Het is vandaag 110 jaar geleden dat de Nederlandse auteur Frederik Van Eeden (1860–1932) een voordracht hield in Carnegie Hall over “Practical Communism, Work and Bread”.
Rond 1900 begon Frederik Van Eeden zich in anarchistische richting te ontwikkelen. Hij was bevriend met de in Londense ballingschap verblijvende Rus Peter Kropotkin. De kolonie Walden in Bussum was een poging zijn maatschappelijke opvattingen concrete gestalte te geven. Het idee voor Walden ontleende Van Eeden aan het populaire boek Walden or Life in the Woods (1854) van de Amerikaan Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Een andere invloed was the best-seller Looking Backward, a science fiction novel (1890) by the American Edward Bellamy. This novel had made a great impression on him and caused him to realise how badly society was organised. Bellamy’s Utopian socialism, his ‘clever common sense’ and ‘cheerful optimism’, had played a significant role when in the 1890s Van Eeden developed into a committed artist.
Walden was een socialistische (tuinbouw)kolonie gebaseerd op gemeenschappelijk grondbezit. De kolonie deed ook dienst als rustoord voor psychiatrische patiënten. De opzet mislukte door zakelijk wanbeheer en verduistering door inwoners. Everyone thought that Van Eeden was beaten and had learned his lesson. It would take him years to pay off his huge debts (around 200,000 guilders) and to restore his good name. To make matters worse, his persona, life was also full of disasters: his brother committed suicide and his marriage to Martha van Vloten was dissolved.
But it was precisely at this time that he received the invitation to undertake a lecture tour of America. In December 1906 Van Eeden had received a letter from Rudolphine Scheffer Ely, a Dutchwoman who was married to Robert Erskine Ely, an American clergyman and director of a fairly influential organisation, the League for Political Education. The League numbered innumerable millionaires among its members. Van Eeden had let it be known that he would be pleased to give a series of lectures in America. Rudolphine had called on the help of her husband, who had arranged for Van Eeden to come to America. Success was guaranteed, Ely had predicted.
Van Eeden was aangekomen op 28 februari en zou tot in april blijven. On 8 March 1908 he spoke about his social ideas before an audience of 3,000 in the Carnegie Hall. The structure of his lecture was simple: first he indicated all the things that were wrong in America, then went on to describe how the country could be saved. America, a land where democracy and freedom had traditionally been so greatly valued, was, according to Van Eeden, bowed down by the tyranny of capitalism. The lecture was a success. Wealthy businessmen were interested in Van Eeden’s cooperative plans and promised funding.
A high point in his journey was his meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt. Van Eeden presented the President with a copy of The Quest, the English translation of his book De kleine Johannes (1887). Van Eeden zou later nog twee andere tournees door de VS maken.
Fontijn, Jan, The American Adventure of Frederik van Eeden, The Low Countries. Jaargang 6(1998-1999), vertaling Julian Ross.
Mooijnaer, Marianne L., ‘A Socialist Eden in North Carolina? Frederik van Eeden and his American Dreams’. In: Rob Kroes et al., The Dutch in North America. Amsterdam, 1991, pp. 282-305.