Edward Carpenter Exhibition At the San Francisco Public Library
January 2009 saw the San Francisco Public Library mount an exhibition on Edward Carpenter curated by ECF member Joey Cain. Drawing on his collection of rare Carpenter books, photos and ephemera, Joey filled two handsome display cases to the brim. The exhibit ran for a month at the Main Library and was held in conjunction with Sheila Rowbotham's appearance at the Library in support of her biography, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love. Both the exhibit and Sheila's appearance were great successes, garnering large turn outs and very positive articles and reviews in the local press. Many thanks to the staff of the San Francisco Public Library and especially Everett Erlandson, Curator in the Office of Exhibitions and Programming and Karen Sundhiem, Program Manager for the Library's James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center for their encouragement and help in mounting the exhibition. Thanks also to the Sheffield Public Library for permission to use photos from the Edward Carpenter Archives.
One of the earliest advocates of freedom for the people he termed “Homogenic”, Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) set the stage over one hundred years ago for what would become today’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Freedom Movement. At a time when same sex loving men were imprisoned for their desire, he lived openly for nearly 40 years with his dear “boy”, George Merrill. Carpenter’s writings and life inspired several generations of homosexual people, including the novelist EM Foster, who wrote his novel Maurice after visiting him. Carpenter’s influence on Mattachine Society and Radical Fairies founder Harry Hay directly contributed to the birth of the modern LGBT movement. Even the poet Allen Ginsberg traces his gay poetic lineage back to Walt Whitman through Carpenter.
Yet Edward Carpenter in his own time was widely know as many things: a poet, socialist, critic of “Civilization”, mystic, vegetarian, rational dress advocate, anarchist, simple life advocate, women’s freedom supporter, pagan; in short, a harbinger of the many new worlds of the mind and body that were overthrowing the certainties of the Victorian era and giving birth to the Modern period. This exhibit looks at some of the worlds that Carpenter dreamed of and which, through his writings and lived example, helped to bring about.
Towards Democracy and MillthorpeEdward Carpenter was born in 1844 into an upper middle-class family in Brighton, England. While attending Cambridge University in the 1860s he discovered the writings of Walt Whitman celebrating male - male love and extolling a transcendental vision of radical democracy. Ordained a minister in the Church of England in 1870, he renounced his Orders a few years later. As part of the University Extension Movement he worked as a traveling lecturer in the industrialized North of England where he saw first hand the poverty brought upon the working masses by capitalism.
What he experienced combined with the influences of Whitman, Emerson and Ruskin, leading him to question the basic assumptions of Victorian society: property and possessions as a measure of self worth; Christianity’s setting of the spirit against the body; modern science’s complete reliance on the intellect as a way of knowing at the expense of the intuitive; “civilization’s” assumed superiority over and exploitation of “primitive” cultures; social propriety’s forbidding of the expression and fulfillment of sexual needs and the desire for love.
In 1883 Carpenter published, Towards Democracy, his book of visionary poetry.
“Towards Democracy ... has been the start point and kernel of all my later work, the center from which all the other books have radiated. Whatever obvious weaknesses and defects it may present, I have still always been aware that it was written from a different plane from the other works, from some predominant mood or consciousness superseding the purely intellectual.”
My Days and Dreams: Being Autobiographical Notes, 1916
Carpenter employed Walt Whitman’s free verse form for his own deepest feelings and would continue to add poems to the collection through 4 editions, completing it in 1905. The book became a source of inspiration and spiritual renewal for many activists in Britain’s Socialist and Anarchist movements during the first decades of the 20th Century.
Seeking a way of living that would fulfill his desires for manual work and “the absolute necessity for a more open air life”, Carpenter purchased a small land holding called Millthorpe, outside the northern city of Sheffield, England. There he worked the land as a market gardener, selling his produce in the local towns. He put into practice his ideas about creative labour and free association.
Over the next 4 decades Millthorpe would became a symbol and retreat for those who were inspired by the way of life that Carpenter, his friends and lovers developed there: manual work on the land, equality and honesty in personal relations, a 'simplification of life', vegetarianism, a rejection of soul deadening consumerism and the breaking down of class distinctions.
