August 29, 1844– Edward Carpenter:
“I might have simply settled down into an armchair literary life. I really don’t know exactly why I didn’t.”
Gay Rights activist, socialist, feminist, pacifist, vegetarian, nudist, mystic, poet, essayist, sandal wearer… an apt description for the short biography to accompany my byline? Wrong. I would never wear sandals.
Challenging capitalism & the values of modern western civilization, Edward Carpenter had an important impact on the cultural & political landscape of the late 19th & early 20th centuries. Carpenter enjoyed lasting friendships with some of the greatest characters of his era: Walt Whitman, Robert Graves, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, Isadora Duncan & Emma Goldman. After reading Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, Carpenter blissfully visualized a world of brotherly love that would do away with class systems & bring true freedom & democracy.
Carpenter graduated from Cambridge & then held a position there once filled by Leslie Stephen, the father of writer Virginia Woolf. He gave public lectures for the working class. He didn’t like to save his best ideas for the ruling elite. In 1891, after meeting by chance on a train, he & George Merrill, an uneducated worker, became lovers. In 1898, when Carpenter was 54 years old & Merrill was just 32 years old, they set up house together, unheard of in England which was profoundly anti-gay in sentiment after the Oscar Wilde trials.
They lived openly as a couple for 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 the story Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1921).
American Gay Rights pioneer Harry Hay credited Carpenter’s writings for galvanizing him to start the first Gay Rights organization, The Mattachine Society, in LA in 1950.
Carpenter felt strongly that people tend to settle down into a single deep permanent union, but along the way they should be experiencing a variety of relationships & sexual adventures. He warned that the ideal of exclusive attachment could easily lapse into stagnant 2-way selfishness. He saw a society with love & 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 & legal unions. He believed that those sorts of relationships suffocate love. Carpenter considered sex as a good thing & not a sign or cause of human frailty & sinfulness. All Carpenter’s opinions were considered revolutionary in his era, just as they are today.
Merrill left this incarnation suddenly & 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 & 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, & contribute your part towards the building of that kingdom of love which links our earth to heaven.”
In 1967, gay Beat poet Allen Ginsburg interviewed Gavin Arthur (grandson of President Chester A. Arthur), a world traveler, adventurer, & later a San Francisco based astrologer, about his experience as a young man of 23 years old, visiting England & having sex with the 80 year old Carpenter. Carpenter told Arthur of his own sexual experience, as a 33 year old man, with the 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 means I am 6 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 a Certain Oscar Nominated, Tony Winning Producer
It is quite remarkable that Carpenter managed to avoid any public scandal or disgrace like his friend Oscar Wilde at that time. Although Carpenter made no secret of his long relationship with Merrill, he remained discreet & the couple lived in isolation in the beautiful English countryside. His controversial books avoided prosecution despite having been investigated by the morals police many times. Good karma was on Carpenter’s side.
If you want to know more, & you really should, I highly recommend Edward Carpenter: A Life Of Liberty & Love (2009) by Sheila Rowbotham.