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Echoes of past utopian dreams

People forming a community to live simply, cooperate for fair and equal housing, grow vegetarian food and foster women's rights is not new, says a Southern Oregon University professor who will talk about the utopian movement in Britain in the 1880s.

Diana Maltz's lecture, "Simple, Beautiful, New: Counterculture in Britain, 1890-1910," will be given at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, in the Meese Auditorium in the Center for Visual Arts. The free lecture is part of SOU's Insights Distinguished Lecture Series.

Maltz will focus on a utopian group called the Fellowship of the New Life, which started in 1883 in England.

Researching the community for six years, Maltz has become an authority on the utopian movement, whose members were urban intellectuals with socialist sympathies, seeking a life of equality, erasing class boundaries, running a co-op farm and believing they could achieve self-perfection.

"They would have been sympathetic with the present movement, seeking to live simply and consume less — and would have been sympathetic with the Occupy Wall Street movement," Maltz says.

The group shunned prevailing dress codes, wore sandals and smocks for farming and spawned the Fabian Society, which helped form the British Labour Party, Maltz says.

"They were conscious of the suffering of the working class and advocated for better working conditions, paid holidays and old-age pensions," she says.

New Lifers supported peace, a vegetarian diet, co-education, women's suffrage and decolonization of the Empire. They were pioneers of the environmental movement, she notes, adding that women members sought social, economic and sexual independence.

"They insisted that living ethically must begin with our daily practices," Maltz says. "They anticipated that the compassion and brotherliness they modeled would spread beyond their circle and revolutionize all of society."

Maltz, a professor of English and writing and a specialist in late-Victorian literature and culture, will review novels by members of the movement, as well as satires written about them.

"New Lifers believed that the adoption of socialism as one's creed required nothing less than an inner conversion, and thus they promoted a custom of intense moral introspection," Maltz wrote in a statement. "They believed that their self-conscious practice of mutual kindness would produce not only a moral transformation in each of them and perfect fellowship among them, but would be a step in the regeneration of all humanity."

The group drew inspiration from Eastern religion, Marx, Tolstoy, Sufism and radical threads of Christianity, and discussed and offered proposals for many taboo subjects of the era that are now commonplace, including homosexuality, premarital cohabitation and nonviolent resistance.

Maltz has post-doctoral fellowships from the Ahmanson-Getty Foundation and the Paul Mellon Centre in London. She is author of "British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes: Beauty for the People, 1870-1914." To learn more, see http://insights.sou.edu/diana-maltz.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.