From edition

The Outcast Redeemer

Review of Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, by Sheila Rowbotham. London: Verso, 2009.

At the turn-of-the-century Victorian mores began to splinter, belief in God was increasingly becoming a gamble and the shift in capitalist production, from mercantile to industrial, ensured the dramatic transformation of urban landscapes and increased divisions in labor. It was in this context that Edward Carpenter (1844- 1929) negotiated his “life of liberty and love.” Carpenter was one of many intellectuals attempting to imagine an ethics of care that would respond to various human needs and replace religious based ethics in a world that seemed to be moving towards secularism. His personal and socio-political pursuits evince a lifelong investment in transforming people’s relationships with each other, nature and labor through a praxis driven understanding of social justice. Carpenter’s eclectic publications discuss socialism, democracy, women’s emancipation, sexual freedom, prison reform, vegetarianism, and animal rights all of which he considered interrelated. In Sheila Rowbotham’s excellent new biography Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, Carpenter is placed at the center of a complex constellation of politics, love, philosophy and activism making the biography an enjoyable and informative if at times unruly read. [1]

Rowbotham draws heavily on Carpenter’s autobiography My Days and Dreams, as well as personal correspondences with his vast network of friends and lovers. So it is no surprise that we learn Carpenter’s politics as much through his personal interactions as through his published work and activism. Rowbotham masterfully renders Carpenter relevant by writing with authority as well as a humorous intimacy that comes from spending decades studying Carpenter. Throughout the biography Carpenter is portrayed as an “outcast redeemer,” a term Rowbotham herself uses to describe Carpenter’s distance from the norms that governed Victorian England as well as his attempts to challenge the status quo, which was in crisis as a result of major economic, political and religious transformations.

Rowbotham traces how Carpenter became Carpenter and attributes much to his desire for intimate relationships, both sexual and nonsexual, with men. His politics were motivated by a desire for freedom and friendship which he hoped could deliver people from alienation. For Carpenter alienation was deeply connected to the mechanization of labor and increased social stratification occurring as a result of the shift from mercantile to industrial capitalism. Although much of Carpenter’s early work focuses on labor and politics his later work evinces a complex understanding of inequalities and domination reproduced through gender, sexuality and ethnicity.

Carpenter was a sexual outsider, but being both male and upper-middle-class, he was very much a social insider. Carpenter was born into a wealthy family in Brighton and it was this wealth that enabled his intellectual pursuits and relative freedom from compulsory labor. His family’s wealth, like that of many affluent British families of this period, was generated through investments abroad including sizable holdings in the United States railroad industry. The mobility and educational entitlements that were assumed for men of Carpenter’s class enabled him to study in Germany at the age of 19. On his early travels Carpenter learned German and was exposed to theories of consciousness and the inner self, which along with new scientific studies in physics and chemistry would influence his later scholarly pursuits.

Upon returning from Germany, Carpenter attended college in Cambridge at Trinity Hall. While in Cambridge Carpenter was influenced by moral philosophers attempting to theorize a rational basis for ethics in a period when religious beliefs were in crisis, at least among the intelligentsia, as a result of emerging work in the sciences. During this period Carpenter was grappling with his own religious misgivings, but upon being awarded a clerical fellowship in 1868, he accepted the position and began giving sermons at the college chapel. This became the outcast’s first role as redeemer. His early sermons critique the class based inequalities produced by capitalism and the consumption habits of the wealthy. Although other intellectuals of the period, including F.D. Maurice, rationalized their participation in the Church by considering the historical-philosophical contributions of the Bible, Rowbotham contends that Carpenter had trouble presenting the Bible to congregations who would accept it as fundamental truth.

While at Cambridge Carpenter was also processing his unnamed desires for intimacy with other men. He romanticized and began to organize his feelings through the filter of literature and ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Plato’s Phaedrus which was recently translated into English. The text contends that love between men can be noble providing sensual communion. However, it was Walt Whitman whose poetry about democratic male comradeship nudged a young Carpenter to connect desire and politics in ways that can be traced through his body of work and personal correspondences with friends and lovers. Although Carpenter would not begin writing about sexuality openly until the 1890s, his early engagement with Whitman’s work provided him with a model for understanding intimacy between men as socially viable and potentially politically transformative. Same-sex desire placed Carpenter in opposition to Victorian morality and seems to have enriched his investment if not compel his intellectual labor and activism on behalf of the working-class men he desired.

