Travailleur, courbé dans la poussière,

L’heure du réveil a sonné.

Aux bords américains vois flotter la bannière

De la sainte Communauté…

Plus de vices, plus de souffrance,

Plus de crimes, plus de douleurs,

L’auguste Egalité s’avance;

Prolétaire, sèche tes pleurs.

Allons fonder notre Icarie,

Soldats de la Fraternité,

Allons fonder en Icarie.

Le bonheur de l’Humanité.


Voyez-vous, ô mes soeurs, cette aurore nouvelle

Du jour où tomberont nos fers?

Debout, filles de Dieu, partons pleines de zèle,

Pour régénérer l’univers.

Non, d’une tyrannie fatale

Ne redoutons pas le retour.

La femme de l’homme est l’égale

Sous la divine loi d’amour.

Oui fondez dans notre Patrie

Le temple de l’Egalité!

Nous vous suivrons en Icarie,

Soldats de la Fraternité.

[3Lettre of L. L. Moity, Schreveport, Ap 23, 1848. Published in Le Populaire June 4, July 9 and 23, 1848.

[4C’est plus que l’espérance qui nous anime, c’est la réalité». Letter of Adolphe Gouhénant in Le Populaire, art. cit.