We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
At the turn of the twentieth century, in Europe and in the United States, in the unfashionable quarters of Paris, Vienna, London, and New York, a generation of artists, intellectuals, journalists, and social theorists arose for whom the words “free” and “new” had attained the status of holy writ. For these women and men of radical temperament, the idea of a revolution in cultural consciousness had gradually become a pressing need and now an extravagant demand. “Free speech, free thought, free love. New morals, new ideas, New Women”—one version or another of these phrases became crusading slogans among cultural radicals in the major cities of the West.
A great refusal was filling the air, out of which was being born a shared sense of self that made art and transgression and politics seem—as they always do in times of social rebellion—interchangeable agents of what was now badly wanted: a new day in the “living-of-life as well as in politics,” as the American journalist Max Eastman put it.Experience was king. To experience oneself through unimpeded sexual adventure, alarmingly bold conversation, extreme eccentricity of dress; to routinely declare oneself free to not marry or make a living, have children, or vote—these became the conventions of modernist radicalism. Many of these social rebels considered themselves Marxist sympathizers but, remarkably, they advocated a theory of socialism that placed individual consciousness at the center of history. Ordinary people were beginning to think that what was going on inside themselves was as, if not more, important than what was going on outside.
Among the most influential of the turn-of-the-century modernists was an Englishman whose life embodies the cultural revolution that characterized his moment. Unlike the names of other modernists that have become iconic—from Sigmund Freud to Emma Goldman to Virginia Woolf—his has long languished in historical obscurity. Now, however, with the publication last year of Sheila Rowbotham’s impressive biography, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, we have a richly informative account of a man whose mind and spirit are, perhaps, even more resonant today than they were during the world-changing time in which he labored to achieve a value system that would place inner liberation firmly at its center. The story of Carpenter’s life is not only a striking tale of social courage, it is also a brilliant example of how modernism itself accumulated in one crucial sensibility.
Edward Carpenter was born in 1844 in Brighton, England into a large (ten children) middle-class family whose household life was governed by money, propriety, and some small amount of social ambition. The Carpenters enjoyed luxurious circumstances in Brighton because the seaside resort had become “smart,” and because they had a large legacy that had been put to work, mainly in foreign investments. They lived blithely off unearned capital, a condition newly enabled by the industrial age. For the Carpenters, as Rowbotham tells us, the return on their investments “appeared only as figures on a balance sheet.” In later years the way in which those figures got there tormented Edward, especially the figures derived from American railway investments. When he thought of the immigrant poor of America, who laid the railway tracks from one end of the continent to the other, he could only conclude despairingly that his parents’ life was based on an immorality.
For as long as he could remember, Edward had hated it all: the money, the privilege, the repulsive smartness of Brighton. Apparently he was the only one in the family who did. The others may have had mixed feelings about the state into which they had been born, but they could live with it. Edward, as it turned out, could not. That is the story of every radical’s beginnings, but as this is the story of a modernist radical’s beginnings, it is not the whole story. It was not just the money and the middle-class vulgarity that made Edward feel “different” from the rest of the family.
“At the age of eight or nine,” he wrote years later,
and long before distinct sexual feelings declared themselves, I felt a friendly attraction toward my own sex, and this developed . . . into a passionate sense of love, which . . . never found any expression for itself till I was fully twenty years of age.
Unable to express, much less explore, his true sexual nature, he found himself “cut off from the understanding of others,” felt himself “an outcast,” and “with a highly loving and clinging temperament, was intensely miserable.” His illicit desires, he confided to the sexologist Havelock Ellis, had made him feel that he harbored a monstrous self that, at all costs, must be kept hidden.
Carpenter entered Cambridge University at the age of twenty, little dreaming that he would not leave it before he was thirty. These were his “apprentice” years, so to speak: the years in which he would slowly learn who he really was, and prepare to act on what he had learned. Two things happened at Cambridge that proved crucial to his enterprise: he was offered a university fellowship, and he read Walt Whitman.
