Monday musings on Australian literature: Utopia, Paraguay and Australian writers

The workingman's paradise (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

The workingman’s paradise (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

Utopia, Paraguay, Australia? I’m referring, of course, as many Australians will know, to the Utopian colony, New Australia or Colonia Nueva Australia, which was established in Paraguay in 1893 by the New Australia Movement, with the support of the Paraguayan government. This movement was founded by William Lane, whose novel The workingman’s paradise I reviewed quite early in this blog. The settlement did not succeed. According to Wikipedia (linked to above), conflict started early “over prohibition of alcohol, relations with the locals and Lane’s leadership”. Colonist Tom Westwood is quoted as saying, “I can’t help feeling that the movement cannot result in success if that incompetent man Lane continues to mismanage so utterly as he has done up to the present”. Oh dear.

The settlement has been written about by historians (Gavin Souter’s A Peculiar People and Anne Whitehead’s Paradise Mislaid) and at least one novelist, Michael Wilding‘s The Paraguayan Experiment. Australian travel writer Ben Stubbs has written about his trip to talk to “remnants” of that settlement in his Ticket to paradise: A journey to find the Australian colony in Paraguay among Nazis, Mennonites and Japanese beekeepers. Several musicians have also written songs about it, according to Wikipedia.

Mary Gilmore, 1927 (Public Domain, at State Library of QLD, via Wikipedia)

Mary Gilmore, 1927 (Public Domain, at State Library of QLD, via Wikipedia)

So why am I mentioning all this now? Well, it has to do with those creative Griffyns and their last concert for the year, titled The Utopia Experiment, which is inspired by this settlement. I’ve known, of course, all year that it was coming up, but an article in today’s Canberra Times, which reminded me of other (contemporary) literary links besides Lane, encouraged me to write this post. The main link is Dame Mary Gilmore (née Mary Jean Cameron) who, in the first half of the twentieth century, was regarded Australia’s greatest woman poet. According to NSW’s Migration Heritage Centre website, she said of Lane’s The workingman’s paradise that:

 the whole book is true and of historical value as Lane transcribed our conversations as well as those of others.

Gilmore, in fact, became one of the 200-odd settlers, but returned after 5 years. She said in an interview over 60 years later that:

It was purely communistic. I wouldn’t say it was a success, but I certainly wouldn’t say it was a failure. The reason it had to break up, or disappear, is because William Lane would only have British people in it…

The aforementioned Anne Whitehead has written a book specifically on Gilmore’s Paraguayan story, Bluestocking in Patagonia: Mary Gilmore’s quest for love and Utopia at the world’s end, suggesting, says reviewer Sarah Macdonald, that Gilmore joined the settlers as much in search of a prospective husband as for the socialist ideal. Perhaps so, but she must have been looking for a particular type of husband to take such a trip!

A 1911 newspaper article quotes Renmark Pioneer editor, who knew Gilmore at the time, as stating that she:

joined the Cosme Colony in Paraguay, where a number of us, under the leadership of William Lane, were giving communism a trial. We were at that time a very happy family, and Mary Gilmore entered into the life whole-heartedly. She rendered good service to the colony, not only taking charge of the school (thereby releasing the former teacher, John Lane, for work in the fields), but doing much to add to the success of the social gatherings that were a marked feature in the life of our little community.

Mary Gilmore went on to live a long and highly productive life, dying in 1962 when she was 97. She was a socialist and activist, a poet and journalist, who argued for better conditions for working women, children and indigenous Australians. (Critic A.G. says in the Age in 1941 that “Her association with the early days of the Australian Labor movement has deepened and widened her social outlook … she speaks especially for the “little” people”).

Her Paraguay experience followed her for the rest of her life, as the National Library of Australia’s Trove reveals. Here is a description of her in a 1923 newspaper, Melbourne’s Advocate, when she would have been 58:

Mrs. Gilmore, who was one of the band that went to Paraguay with the late William Lane on the New Australia adventure, is a proven Irish sympathiser as well as a good Australian.

