Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Past presence


Book, exhibit document gay rights pioneer Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter at 32 in 1875, from My Days and Dreams.
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More than a century ago, British writer and activist Edward Carpenter envisioned a world free of class struggles, pollution, animal abuses and homophobia. Now a new, expansive biography and a local exhibit commemorate Carpenter s legacy. Sheila Rowbotham, author of Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso Books), will visit the Bay Area to read from and discuss her biography at events over the next several weeks. The events are co-sponsored by the SF Public Library Hormel Center, the Edward Carpenter Forum and the SF GLBT Historical Society.

Former president of the San Francisco LGBT Pride committee Joey Cain curated My Days and Dreams: The Worlds of Edward Carpenter, Early Gay Freedom Pioneer. The two-case exhibit at the San Francisco Public Library s main branch will be on display during the month of January.

My interest in him has to do with charting a history of the gay movement, said Cain. Who were the earliest people to formalize the idea of gay liberation? Carpenter was one of the first people to recognize that gay people were a community that needed to organize and campaign, for not only the elimination of laws, but a wider acceptance.

Cain is a co-founding member of the Edward Carpenter Forum, an international group which explores the life, ideas, and work of the queer pioneering thinker, activist and his circle of friends and associates, who ranged from Walt Whitman to Robert Graves, E.M. Forster, Isadora Duncan and Emma Goldman.

Challenging both capitalism and the values of Western Civilization, poet, activist and writer Carpenter (1844-1929) had an extraordinary impact on the cultural and political landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A mystic advocate of free love, ecology, women s suffrage, prison reform, and gay and lesbian liberation, Carpenter s work anticipated the social revolutions of the 1960s, and placed him at the epicenter of the literary culture of his day.

Rowbotham, Professor of Gender and Labour History at the University of Manchester and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, is a prolific author of more than 20 books, covering women in civilization, socialist and anarchist movements, and British history. As a preeminent historian in Britain, she s actually a bit of a celebrity, said Cain. Her potential forced retirement was big news in the UK. Eventually, many rallied around the issue, and Rowbotham kept her position.

With other interested scholars, Rowbotham and Cain had an organizational meeting in England a few years ago outside of Sheffield, where Carpenter lived. There, they anticipated the release of Rowbotham s book, put together the website about Carpenter, and wrote articles and essays about Carpenter s life and work. They also visited Carpenter s country house, which even during the writer s lifetime was a bit of a tourist attraction for the many people influenced by Carpenter s writing and lectures advocating the simple life of health, vegetarianism, and free love.

But while Carpenter had several romantic and sexual relationships with men, and his writing about sexuality attempts a vein of objectivity, at the time, he had to maintain a level of discretion even while advocating acceptance of homosexuality. Even during his extensive career as a lecturer who drew crowds in the thousands, Carpenter s love life wove around long-term yet non-monogamous relationships with working-class men, artists and fellow activists. The photographs in Rowbotham s book show a cautious intimacy between the men.

Millthorpe, his country home, is now a bed-and-breakfast not run by anyone affiliated with him, said Cain. But the woman who owns it now is familiar with him. The main Carpenter archives are located a few miles from the Millthorpe home in Sheff

Edward Carpenter with the two Georges, Hukins and Merrill, the great loves of his life. Photo: Courtesy Sheffield Libraries Archives

So which came first for Carpenter, his advocacy of homogenic love, or his political activism?

It was all sort of a piece, said Cain. The idea of there being some kind of gay rights stemmed from the earliest time he read Whitman, and the letter he wrote to Whitman in 1868. He had dreamed of there being a group of them fighting for a more democratic world, and the recognition of same-sex love.

With the early influence of Whitman and a visit to the poet in Camden, New Jersey, Carpenter articulated the idea of comrade love as a model of male relationships to counter the 18th-century model of competitive urban men as enemies.

Any gay person who read Whitman saw himself in his poetry, said Cain. Did Whitman mean it to be sexual? I think he did. Carpenter was able to come out and understand who and what he was. Along with that came a political understanding. Carpenter was the first one to say that gay people struggled, even in the working-class.

 Based purely on what is written by Carpenter and others about him, Rowbotham was able to intricately plot Carpenter s private life as he became more well-known for his lectures and political essays, which were often self-published as pamphlets, then published in journals of the time. While enduring criticism for his writing from mainstream editors and critics, Carpenter continued his speaking engagements at social halls and auditoriums throughout rural England. It was there that handsome working-class men, having heard about Carpenter s then-radical proposals toward same-sex love, were often drawn to the compelling figure.

Quite often, the hunks sought him out, said Cain. While struggling to figure out who they were, they would glom onto someone like Carpenter.

And yet he was incredibly circumspect, said Cain. His diaries were used [in Rowbotham s biography], but gay sex was still a capital crime. People didn t really write about that unless you were writing pornography.

Included in the exhibit Cain curated are letters and a copy of the foundational documents of the movement Carpenter spearheaded, including a first edition of the 1895 pamphlet Homogenic Love and Its Place in a Free Society .

Ironically, Carpenter skirted accusations about his private life at the same time that Irish playwright Oscar Wilde was arrested and sent to prison for sodomy. British homosexuals even differentiated themselves in the era by referring to themselves as of the Wilde set or that of Carpenter. But in the larger sense, Carpenter is recognized for his ability to bridge disparate movements and envision a more humane future society.

He would see the iniquities, said Cain. He would see his vision. The gay thing was not his whole focus, but included freedom for the working-class, changing health issues, and human rights in general.

Professor Sheila Rowbotham will be appearing at the following Bay Area locations: Thurs., Jan. 8, 6 p.m. at the San Francisco Public Library main branch, 100 Larkin St.; Sun., Jan. 11, 2 p.m. at Bound Together Bookstore, 1369 Haight St.; Wed., Jan. 14, 7:30 p.m. at Moe s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley; Thurs., Jan. 22, 7 p.m. at  Alexander Berkman Social Club, 552 Valencia St.

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