Carpenter, Edward

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CARPENTER, EDWARD (1844–1929), English socialist and theorist of homosexual emancipation.

Although by the time of his death in 1929 Edward Carpenter was known as one of the great socialist visionaries of England and a champion of both women's and homosexuals' liberation, there is little in his early years to account for such a radical vision. The son of a former naval commander with a lucrative career as a barrister and investor, Carpenter's early life followed the course prescribed by his privileged station, and he was educated at Oxford and Cambridge, where in 1868 he began a career as a lecturer at Trinity Hall.

During his second year at Trinity, he was elected a clerical fellow and ordained a deacon. Carpenter's family had raised him in the relatively liberal doctrines of the Broad Church, and he soon found himself in conflict with the tenets of Anglicanism that he was expected to uphold. By 1871 this conflict had led to physical debilitation, and after a brief leave of absence, he resigned his church roles and functioned solely as a lecturer.

With church responsibilities behind him, Carpenter devoted himself to a relatively new program, the University Extension Program. The program was started by James Stuart (1843–1913) of Cambridge in response to pressures from women demanding access to education. Stuart saw it as a chance to forge an educational institution that would give equal access regardless of class or gender, and his democratic vision attracted Carpenter. By 1877 Carpenter was a key player within the extension program.

Following the death of his parents in 1880 and 1881, Carpenter resigned his teaching duties and devoted himself to full-time study at Millthorpe, a retreat he bought in the Sheffield countryside. He began what was to become a key part of his theoretical vision, a systematic study of eastern religions and particularly of the Bhagavad-Gita. He also completed his epic poem cycle, Towards Democracy (1883), which was strongly influenced by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892).

Through his involvement with such groups as the Progressive Association, the Fellowship of the New Life, the Fabians, and the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), he met important political and social theorists such as William Morris, Havelock Ellis, and Olive Schreiner, one of the leading socialist feminists of the time.

In 1884 William Morris broke alliance with the SDF and formed the Socialist League, and Carpenter followed suit. The development was crucial for Carpenter, for the League viewed the task of socialism to be the creation of a new inner consciousness for all people. This mingling of politics and spirituality enabled Carpenter to synthesize his own religious past, his current embrace of eastern mysticism, and his strong allegiance to social reform into a unique vision that might be best termed mystic socialism.

Perhaps the most significant event in Carpenter's life happened in 1891, when returning from a journey to India, he met George Merrill, with whom he found an immediate and mutual attraction. Merrill had been raised in the slums of Sheffield and had no formal education. The attachment between the two men was undoubtedly one of real affection, but it also enabled Carpenter to achieve one of his long-standing goals in life: the realization of a bond between men that refused to be hindered by the rigid class divisions of English society—the type of bonding professed by Carpenter's poetic idol, Whitman.

The two men took up residence at Millthorpe, and Carpenter began the period of radical theorization that produced the works on which his reputation largely rests: Love's Coming of Age (1896), The Intermediate Sex (1908), and Intermediate Types among Primitive Folks (1914). The tracts extend Carpenter's mystic socialism into a discussion of female gender equality and same-sex desire, and argue that by ending the oppression of "the sex-love passion," society can instill a new type of individualism that will lead to liberation and democracy.

The Intermediate Sex, Carpenter's most famous tract, argues that through both social and natural evolution, sex has outgrown its simple biological purposes, and that increased instances of uranism—Carpenter's term for homosexuality—represent the evolution of a distinctive third sex designed to lead society into a new set of social relations.

Carpenter became a hero to the first generation of Labour politicians. During the short-lived Labour government in 1924, Carpenter's eightieth birthday was marked by a commemorative greeting signed by every member of the Cabinet. For unknown reasons, Carpenter and Merrill left Millthorpe in 1922 and moved to Guildford in Surrey. George Merrill died in 1928, and Carpenter a year later. They are buried together in a grave in the Mount Cemetery, Guildford.

See alsoEllis, Havelock; Fabians; Feminism; Homosexuality and Lesbianism; Morris, William; Socialism; Symonds, John Addington.


Primary Sources

A Bibliography of Edward Carpenter. Sheffield, U.K., 1949.

Carpenter, Edward. Selected Writings. Volume I: Sex. Edited by David Fernbach and Noel Greig. London, 1984.

——. Towards Democracy. London, 1985.

Secondary Sources

Jones, Gareth Stedman. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society. Oxford, U.K., 1971.

Pierson, Stanley. Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism: The Struggle for a New Consciousness. Ithaca, N.Y., 1973.

Rowbotham, Sheila, and Jeffrey Weeks. Socialism and the New Life: The Personal and Sexual Politics of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. London, 1977.

Weeks, Jeffrey. Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800. London, 1981.

Gregory Bredbeck

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Carpenter, Edward

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