“A proven Irish sympathiser as well as a good Australian”. What I love about reading old newspapers is the insight they give into the thinking and values of the times.

The literary links don’t end here, however, because Gilmore was very keen for that other great Australian poet-writer of the time, Henry Lawson, to join the settlers. Certainly Lawson had the appropriate socialistic leanings. In 1893, he wrote a poem, “Something better” supporting the Paraguayan vision:

Give a man all earthly treasures – give him genuine love and pelf* —
Yet at times he’ll get disgusted with the world and with himself;
And at times there comes a vision in his conscience-stricken nights,
Of a land where “Vice” is cleanly, of a land of pure delights;
And the better state of living which we sneer at as “ideal”,
Seems before him in the distance — very far, but very real.

However, he didn’t join the settlers.

I could explore these two writers more, but life is busy right now – and, you never know, I might return to the subject after the Griffyns have presented their musical version.

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Utopia, Paraguay and Australian writers

  1. I completed a single unit course at UoSydney in 1985 – Australian Lit. III. Teachers included Leonie Kramer, Peter Kirkpatrick, Ivor Indyk. On one occasion Michael Wilding gave a guest lecture. Around that time I listened to an interview in which a very elderly man from Cosme in Paraguay spoke – born there, never been to Australia – but you would have sworn he had been born and raised here – in an early 20th-century rural location – dry, laconic, unsophisticated of accent. It was a shock to me in some ways – a period when I had lived in Spain in the immediate aftermath of Franco seeming to be some kind of reverse equivalence. I wrote a letter and a reply came back. Thirty years ago. It lies somewhere amongst my possessions – every now and then I come across it as I sift and sort.

    • Fascinating Jim … seems that there remains today the remnants of those people. We talk about Chinese Australians or Japanese Americans, but it didn’t occur to me that there might be people called Australian Paraguayans.

  2. The whole urge to create a utopia is a fascinating one and that so many have tried and failed makes for interesting reading. Looking forward to hearing about the musical performance!

  3. Nice post. The Paraguay colony is worthy of all these explorations and more. I just “ran into” Mary Gilmore last week. I’m immersed in 1916, and found a breezy article written by her for the Australian Worker – Katharine Susannah Prichard had visited her in Sydney before heading off to the opal fields in northern NSW to research what became Black Opal. She seems a fascinating character.

    • I think Gilmore is Nathan. I’ve been wanting to do more on her. I think she was out of favour by the time I studied at school and Uni, but I keep bumping up against her, including having some correspondence by her.

  4. An excellent literary tour through Utopia,WG. I know I have at least one of the books you mentioned in the 8 boxes that make up my TBR, I’ll have to move it closer to the top.

    • Thanks Bill – it’s a start anyhow. I look forward to seeing you discuss it one day. Will read your latest post – which is a topic that interests me in the next day or so. My TO DO list is HUGE at present with AGMS, events etc. But, I’ll get to it pronto.

      • Utopia in Paraguay sounds a fascinating concept. I had not heard about the New Australia colony there and shall look it up. I’m very suspicious of Utopias but feel a bit sad that there seems to be less room for them these days!

  5. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that interest in the Paraguayan experiment and such has returned these days. We are less open-hearted now about socialism and communism (naive is too simple) but we’ve had thirty-odd years of the swing in the other direction and people are beginning to see that that’s not the way either, what with the phenomenal growth of inequality, the deterioration of vital public services and the rampant, soulless consumerism with its hefty contribution to the threat to our planet. A complex but necessary subject I think, MG.

    • Now that’s why I love your commenting on my blog, Sara. You always add a wider and interesting political perspective. The older I get, it seems, the more I see that life seems to be more about repeating patterns than obvious progress, though I’d like to think it’s a bit of two steps forward, one step back, rather than equal swinging backwards and forwards with no real inroads made into more humane values. (Did that make any sense at all in terms of what you said? I hope so!)

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