1844-08-29

EDWARD CARPENTER, English socialist poet anthologist, early gay theorist, activist, and socialist philosopher, was born on this date (d: 1929); Perhaps Gay Pride ought to consider claiming another week, this one. Ulrichs and Carpenter, both born this week, are two of the founding philosophers of the LGBT Rights Movement.

A leading figure in late 19th and early 20th century Britain, Carpenter was instrumental in the foundation of the Fabian Society and the Labor Party. A poet and writer, he was a close friend of Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore, corresponding with many famous figures such as Annie Bessant, Isadore Duncan, Havelock Ellis, Roger Fry, Mahatma Gandhi, James Keir Hardie, J.K. Kinney, Jack London, George Merrill, E.D. Morel, William Morris, E.R. Pease, John Ruskin and Olive Schrener.  In this writers humble opinion, along with Walt Whitman, this man’s date of birth should be a recognized holiday in the LGBT community.

As a philosopher Carpenter may have been the original Radical Faerie. He is particularly known for his publication of Civilization, its Cause and Cure in which he proposes that civilization is a form of disease that human societies pass through. Civilizations, he says, rarely last more than a thousand years before collapsing, and no society has ever passed through civilization successfully. His ‘cure’ is a closer association with the land and greater development of our inner nature. Although derived from his experience of Hindu mysticism, and referred to as ‘mystical socialism’, his thoughts parallel those of several writers in the field of psychology and sociology at the start of the twentieth century, such as Boris Sidis, Sigmund Freud, and Wilfred Trotter who all recognized that society puts ever increasing pressure on the individual, which can result in mental and physical illnesses such as neurosis, and the particular nervousness which was then described as neurasthenia.

A strong advocate of sexual freedom, living in a Gay community near Sheffield, he had a profound influence on both D H Lawrence and E M Forster. He was also the first person to introduce the wearing of sandals into Britain.

In the 1880s Carpenter developed an intellectual passion for Hindu mysticism and Indian philosophy. During this period, Carpenter received a pair of sandals from a friend in India. “I soon found the joy of wearing them,” Carpenter wrote. “And after a little time I set about making them.”This was the first successful introduction of sandals to Britain. In 1890 he traveled to Ceylon and India to spend time with the Hindu teacher called Gnani, who he describes his work “Adam’s Peak to Elephanta”. The experience had a profound effect on his social and political thought. Carpenter began to believe that Socialism should not only concern itself with man’s outward economic conditions, but also affect a profound change in human consciousness. In this new stage of society Carpenter argued that mankind would return to a primordial state of simple joy:

“The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon.”  Edward Carpenter (1889), Civilization: Its Cause and Cure.

This brand of “Mystical socialism” inspired him to begin a number of campaigns against air pollution, promoting vegetarianism and opposing vivisection.

On his return from India in 1891, he met George Merrill, a working class man also from Sheffield, and the two men struck up a strong relationship, eventually moving in together as lovers in 1898. Merrill had been raised in the slums of Sheffield and had no formal education. Two men of different classes living together as a couple was almost unheard of in England in the 1890s, a fact made all the more extraordinary by the hysteria about homosexuality generated by the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895 and the Criminal Law Amendment Bill passed a decade earlier “outlawing all forms of male homosexual contact”. But their relationship endured and they remained partners for the rest of their lives. The love of the two men, not only defied Victorian sexual mores but also the highly stratified British class system. Their partnership in many ways reflected Carpenter’s cherished conviction that homosexual love had the power to subvert class boundaries. It was his belief that at sometime in the future homosexual people would be the cause of radical social change in the social conditions of man. Carpenter remarks in his work “The Intermediate Sex“,

“Eros is a great leveler. Perhaps the true Democracy rests, more firmly than anywhere else, on a sentiment which easily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affection the most estranged ranks of society. It is noticeable how often Uranians of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way, which although not publicly acknowledged have a decided influence on social institutions, customs and political tendencies”. p.114-115

(Note: The term “Uranian”, referring to a passage from Plato’s Symposium, was often used at the time to describe someone who would be termed “homosexual” or “gay” today.)

The 1890s saw Carpenter produce his finest political writing in a concerted effort to campaign against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. He strongly believed that homosexuality was a natural orientation for people of a third sex. His 1908 book on the subject, The Intermediate Sex, would become a foundational text of the LGBT movements of the 20th century. It can only speculated why Carpenter felt compelled to embark on such an unpopular and even dangerous subject in such hostile times, but one theory is that Carpenter’s moral courage was ignited by the death of the gay scholar and middle-class radical John Addington Symonds. In the 1880s Symonds had composed a number of works in defense of homosexuality, which were distributed among a small group of people, including Carpenter. On Symonds’ death in 1893, Carpenter perhaps saw the political mantle passing to him and within a couple of years made his first attempt to write on the subject. While engaged in this campaign Carpenter developed a keen interest in progressive education, especially providing information to young people on the topic of sexual education, and was a good friend of John Haden Badley, the social reformer and educationalist and would regularly visit BedalesSchool when his nephew Alfred Francis Blakeney was a student there.

Sexual education for Carpenter also meant forwarding a clear analysis of the ways in which sex and gender were used to oppress women, contained in Carpenter’s radical work “Love’s Coming-of-Age”. In it he argued that a just and equal society must promote the sexual and economic freedom of women. The main crux of his analysis centered on the negative affects of the institution of marriage. He regarded marriage in England as both enforced celibacy and a form of prostitution. He did not believe women would truly be free until a socialist society was established. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, however, this led him to conclude that all oppressed workers should support women’s emancipation, rather than to subordinate women’s rights to male worker’s rights. He remarked

“…there is no solution except the freedom of woman-which means, of course, the freedom of the masses of the people, men and women, and the ceasing altogether of economic slavery. There is no solution which will not include the redemption of the terms free women and free love to their true and rightful significance. Let every woman whose heart bleeds for the sufferings of her sex, hasten to declare herself and to constitute herself, as far as she possibly can, a free woman”

He continued to work in the early part of the 20th century composing works on the “Homogenic question”. The publication in 1908 of his groundbreaking anthology of poems, Iolaus – Anthology Of Friendship was a huge underground success, leading to a more advanced knowledge of homoerotic culture. In April 1914, Carpenter and his friend Laurence Houseman founded the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. Some of the topics addressed in lecture and publication by the society included: the promotion of the scientific study of sex; a more rational attitude towards sexual conduct and problems and questions connected with sexual psychology (from medical, juridical, and sociological aspects), birth control, abortion, sterilization, venereal diseases, and all aspects of prostitution. At this time, he also lectured to the Independent Labor Party and to the Fellowship of the New Life, from which the Fabian Society later grew.

In May 1928 Carpenter suffered a paralytic stroke rendering him almost helpless. He lived another 13 months before he died on a perfect summer afternoon, Friday June 28, 1929. On December 30, 1910 Carpenter had written:

“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…”

Unfortunately the existence of his request was not discovered until several days after his burial. The closing words form the epitaph engraved on his tombstone:

“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.”

He was interred in Mount Cemetery at Guildford in Surrey. At the time of his death, Carpenter was largely forgotten, but his books were stocked in many libraries’ “restricted to adults” sections and proved inspirational to Gay people searching for solace. One such man was the Gay Rights activist Harry Hay. He was so inspired by the work of Carpenter and his prophecy of the coming together of homosexuals to fight for their rights that he decided to put the words into action by founding the Mattachine Society which started advancing homosexual rights in America.