Icaria: A Lost Paradise

Image from Gustave Doré Illustrations to Paradise Lost on the Artsy Craftsy website



It Is the Forlorn Remnant of What Years Ago Promised to Be an Ideal Co-operative Settlement — Their Old Fashioned Dress and Queer Ways.

Metropolitan Magazine: Tucked away in the southwest corner of Iowa, remote from the good and evil influence of civilization, the surged and clatter of affairs unheeded because unknown, lives a collection of humans as peculiar in manner and custom as the ancient Phoenicians, as egotistic as Caesar. These people are white in color with the fire of Gaelic ancestors in their blood and the timidity of hermits in their breasts. They think old-fashionedly; they reason with the limping logic of children; they garb in long discarded styles, and they are hugely self-satisfied. They are a small but curious company and their hearthstones are in a town they are pleased to call Icaria.

If you were to scan a hundred maps you might not find the habitant of these latter-day ancients, so securely imbedded in the amber of the progressive west-world, so stubbornly reserved, amusing and so interesting. Within the borders of America there is no community more beautifully out of touch with the times, none so little in sympathy with the world at large as these isolated Icarians. Theirs is a romantic history, and this is the best chapter of it and the least familiar.

Founded on an ideal system of communism, the government of Icaria grew prosperously, waxed dangerous, and finally died of natural causes. The place and people, once well-to-do, are today existing, but profoundly asleep. A desolate dozen of wooden houses cluster around a large wooden structure, like frightened sheep huddled around the legs of a shepherd, some rudely built sheds and barns, a trembling hay rick or two and several anything but picturesque cattle yards — and there you have the bare frame of what was once the seat and cradle of a great social and political movement which numbered its adherents by the thousands, a quarter of a century back. It is a melancholy settlement in the wilderness, is this present day Icaria.

Born in the fanciful brain of one Etienne Cabet, a Frenchman, with something of the adventurer and something of the martyr in his make-up, Icaria was planned to be a communistic Utopia, the new world center of social and political perfection with improvements upon Sir Thomas More’s pretty fiction. As a place of dwelling, Icaria was to be irresistible; as a matter of fact, it proved a humbug. Cabet had a bit of talent as a writer and some success at home as a politician, but he also had a bad habit of day-dreaming and gave himself over to the idea that men and women could live perfect lives on cut-and-dried rules of conduct, if properly formulated and forcibly insisted upon. Cabet squandered sixteen years of his life in an endeavor to realize and perpetuate his dream, and found some others who believed in his airy projects. To know the truth of the Icarian movement and to understand its genesis and its transient success, it is needful to know something about the man back of it.

To this end, then, let it be known that Etienne Cabet came into the world at Dijon, France, in 1788. His school days over, he plunged into law and from his legal tomes, learned how to avoid punishment for the sins of state and society. From law to lawlessness he found was an easy transition. He became a leader of the Carbonari, got his name noised about as social fire-brand, and one day found himself a member of the French legislature. For a time he was content to remain respectable, but in an evil hour he took to his quills and ink pot and wrote a substantial history of the French revolution which students still read and praise. Finally he shamelessly established a newspaper. He was the original “yellow” journalist, it would seem, for after a few issues of his paper were put forth he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for printing a libelous article, and, with characteristic yellow journal enterprise, he evaded the penalty by escaping to England. He returned to France in 1839, and a year later he published his famous book, called “A Voyage Into Icaria.”

A Famous Book.

As for the book, the general plan and literary form were unquestionably inspired by More’s “Utopia.” But Cabet depreciated any allusion to the similarity of the two books, and declared himself a very practical person with no sympathy for the theorists and chimerical dreamers. To his lasting credit be it recorded, he had some gift for organization. To this quality of mind there were added in the personality of Cabet a cheerful disposition and a stubborn will. His “Voyage” is written in the form of a romance, undisguisedly fiction, and purports to be the diary of a young and adventurous English lord, to whose ears had come the news of an ideal community in a remote part of earth and known as Icaria. This place is minutely described as offering to its inhabitants a life perfect to the point of impossibility. His tender lordship sets out upon the quest of this remarkable country, and his journey, which terminates successfully, gives the narrative its title. After writing this volume, Cabet, in all seriousness, framed a constitution for the government or a real Icaria, and having raised ,by various means, sufficient money for his enterprise, shipped from Harve in the fore part of 1848, a company of sixty-nine persons, bound for the Red river country in Texas. Every soil of the land was hot for the establishment of Cabet’s “new terrestrial paradise.” Icaria the First Cabet remained behind. The ship Rome bore the Icarian prisoners across seas to New Orleans. Approaching this city on the 27th of March, 1848, they were surprised by the booming of many cannon on shore. But the salute was not, as the advance guards of perfection believed, intended as an honorary greeting for them; it was given by the Frenchmen of the Crescent City in celebration of the downfall of Louis Philippe and the establishment of the second republic of France.

