… is a very apposite title for this 1874 book by Robert Dale Owen, son of Robert Owen, the cotton magnate and social reformer. As the subtitle says, it covers the first 27 years of his life, and the word ‘Lehrjahre’ is not completely inappropriate, as part of his apprenticeship in life was spent in Switzerland, at a German-speaking school which he himself considers, in retrospect, ‘strangely Utopian and extravagant’, but of which ‘the golden memories’ will never fade.
By 1874, Owen the younger had become a New York newspaper editor and a U.S. congressman, had been instrumental in the founding of the Smithsonian Institution, an anti-slavery campaigner (later involved in drafting the 14th Amendment to the Constitution), and the U.S. Minister to the (by then faltering) Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Threading My Way goes some way towards explaining how the son of a wealthy Glasgow industrialist ended up as a convinced democrat (and Democrat), a supporter of artisanal rather than machine-driven labour, and the first published proponent of birth control in the United States.
His father, Robert Owen (1771–1858) was a remarkable man of Welsh origin, whose education ended when he was ten but who achieved a fortune as a mill manager in Manchester and then as manager and later owner of the New Lanark mills near Glasgow, founded by David Dale, another remarkable man, whose daughter he married.
The son described his father’s personality and career in riveting terms: this is not an uncritical hagiography, as so many such books from the period are. He clearly loved and admired his father, but also perceived the difficulties caused by his unswerving convictions and his tendency to be constantly viewing the big, Utopian picture rather than concerning himself with details. In particular, he deplores Owen’s belief that the way to achieve social justice is to point out that all people will benefit from working to achieve it: the failure of this theory of ‘moral selfishness’ on many occasions did not to deter him or cause him to think again.
But as the father of a family, Owen senior sounds wonderful, and young Robert’s upbringing in the Scottish countryside, paradisiacal. His efforts to save his father’s soul (his mother was intensely pious, and his lovable Dale grandfather the founder of his own Protestant sect), the disastrous outcome of his attempt to punish a bully, his idyllic time in Switzerland, and, later, the consequences of not speaking the exact truth to a Quaker, an extraordinary dinner with Jeremy Bentham, and the early years of the Utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana, are all described entertainingly but seriously, with no suggestion of mockery.
Some of his stories are given in the form of dialogues at which he could not have been present (and would not have remembered in such detail if he had), but this does not detract from a well-told and affectionate memoir. Robert Dale Owen died in 1877: one wonders if he had intended to publish a sequel about his later years in America.