Socialism and the New Life
When not market gardening, Carpenter worked as a Socialist activist in the industrial city of Sheffield. A center for steel manufacturing in England, Sheffield was a city ravaged by pollution & poverty, a glaring example of the class inequality wrought by capitalism.
Carpenter’s lectures and articles in socialist periodicals though out the 1880s gained him a following amongst the radicalized intelligentsia debating poverty, class inequality, sexual relations, new ethical codes and alternative spiritualities. These radicals sought to transform themselves and create a “New Life” in order to bring about the social revolution. Carpenter appealed to them with his advocacy of a “larger socialism”, one that embraced the liberation of the emotional and spiritual life along with the economic.
Philosophically sympathetic to Anarchism, he worked with all the elements of the socialist movement, believing “we are all on the same road” to a society free of exploitation and domination, whether that domination be of capitalist over worker, men over woman, humans over nature or the spiritual over the body. Carpenter put his ideas into practice in his own life, helping to start several important Socialist organizations, papers and a publishing company. His form of ‘ethical socialism' became a vehicle for a whole series of idealistic campaigns including efforts to stop air pollution, promote vegetarianism and oppose vivisection and cruelty to animals.
Consciousness and Evolution
Edward Carpenter believed that there were,
This idea of a new consciousness evolving formed the bedrock of Carpenter’s life and work. Through his writings he attempted to explore the who, what, when and how of this emerging state of consciousness. It led him to the study of religions, particularly Hinduism and European paganism. In 1890 he traveled to India and Ceylon and spent time with a Gnani, or teacher. He delved into pre-christian myths and rituals as sources for understanding of the unconscious.
Sex Radicalism and Homogenic Love
Since the day in 1869 when he first read Walt Whitman’s poems espousing the “life-long love of comrades”, Edward Carpenter had dreamed of being part of a group of Loving Comrades with whom to share his life and “move the world”. He began to make that dream manifest in the 1880’s when he moved to his farm, Millthorpe.
It was in 1886 that his first great love entered his life, a razor-grinder named George Hukin whom he met through the Sheffield Socialist movement. Even after Hukin married and Carpenter was living with another man, they remained extremely close and intimate. Next was a man named George Adams, who lived with Carpenter at Millhorpe. Another, a socialist comrade named Alf Mattison from Leeds. But all of these relationships were with men whose sexuality was ambiguous and who eventually married.
Then, in 1892 while traveling home on a train, Carpenter and the man who was to become his constant Comrade for the next 36 years exchanged glances. George Merrill, like Carpenter, had been sexually drawn to men all his life. Unlike Carpenter, he had grown up in the working class slums of Sheffield, had held a series of different jobs, and was sexually sure of himself from an early age. The two began a relationship and in 1898 George Merrill moved in with Carpenter at Millthorpe. They were to live together in a loving but non-monogamous partnership until George’s death in 1928. Drawing other same-sex loving men and women to Millthorpe, they provided inspiration, comradeship and a living example of sexual freedom that crossed the rigid class boundaries of the time.
At the same time as his relationship with Merrill was developing, Carpenter started writing the pamphlets and books that would lay the early intellectual ground work for the birth of today’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Freedom Movement.
Edward Carpenter died a year after George Merrill, on June 28th, 1929, exactly 40 years to the day before the first rock was thrown at police outside the Stonewall Bar in New York City, sparking the riot that would lead to the ongoing fulfillment of his dream.
Throughout 1894 Carpenter wrote a series of pamphlets that brought the issue of sex out of hiding and into open discussion. In them he challenged the sexual and emotional limits placed on women and men by Victorian society. The pamphlets dealing with opposite sex passion and love were published in 1896 as Love’s Coming of Age: A Series of Papers on the Relations of the Sexes. The book sold in the hundreds of thousands, becoming Carpenter’s most successful book. It influenced both left wing activists and the emerging women’s movement around the world by providing a starting point for an honest and frank discussion of the relationship between the sexes.
