Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Carpenter, Edward [1844-1929]
Author:
Kantrowitz, Arnie
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Like Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter was an inspirational writer. Carpenter gave up the advantages of an affluent family and Cambridge education to live openly as a homosexual with his lover George Merrill among the workers of Sheffield in the north of England. He was a socialist who spoke out for the labor movement and for women's rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but he was also a student of sexuality, especially of homosexuality. His work in that field and the spiritual side to his writing were both influenced by Walt Whitman.

Carpenter's writings include Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure (1889), an appreciation of the virtues of pre-industrial cultures; Love's Coming of Age (1895), a commentary on feminism and free love; and Towards Democracy (1905), a poetic and spiritual summons to human improvement. He examined his own experience in My Days and Dreams (1890). In The Intermediate Sex (1908) and Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk (1919), he explored homosexuality as an instinctive behavior which premodern societies incorporated openly into their religious and cultural lives. Since there was no vocabulary for homosexuality at the time, Carpenter used the term "Uranian" to discuss the phenomenon, an allusion to the sky god Uranus. 

Although Whitman was not a socialist, his writing had a profound effect on Carpenter, who made the long trip to America primarily as a pilgrimage to his literary and spiritual inspiration. He visited the poet for several weeks in 1877 and again in 1884. In 1906 he published an account of his visits to America, Days with Walt Whitman, writing a respectful, even somewhat glorified, portrait of his idol. 

It was not until the 1966 publication of a memoir by Gavin Arthur entitled The Circle of Sex that the intimate details of Carpenter's visits were revealed. Arthur slept in bed with Carpenter, who was an old man at the time, and described a gentle body-stroking with the hands, which led not to a spilling of seed, but to "a far more intense orgasm of the whole nervous system, in which oneself, as a unit, reunites with the Whole" (Arthur 135). When Arthur asked Carpenter if that had been his experience with Whitman, Carpenter assented (Arthur 136), leaving us with our only description of Whitman's sexual behavior, an area otherwise shrouded in mystery and controversy.

In his emulation of Whitman, Carpenter became one of the first of many disciples, spreading Whitman's message into another country and another century.

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Arthur, Gavin. The Circle of Sex. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1966.

Carpenter, Edward. Days with Walt Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1906.

Grieg, Noel. Introduction. Edward Carpenter: Selected Writings. By Edward Carpenter. Vol. 1. London: GMP, 1984. 10–77.


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