Within a few months of their settlement in the Red river country, yellow fever broke out in the camp of Cabet’s disciples. Plague-stricken, penniless, their fervor in the social scheme they had fed upon waning to indifference, they suffered in body and mind as only men fever-racked and drunk of disappointment can suffer. Early in 1849 Cabet left France, with short funds and drooping spirits, to join his American colony. Arriving in New Orleans, he learned that his advance guard had already disorganized. He learned, too, that the Mormons, whose stronghold was in Nauvoo, Ill., had been driving from that place and had left behind them all that makes a small city habitable — tilled lands, comfortable houses, paved streets and other benefits of civilization. Cabet and his later recruits turned their steps toward Nauvoo, and there established themselves in May, 1850. Had the Icarians been a religious body they might have believed that their new home site was providentially prepared for them. Here was the foundation for an ideal community ready for them — homes awaiting occupancy, lands well cultivated with crops begging to be gathered. It was like a fairy story come true. Joseph Smith and his fellow Mormon followers had taken possession of Nauvoo in 1840, and in less than five years had turned the place from an obscure hamlet into one of the most prosperous towns of Illinois, Chicago at this time had but 4,500 inhabitants, while the number of Latter Day Saints in Nauvoo was 15,000. Fortune assuredly had smiled on the enterprise of Etienne Cabet and his people, and they were not slow to seize their golden opportunity. Icaria indeed was a realization, so far as establishment was concerned. The Cabetites lived to a mode of government all their own; they ate their meals in one great common dining hall; they lived in accord with the communal system — absolute equality, free love, free thought, free speech.

Despite the prosperity which fell to the delightful Icarians while at Nauvoo, Cabet and his leaders seemed to look upon the place as a rendezvous for later converts to their cause, it was to the higher Cabetites a simple way station on the road to the real Icaria, as yet undetermined. The evident intention of Cabet at this time was to draft recruits from the most devout of his Nauvoo followers for final settlement in a part of Iowa he had secretly prospected. The truth known, Cabet feared from the first day of his Nauvoo settlement to be driven from the spot as his predecessors, the Mormons, had been driven. With the passing of the days the numbers of the Icarians were largely augmented by immigrants of a more susceptible nature just out of France. At one time there were more than 5,000 Icarians enthusiasts in the colony. Had Cabet possessed greater business capacity than was given him, had he been more provisioned and thoughtful as a leader his power would have spread in time over the length and breadth of the state in which he was ensconsed. The Icarians proved themselves an industrious body of men and women; they tilled unceasingly, wrought at trades of various sorts, and Cabet himself set up a printing shop and published a number of books and pamphlets in French and German.

One of these pamphlets — now a literary curiousity much sought after by bibliophiles — numbered twelve pages and bore the title, “If I Had Half a Million Dollars.” It is dated at Nauvoo, 1854 and presents Cabet’s new plans and aspirations. With a fine flow of phrases he tells how with the possession of half a million dollars he would establish his commune upon a broad and generous scale. He drew some pretty word pictures of comfortable homesteads equipped with every modern convenience; of fertile farms and flourishing factories; of well arranged educational institutions, theaters, play grounds. His vision was charming, but none the less a vision, for no one came forward to proffer the needful half million. The forlorn, poverty-pinched patch of earth which marks the present day Icaria presents a dreamy, bitter contrast to the glowing description put forth by its founder of what might have been.

Image from John Martin’s Paradise Lost mezzotints on the Spaightwood Galleries website

It is a matter of history that Cabet displayed a spirit of dictatorial arrogance after a few years’ residence in Nauvoo, was finally the cause of much dissension in the society, the end being a scene of open hostility to their chief on the part of a majority of his erst-while adherents and the sudden flight of Cabet with a few sympathizers to St. Louis. The arch-Icarian, fanciful and enthusiastic to the end, died in the latter place on November 8, 1856, at the age of 69.

Meanwhile a company of Icarians betook themselves to the southwest of Iowa and the place indicated by Cabet in this last writings. The few sullen and rebellious spirits who were left in Nauvoo after the departure first of Cabet and then of his dissenters, went back to France, their illusions fled and their idol shattered. The property of the Icarians in and near Nauvoo was equally divided and sold as quickly as might be, and the one-time prosperous settlement in Illinois passed into history, much to the relief of those who lived in neighboring towns. About sixty persons settled in the Iowa tract of land and started in anew, loaded down with debt and dispirited by the ugly future. At first these martyrs to a phantom lived perforce in low mud hovels, and when they could afford to build themselves homes of logs and boards they were proud of their comparative prosperity. They lived little better than their lean cattle; they were past-masters in economy. All counted, there are sixty-five persons and eleven families in the present settlement of Icaria. About 350 acres are under cultivation but the colony has in its own right some 1,963 acres. A saw mill, a grist mill, a school house and several small stores and shops comprise what may be lightly termed the public institutions of Icaria. Six years ago the last of the original log cabins gave way to the newest frame structure. The exact location of the Icarian commune is four miles from Corning, a station on the Burlington & Missouri River railroad in Iowa.

For the most part the Icarians are French. German is known to a few of the more scholarly. The communists indulge themselves in no religious observances, though Sunday is a day of rest from toil, and with the younger element of the community is given over to amusements of various kinds. It is the maxim of each Icarian that he or she must seek pleasure, without interference in his or her own peculiar way. Marriage in now compulsory, and the family maintained in its integrity. The children are sent to the commune’s own school until they reach the age of 16. The Icarian constitution is decidedly complex and stands as it was elaborated by Cabet. Their code of ethics demands perfect equality for all. They will tolerate no kind of servitude or servants. Preponderance of opinion rules in all their forms. A president is elected in the commune every year. His powers go no further than compliance with the desires and orders of the settlement. One a week — on Saturday evenings — a meeting is held when the affairs of the community are discussed by both men and women. Besides the president, there are four directors, appointed every month. These are designated as the director of agriculture, director of general industry, director of building and director of clothing.

Such in brief is the story of the rise and fall of Icaria. In the history of remarkable communistic colonies it deserves a place apart from its fellows.

Davenport Weekly Leader (Davenport, Iowa) Oct 26, 1900

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