Edward Carpenter – Poet and Activist

Edward Carpenter

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Edward Carpenter (29 August 1844 – 28 June 1929) was an English socialist poet, philosopher, anthologist, and early LGBT activist. A leading figure in late 19th- and early 20th-century Britain, he was instrumental in the foundation of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party. A poet and writer, he was a close friend of Rabindranath Tagore, and both friend and lover of Walt Whitman.

In Sheffield, Carpenter became increasingly radical. Influenced by a disciple of Engels, Henry Hyndman, he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1883 and attempted to form a branch in the city. The group instead chose to remain independent, and became the Sheffield Socialist Society. While in the city he worked on a number of projects including highlighting the poor living conditions of industrial workers. In May 1889, Carpenter wrote a piece in the Sheffield Independent calling Sheffield the laughingstock of the civilized world and said that the giant thick cloud of smog rising out of Sheffield was like the smoke arising from Judgment Day, and that it was the altar on which the lives of many thousands would be sacrificed. He said that 100,000 adults and children were struggling to find sunlight and air, enduring miserable lives, unable to breathe and dying of related illnesses.

When his father Charles Carpenter died in 1882, he left his son a considerable fortune. This enabled Carpenter to quit his lectureship to start a simpler life of market gardening in Millthorpe, near Barlow, Derbyshire. By this time he fully acknowledged his sexual orientation, and this, along with the ending of many of his conventional family ties (his mother died in 1881) and his adoption of a life closer to nature, produced a period of artistic creativity. Carpenter wrote, in a “kind of wooden sentinel box” in his garden, the poems that would become his book of verse, Towards Democracy, which was heavily influenced by Eastern spirituality and Carpenter’s long reading of the writings of Walt Whitman.

It is perhaps this seclusion that allowed Millthorpe to become a focal-point for socialists, humanitarians, intellectuals and writers from Britain and abroad. Carpenter included among his friends the scholar, author, naturalist, and founder of the Humanitarian League, Henry S. Salt, and his wife, Catherine; the critic, essayist and sexologist, Havelock Ellis, and his wife, Edith; actor and producer Ben Iden Payne; Labour activists, John Bruce and Katharine Glasier; writer and scholar, John Addington Symonds and the writer and feminist, Olive Schreiner. E. M. Forster was also close friends with the couple, who on a visit to Millthorpe in 1912 was inspired to write his gay-themed novel, Maurice.

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 same-sex attraction 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. 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 centred on the negative effects of the institution of marriage.

The last twenty years of Carpenter’s life were filled with a continued political radicalism, marked by his persistent involvement in progressive issues, including environmental protection, animal rights, sexual freedom, the Women’s movement and vegetarianism. He wrote on the awfulness of the capitalist system, against the landed aristocracy and for his vision of socialism – a new era of democracy, comradeship, cooperation and sexual freedom.  He died on Friday 28 June 1929, aged 84.