Alma Maximiliana Karlin

Published by Katja Mihurko Poniz on

A Woman Writer Who Transcended Boundaries of Her Time

Written by Anja Polajnar, PhD student at the Graduate School, University of Nova Gorica

Alma Maximiliana Karlin (1889-1950) is known as a writer, extraordinary traveller of her time, female personality, intellectual, cosmopolitan, polyglot, translator, amateur researcher, theosophist.

In the years 1919-1927, Alma M. Karlin travelled the world like no one before her; she travelled alone, continuously for eight years, financing it by working along the way. The nature of her travel makes her one of the greatest travellers of all time. In the early 1930s she wrote a trilogy based on her voyage and experienced great success in Europe and wider. Karlin’s personal and literary legacy suggests that she did not only cross (transcend) national boundaries, but also boundaries of gender, language, national identity, religion, and the literary and ideological framework of her time.

National identity and citizenship boundaries – German, Slovenian, Austrian, Yugoslavian?

Despite Karlin’s claims to be a person “without a homeland”, she was born in 1889 in Celje, now Slovenia’s third largest city, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her parents were ethnically Slovenian, but Karlin grew up as an Austrian and spoke and wrote in German. After World War I, she became a citizen of the newly formed state of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (and later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) and after World War II, a citizen of socialist Yugoslavia. Within this situation, Karlin tried to act transnationally and pacifistically to the best of her ability, which was also reflected in her literature.

Social, gender, and patriarchic boundaries

As an independent, cosmopolitan, educated, and self-reliant woman who devoted her life to art, Karlin transcended not only the state, but also the social boundaries of the patriarchal world that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, still confined a woman to a traditional household and maternal role in the domestic, private, and passive spheres. After reaching adulthood, Karlin moved to cosmopolitan London, where she worked as a translator and language teacher, passing exams with honors in eight languages at the Royal Society of Arts. At the start of the  First World War, she found refuge in Scandinavia, where she uncompromisingly decided to persevere with a professional writing career and set out on a journey around the world.

Countries’ boundaries   – Eight- year round the world voyage

The early twenties were not favourable for a German-speaking person, let alone a woman traveling the globe alone. In November 1919, Alma M. Karlin left Celje, with her typewriter named “Erika”, to embark on her eight-year journey. She financed the travel solely through her work as a journalist, translator, interpreter and language teacher. Karlin started in Genoa heading to South America, beginning in Peru, where she struggled due to material scarcity, continuing to Panama, where she worked as an interpreter for the Panama Canal administration. Then she travelled along the coast to the United States to San Francisco and Hawaii. Karlin portrayed the time she spent in Japan very positively as she appreciated the Japanese culture, while working for the German Embassy. She continued to travel from Korea to China, past Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia and New Zealand. One of the most challenging parts of her journey, due to illness and difficult financial circumstances, was her two-year stay in the Pacific Archipelago Islands.  Staying among societies in Fiji, New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, Salomon Islands, Caroline Islands, Bismarck Islands, Moluc Islands and New Guinea resulted in two monographs.

Karlin went on to travel through Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Pakistan and on to India. After visiting the main religious and spiritual sites in India, Karlin boarded a ship at the request of her ailing mother and her poor physical condition due to malaria. She travelled along the African coast, past the Suez Canal, and returned to Celje in the end of 1927.

Literary genre   – Travelogue or autobiography? Mystical, ethnological, theosophical literature?  

When Alma Karlin returned to Celje, she gathered the material from the voyage and published a trilogy based on her journey. The Lonely Journey (Einsame Weltreise), Enchanted by the South Sea (Im Banne der Südsee), and The Experienced World (Erlebte Welt) brought her success and popularity in Europe and wider before the Second World War. The trilogy was written beyond the form of a travelogue as it focused on a person and her/his issues within different cultures, interwoven with the autobiographical elements of spiritual, anthroposophical maturation. Some portrayals of countries, people and their customs contain ethnographic elements. Karlin presents them from the European perspective of the prevailing (post)imperialist discourse on non-European cultures including stereotypes, though on the other hand she also expresses criticism towards the European culture. Her style has been characterized as lively and vivid, picturesque, focusing on women’s issues in different cultures.

Karlin later focused on writing literature of spiritual and theosophical content, in which she presented thoughts about various religions and ways of bridging them through a possible common denominator. She wrote about tolerance and a deeper understanding of the life situation of the individual. Books from this period include The Torn of Death (Der Todesdorn), The Blue Moon (Der Blaue Mond) and The Idol (Der Götze) and more, while some 40 longer texts were never published. Her opus includes 22 books printed by German, English, Finnish and Swiss publishers. She also wrote novels, poems, travelogues, short stories, popular science articles for historical-ethnological and spiritual magazines.

Ideological and political boundaries

After the journey, Alma M. Karlin lived in Celje, accompanied by her “soul sister” Thea Schreiber Gammelin, a German painter and theosophist.  In the late 1930s, the occupation period meant a new turnabout in Karlin’s life. She publicly and decidedly opposed the Nazi ideology and offered shelter to several German refugees. Subsequently her literature became prohibited in Germany, she was controlled, observed and also arrested.  Karlin later joined the partisan movement, despite her anti-communist views, but she sympathized with the fight for freedom. After the war she had to give up her property and moved into a small house in the countryside of Celje.  Karlin described her memories during the war in the monograph My Lost Poplars (Der Transport, Der Kampf mit dem Ortsgruppenführer Ewald Wrentschur, Bei  den  Partisanen ).  Afterwards, despite illness, poor health and difficult conditions, Karlin lived in the spirit of creativity and wrote until her death in 1950.

Creativity without boundaries … Immerse in the world by Alma M.  Karlin

All in all, the life and legacy of Alma M.  Karlin cannot be set into frames, as she transcended them in her time, which is fascinating, even today. If we think of her legacy in terms of an endless journey, in terms of spiritual maturation, reading her books might inspire us to reflect on current profound anthroposophical and existential questions. To fully understand the impressive literary and personal legacy of Alma Karlin, one shall immerse in her works and find answers her/himself.