August 31, 1844 – Edward Carpenter:
“I might have simply settled down into an armchair literary life. I really don’t know exactly why I didn’t.“Edward Carpenter
Gay Rights Activist, Socialist, Feminist, Pacifist, Vegetarian, Nudist, Mystic, Poet, Essayist, Sandal Wearer… an apt description for a short biography to accompany my byline? Wrong. I would never wear sandals. Ever.
Challenging Capitalism and other values of modern Western Civilization, Edward Carpenter had an important impact on the cultural and political landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He enjoyed lasting friendships with some of the greatest characters of his era: the mother of us all, Walt Whitman, plus Robert Graves, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, Isadora Duncan, and Emma Goldman.
After reading Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, Carpenter blissfully wrote about a world where he visualized a brotherly love that would do away with class systems and bring true freedom and democracy to everyone on our pretty, spinning blue orb.
Carpenter graduated from Cambridge and then held a position there once filled by Leslie Stephen, the father of writer Virginia Woolf. Unusual for his day, he gave public lectures for the working-class. He didn’t like to save his best ideas for the ruling elite. He practiced what he preached, giving away most of his money and earning a living as a sandal-maker, lecturer and journalist. His book of poetry, Towards Democracy (1883), was modeled on Whitman’s Calamus poems. It is an outright celebration of gay love:
O child of Uranus, wanderer down all times,
Yet outcast and misunderstood of men –
I see thee where for centuries thou hast walked,
Yet outcast, slandered, pointed at by the mob.
The day draws nigh when from these mists of ages
Thy form in glory clad shall reappear.
In 1891, after meeting by chance on a train, he and George Merrill, an uneducated worker, became lovers. In 1898, when Carpenter was 54 years old and Merrill was just 32, they set up house together, unheard of in England which was profoundly anti-gay in sentiment after the Oscar Wilde trials three years earlier.
Carpenter and Merrill lived openly as a couple for the next 30 years, until Merrill’s passing. Their love affair, crossing the classes, was the direct inspiration for their friend E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice (1913, published in 1971) as well as D.H. Lawrence‘s straight version of their story Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1921).
American Gay Rights pioneer Harry Hay credited Carpenter’s writings for galvanizing him to start the very first Gay Rights organization, The Mattachine Society, in California in 1950.
Carpenter felt strongly that it was natural for people to settle down into a single deep permanent union with another human, but also just as normal, that along the way they should be experiencing a variety of relationships and sexual adventures. He warned that the ideal of exclusive attachment could easily lapse into a stagnant two-way kind of selfishness. He saw a society with love and devotion between individuals without the quality of their love being defined by exclusiveness based on jealousy, a sense of the other person being private property, or social opinions, or religious and legal unions. He believed that those sorts of relationships only suffocate true love. Carpenter considered sex to be a good thing and not a sign or cause of human frailty and sinfulness. All of Carpenter’s opinions were considered revolutionary in his era, just as they are today.
His very modern ideas are all brilliantly summed up in the title of his tome, Civilization: Its Cause And Cure (1889).
Merrill once chased away a clergyman who came to their door to give them a pamphlet: Merrill said:
“Keep your tract. We don’t want it. Can’t you see we’re in heaven here? We don’t want any better than this, so go away.“
Merrill left this incarnation suddenly and unexpectedly in January 1928. In May 1928, Carpenter suffered a stroke that left him mostly helpless. He lived another 13 months before he left this world on a perfect summer afternoon, June 28, 1929, exactly 40 years before the Stonewall Riots.
In 1910 Carpenter wrote:
“I should like these few words to be read over the grave when my body is placed in the earth; for though it is possible I may be present and conscious of what is going on, I shall not be able to communicate. Do not think too much of the dead husk of your friend, or mourn too much over it, but send your thoughts out towards the real soul or self which has escaped to reach it. For so, surely you will cast a light of gladness upon his onward journey, and contribute your part towards the building of that kingdom of love which links our earth to heaven.“
In 1967, the great gay Beat poet Allen Ginsburg interviewed Gavin Arthur, the grandson of President Chester A. Arthur. G. Arthur was a world traveler, adventurer, and later a San Francisco based astrologer, who wrote about his experience as a young man of 23-years-old, visiting England and having sex with the then 80-year-old Carpenter. Carpenter told Arthur of his own sexual experience, as a 33-year-old man, with 58-year-old Walt Whitman. When the young Arthur asked how Whitman ranked as a lover, Carpenter replied: “I will show you”. The account of their night together is very sweet.
This all means that I am Six Degrees of Separation from Walt Whitman:
Whitman slept with Edward Carpenter
Edward Carpenter slept with Gavin Arthur
Gavin Arthur slept with Neal Cassady
Neal Cassady slept with Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg slept with James Dean
James Dean slept with a certain Oscar-nominated, Tony- winning producer
Stephen Rutledge slept with the certain Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning producer, and there you have it.
It is quite remarkable that Carpenter managed to avoid any public scandal or ultimate disgrace like his friend Wilde. Although Carpenter made no secret of his long relationship with Merrill, he remained discreet and the couple lived in isolation in the pretty English countryside. His controversial books avoided prosecution despite having been investigated by the morals police many times. Good karma was on Carpenter’s side.