Among the series of pamphlets on sex that Carpenter wrote in 1894, one was so radical it could not be published with his other writing on sex. That pamphlet was Homogenic Love and It’s Place in a Free Society. Carpenter relied on history, anthropology and science to advance his ideas that Homogenic people not only contributed to the health of society, but had a unique role in the ongoing evolution of humanity. Using the skills gained as a socialist activist and writer, Carpenter proposed that homosexuals were part of the struggle for individual freedom and rights, the same as women and the working class.
Though dated 1894, Homogenic Love appeared in the fateful year of 1895, just months before the very public trials and imprisonment of the poet and play write Oscar Wilde on the charge of ‘Gross Indecency’, stemming from his homosexual relationships. The anti-gay hysteria generated by the trials made it especially difficult to advocate for same-sex love. Undaunted by that fear and reaction, Carpenter published another pamphlet, An Unknown People in 1897. In this work he challenged the assumed binary gender roles imposed on men and women. Drawing once again on history, anthropology and science, he looked at individuals who combined varying elements of masculine and feminine, the Intermediate Types as he call them, and what their characteristics and contributions to society were.
Iolaus; An Anthology of Friendship, published in 1902 in both England and the United States, was the first collection of its kind to trace the history of passionate same-sex friendships from ancient to modern times with the deliberate intention of tracing a “Homogenic” history. The book became a token of love among same-sex loving people, discreetly inscribed and given by lovers to their beloved. In some circles it was known as ‘the bugger’s bible”.
Appearing 100 years ago, 1908’s The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Woman, incorporated Carpenter’s two earlier pamphlets plus more. It was first translated and released in Germany, under the title Das Mittelgeschlect, a year before finding a British publisher willing to bring it out. Once published however, the English edition would go through 6 printings between publication and 1930, becoming one of the largest selling and best know works on the subject. Published in the USA in 1912, the young Harry Hay found it in a locked case in the LA Public Library in 1922 and read it. It contributed to his ideas about homosexuals; ideas that would eventually lead him to start the Mattachine Society in 1950 and found the modern phase of the Gay Movement.
1914’s study, Intermediate Types among Primitive Folks: a Study in Social Evolution continued Carpenter’s research into the social roles performed by Intermediate Types in various cultures. He identified several distinct roles and the preponderance of his evidence lead him to explore two in greater depth: the religious (priest, wizard, witch, inventor of arts and crafts) and the warrior.
Carpenter was to write two more works dealing with same-sex affection. The 1924 pamphlet, Some Friends of Walt Whitman: a Study In Sex Psychology was based on a lecture he gave at the British Society for the Study of Sex-Psychology. He had helped found the Society which was dedicated to addressing sexuality, and especially homosexuality, in an enlightened way. The other work was co-written a year later and explored the bi-sexuality of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley entitled, The Psychology of the Poet Shelley.
Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, Gavin Arthur, Neil Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg:
A San Francisco Connection
Edward Carpenter was seen as a prophet by many in the early 20th century. One who viewed him so was a young American man named Chester Allen Arthur, who went by the name Gavin Arthur and was the grandson of President Chester A. Arthur. The 24 year old Gavin made a pilgrimage to see Carpenter, then in his 80’s, in 1924. Arthur later wrote an account of his visit in which he describes spending the night with Edward and their sexual intimacy. At one point after their love making, Gavin asked if this was what he had done with Walt Whitman, whom Carpenter had visited. Carpenter answered in the affirmative.
In the 1940’s Gavin Arthur moved to San Francisco where he was a well known astrology teacher and became a favorite news item for legendary daily columnist Herb Caen. In the early 1960s he befriended and become a spiritual teacher or guru to the Beat Generation luminary Neil Cassidy and his wife Carolyn. In an interview in Gay Sunshine magazine in 1973, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg traced back a line of poetic tantric sexual transmission from himself, who had slept with Neil Cassidy, “who slept with Gavin Arthur, who slept with Edward Carpenter, who slept with Whitman".
Added thanks to Everette Erlandson for the photos of exhibit case 1 and 2.