In 1868 the acceptance of a university fellowship meant taking orders in the Church of England. Edward had not contemplated an academic life, and he certainly wasn’t a believer, but he was tempted by the life of prestige and comfort that the fellowship was sure to deliver. Then, within the year, a friend gave him a copy of “Leaves of Grass,” the remarkable collection of American poems that openly adored the senses, exalted the life of the body, insisted on the place of the individual in nature, and hinted strongly at same-sex passion. For Edward, as for thousands of others, the book came as revelation. No one had ever written like this—at least no one alive and writing in English. He felt puzzled, alarmed, immensely excited. “I could not really make the book out,” he said years later. “What made me cling to the little blue book from the beginning was largely the poems which celebrate comradeship” (for which read “homosexual love”).
Carpenter sought a democracy that was a new way of being human, a new manner of encountering others’ glorious sexual aliveness as a means of freeing the spirit.
In 1870 Carpenter was ordained an Anglican clergyman and took up his duties as a Cambridge don. But Whitman haunted him. Living as Carpenter did, with his deepest self under wraps, he more and more came to feel himself a fraud—especially when delivering the sermons in church, which, no matter how progressive the content, made the discrepancy between his inner and outer lives palpable. He began not only to feel the pain of that discrepancy acutely, but to see the meaning of his hidden life—the injustice of its social ostracism—and to feel growing within him a deepening empathy with all upon whom like injustices were inflicted. A vision of a society classless in more ways than one opened before him: a society where all human beings were politically equal and socially acceptable. The vision became compelling. On his way home from a vacation in France in 1873, Carpenter came to a sudden realization about himself. “I . . . must somehow go and make my life with the mass of the people and the manual workers,” he said. Soon after, he left the university to begin working in the north as a teacher in the newly established Cambridge University Extension Movement: one of England’s first programs of adult education for the provincial working class.
It was, Rowbotham tells us, “as if he had arrived in another country.” The filthy manufacturing towns (Leeds, Sheffield, Hull), the gorgeous countryside, the brutal over-directness of working class people—all came as a shock and, unexpectedly, a force for emancipation. Here, at last, his sexual nature was released, and his lifelong passion for working class men flowered. Here, too, his feeling intelligence grew by leaps and bounds, and he soon discovered that to sleep with a beautiful young man was indeed to experience joy, but in the end the experience brought only release. He felt no more centered in himself after making love than before.
One day, one of his Sheffield Extension students, a scythe-maker, invited him to visit the farm on which he and his family and a fellow student lived and worked. When Carpenter got there, the men were hard at it (perhaps pitching hay), and, on impulse, he joined in. As he worked, he found himself draining out. The anxieties, the tensions, the conflicting desires he struggled with all day long—how to connect with the working class, secure his job, sleep with men—all began to recede. Above all, he began to feel his monstrous self dissolving. Hour by hour he felt not only calmer but, more to the point, clarified. Suddenly, he understood how one’s divided will could cohere, mixed feelings could resolve themselves, the circumstance in which one lived could simplify. Before the day was out, he was irrevocably in love with physical labor and the rural life. Remarkably, the feeling did not fade; in fact, it grew stronger. Even more remarkably, Carpenter was prepared to act on it. He told his Sheffield students that “the culmination of all expression is Simplicity, to say what you want, neither more nor less” (emphasis in original). The key to a good life was “singleness, directness, ease, naturalness.” He quit teaching, left the city, and went to live in a cottage near the scythe maker and his family.
His friends thought him mad, and he had difficulty explaining the turn he had taken, but he had had an epiphany. The ability to recognize one’s actual experience—to take it in and act on it—had electrified him. He saw what modernists everywhere were seeing: that a world that had more faith in feeling than in reason was worth struggling for. “Now,” Rowbotham writes, “he was seeing beauty everywhere and, when he paused in the lanes or the fields, he could sense a possibility of unbounded freedom and gladness.” Out of this fullness of heart, he began to write. What emerged, ultimately, was Towards Democracy, a long prose poem that to this day remains Carpenter’s signature work: the work that 40 years and twenty books would be spent elaborating on.
To read Towards Democracy today is to see Edward Carpenter in his entirety: the nature of his vision, the quality of his mind, the character of his spirit—and, alas, the embarrassment of his rhetoric.
The narrator in the poem dreams of a future of physical and spiritual one-ness:
I conceive a millennium on earth—a millennium not of riches, or of mechanical facilities, nor of intellectual facilities, nor absolutely of immunity from disease, nor absolutely of immunity from pain; but a time when men and women all over the earth shall ascend and enter into relation with their bodies—shall attain freedom and joy.
His head, however, is not in the clouds; he sees the England of his day clearly:
O England, do I not know thee—as in a nightmare strangled, tied and bound?
Thy poverty—when through thy filthy courts, from tangles of matted hair gaunt women with venomous faces look upon me? . . .
When I turn from this and consider throughout the length and breadth of the land . . . the insane greed of riches—of which poverty and its evils are but the necessary obverse and counterpart;
When I see the deadly Respectability sitting at its dinner table, quaffing its wine, and discussing the rise and fall of stocks; when I see the struggle, the fear, the envy, the profound infidelity . . . in which the moneyed classes live . . .
Yet, the narrator’s dream ends with a heroic invocation of what a future made in the image of a democracy of the soul could bring:
O kisses of sun and wind, tall fir-trees and moss-covered rocks! O boundless joy of Nature on the mountain tops—coming back at last to you! . . .
O every day sweet and delicious food! Kisses to the lips of sweet-smelling fruit and bread, milk and green herbs. Strong, well-knit muscles, quick-healing, glossy skin, body for kisses all over! . . .
For the taste of fruit ripening warm in the sun, for the distant sight of the deep liquid sea. . . .
For the touch of the air on my face, or creeping over my unclothed body, for the rustling sound of it in the trees, and the appearance of their thin tall stems springing so lightly from the earth!
Joy, joy, and thanks for ever!
The democracy that Carpenter sought, Rowbotham tells us, “was neither political nor economic, but a new way of being human, a new manner of encountering others.” Much of this is code for experiencing the natural glories of sexual aliveness as a means of freeing the spirit in service to a universal sense of human comradeliness.
It was the way Carpenter lived, rather than anything he wrote, that ultimately transformed the sensibility of the contemporary world.
He bought a piece of land deep in the countryside not far from Sheffield, and in the summer of 1883 built a two story, gray stone house called Millthorpe Cottage. Here he began the practice of “simplification” for which he was soon known far and wide: manual labor, loose clothing, vegetarianism, the making and wearing of sandals; and, oh yes, one other thing: scattered about the place, clearly being treated as equals, many of the young working men whom Carpenter would adore until the day he died. This last caused talk in the neighborhood not because sexual irregularity was suspected, but because the breakdown of class distinctions made everyone anxious.
The cottage at Millthorpe was soon famous—from Cambridge to Brighton to London—for the “new” way of life that was being lived there. In the many years to follow, the place developed into a retreat for some, a place of pilgrimage for others. They came from everywhere: writers, artists, philosophers; journalists, politicians, feminists; and, of course, homosexual men and women seeking the relief of visiting a place where they could be themselves. They were famous—Ellis, Goldman, Olive Schreiner, Roger Fry, Isadora Duncan, Jack London, William Morris, E. M. Forster—and they were obscure, tramping out to Millthorpe by the score to have a taste of the working wisdom that Carpenter and his commune had begun to radiate. In England between 1890 and 1920, if you had any aspirations to lead a life of serious spiritual intent, a trip to Millthorpe was on your agenda. After one such pilgrimage, Forster wrote in his diary, “Forward rather than back, Edward Carpenter! Edward Carpenter! Edward Carpenter!” Among those who did not visit but were influenced from afar, were Tolstoy, who anointed Carpenter the proper heir of Ruskin and Carlyle, and D. H. Lawrence, who supposedly modeled Lady Chatterley’s lover on Carpenter’s own working class lover.
Soon after he took up residence in the country, Carpenter gave a public lecture in Sheffield on “Co-Operative Production.” He railed against the system of profit and exploitation (Victorian industrialization was now at its most heartless) under which all lived—workers and capitalists alike. For a small number of people to live rich and privileged lives because a huge mass of people lived sub-human lives was, he said, simply wrong. Nothing could justify such degradation, certainly not the newly created appetite for consumerism. He, for one, was resolved to make “the common occupations, honorable and enviable.” Cooperative production, practiced on a small, intimate scale, was the answer to the problem:
We will show in ourselves that the simplest life is as good as any, that we are not ashamed of it—and we will so adorn it that the rich and idle shall enviously leave their sofas and gilded saloons and come and join hands with us in it.
His listeners were riveted. For this audience, composed of working class people who had been hearing working class socialists for quite some time, Carpenter was an unknown quantity. He was not only a gentleman, but he was also irresistibly attractive in face, figure, and manner. Edward had been a beautiful boy, and he grew into a remarkably handsome man who practiced a kind of seductive expressiveness rarely encountered. Now, as he trained his glowing voice and penetrating eyes on his unlettered listeners, he saw them experience the full force of the charisma that had always made his seem a charmed life. In time, his lectures would draw thousands who would invariably come away feeling transformed.
When Carpenter read England for All by the English Marxist Henry Hyndman, he felt transformed. Suddenly, he understood that the synthesis of thought and feeling he’d been searching for was to be found in socialism. Within minutes he joined Hyndman’s newly born Social Democratic Federation, among whose members were William Morris, Edward Aveling, and Eleanor Marx. When, later on, Morris and Marx split with Hyndman to form the Socialist League, Carpenter went with them. In 1885 he became the head of the League’s Sheffield branch, and by the end of the 1880s he had established his lifelong—albeit always independent—connection with English socialism. But what Carpenter really subscribed to was a world that would replicate life at Millthorpe—more an anarchist’s notion of the good life than a Marxist’s—and it was on behalf of this utopia that he wrote, lectured, and organized for the rest of his days.
Carpenter’s sense of class struggle was deep-seated, but the motivating drama beneath it was his even more penetrating sense of the soul-destroying ostracism that came with being homosexual. It was this that taught him how resistant people were to seeing themselves in those not like themselves; this that taught him that the human condition was fraught with the need to dominate and exclude; this that gave him existential grief and sparked his generous outrage on behalf of all forms of institutionalized suppression.
Carpenter wrote directly on behalf of class equality, but he wrote more widely on behalf of sexual liberation, inserting into each text, slowly and delicately, the consideration that normality in sexual life was an elastic concept, that nearly every variation on the theme of sexual love was as natural as every other, that none indicated a loss of humanity. The Intermediate Sex, Homogenic Love and Its Place In A Free Society, Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship—all were meant as instruments of illumination to enjoin his readers to see themselves in the “other.” He believed passionately, and throughout his long life, that the cause of sexual liberation for all (especially homosexuals) would bring about radical social change.
In an 1886 review of Towards Democracy, Ellis wrote that at first he thought the poem a weak imitation of Leaves of Grass, but as he read on he came to the conclusion that Carpenter’s was a distinctive voice, “new and genuine . . . not a mere echo.” Ellis then went on to observe:
This book—with its revolt against the overweighted civilization of our lives, with its frank reverence for the human body, with the clinging tenderness of its view of religious emotion—must not be accepted, however startling its thesis may sometimes appear, as an isolated fact. . . . [It is] allied to some of the most characteristic features of the modern world.
In his time Carpenter (somewhat like Gandhi) was seen variously as a guru or a sandal-wearing crank or a holy fool. Unlike Ghandi, he did not lead a movement, found a school, or leave behind a collection of writings that hold much appeal for today’s reader—Carpenter’s are overloaded with Victorian rhetoric. But his life was truly an incarnation. It was the way he lived, rather than anything he wrote, that grants him his place on the great chain of influences—many subliminal—that did ultimately transform the sensibility of the contemporary world.
In the 1960s there exploded a period of social rebellion very much like that at the turn of the twentieth century. It, too, had more to do with inner liberation than with bringing down capitalism. Suddenly, young people everywhere refused to subscribe to social values that had grown, as Ellis put it, “overweighted,” and were now experienced as suffocating. Once again, a great refusal filled the air. It was within this atmosphere that the liberationist movements—gays, blacks, women—built. Many of us had never heard of Edward Carpenter in those years, but the atmosphere of which I speak—the one that heralds a rebellion against living lives of internal exile—accumulated, in part, because he had once had the courage to speak out more openly than Whitman on the inborn right to honor the dictates of the deepest self.
Sheila Rowbotham has performed an invaluable service in writing the life of Edward Carpenter; she has added to our meager store of knowledge of how we came to be.
Vivian Gornick’s books include The Odd Woman and the City, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love, The Men In My Life, and Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. She teaches writing at The New School.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The systems that harm animals go hand in hand with systems that harm humans. Combating them requires inter-species solidarity.
Its illegitimacy goes far beyond the war on drugs.
“Never do unto me what your uncle has done to us.” A family member’s disappearance leads to personal revelations.