In the early 1873 when Carpenter’s clerical fellowship was not renewed he stepped into a new role as redeemer teaching Astronomy in the University Extension Movement, a fledgling attempt to make education more accessible to workers.  The Movement actually tended to attract middle-class and aspiring middle-class students, particularly women, as well as the elderly. It did not live up to Carpenter’s expectations. In 1877 Carpenter took a break from the University Extension Movement to travel to the US and report to his father about the economic conditions there as well as the state of the family’s investments. While in the US Carpenter was able to meet Whitman, a meeting which inspired a lifelong correspondence and greatly influenced Carpenter’s work.

Carpenter’s meeting with Whitman solidified his investment in the redemptive power of non-conformist love, the idea of intimate relationships that were non-possessive, non-monogamous, and at times non-sexual. These feelings of politicized desire returned Carpenter to the English countryside and the University Extension Program. An expansion of his network of friends included members of the myriad emerging socialist groups sprouting up in Sheffield; where residual forms of mercantile capitalism structured the economy and most laborers were able to avoid mechanized factory work instead earning a living in trade based light metal crafts. Small utopian communities were also springing up and Carpenter settled into the “simple life” that enabled closer proximity to nature and less stylized human interactions than he had experienced growing up in Brighton. It was in the 1870s that Carpenter began to find a platform for his ideas and expand his circles of friends to include other praxis oriented intellectuals.

By the 1880s Carpenter was publishing widely and continuing to lecture on socialist causes. He purchased land and built Millthorpe, where he took up market gardening and penned Towards Democracy in 1883. The cottage would become a meeting place for his friends and a model for alternative living, and it would also remain his home for the rest of his life. Things were not so simple in Sheffield; competing ideas about how best to organize society politically and economically, particularly the role of the state, caused major divides and often put friends and allies at odds with one another. Carpenter was willing to act with immediacy making compromises around issue based policies while maintaining a larger vision of social change.

In the 1880s and increasingly in the 1890s homosexuality was granted a previously denied publicness and the visibility granted same-sex intimacy rendered same-sex love vulnerable to new modes of regulation. It also politicized the emerging field of sexology. By the late 1890s Carpenter was focusing much of his energy writing on sexuality and society. In 1883 and 1884 he wrote Woman and Her Place in Free Society, Marriage in a Free Society, Homogenic Love and its Place in a Free Society and Sex-love and its Place in a Free Society. In these pamphlets Carpenter continues to develop theories that relate social transformation to sexual emancipation.

Carpenter’s life and work are meticulously traced and beautifully described in Rowbotham’s biography. Through Carpenter we catch glimpses of many other important historical figures working in various disciplines and creating multiple social movements at the turn of the century. However, as a genre the biography has built in limitations. It takes as its object of analysis a specific historical figure and almost inevitably focuses on this figure as a historical agent. We receive an account of what this person has accomplished: the story of a life. In the case of Rowbotham’s biography of Carpenter we get a beautiful story. Of course, focusing on the individual runs the risk of subordinating historical context to the historical agent. At times this does happen in Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love. By anchoring Carpenter in networks of socialists, feminists and sexologists the political and economic forces under critique by these activists and scholars can sometimes be obscured. We certainly get a sense of the various struggles over meaning and resources that comprised turn-of-the-century social movements, but not a sense of the dominant powers that they were struggling against. We learn much about local politics, how they fit into a larger socio-political framework is less clearly articulated.

This is not to say that Rowbotham does not painstakingly contextualize Carpenter. She made choices and I by no means think that they were the wrong ones. By privileging relationships between people, ideas and movements, a certain flattening occurs. Every person, every meeting, every letter leaves a trace on Carpenter and he seems to leave a trance with every handshake. Rowbotham’s organizational structure seems to mimic beautifully and brilliantly the way Carpenter lived his life. But, it can have a certain disorienting affect and does run the risk at times of subordinating the larger historical context. For instance, we learn that Carpenter is interested in aiding women in securing citizenship rights like the vote, but the actual conditions that women negotiated are only implied not detailed. This minor qualm is exasperated by the thematic division of chapters, as opposed to a more linear chronology, that sometimes undermines the simultaneity of events as they were lived by Carpenter. None of these formal characteristics however detracts from the value of Rowbotham’s work.

In the book’s final chapter “Bearing the Memory,” Rowbotham traces how Carpenter’s work frequently anticipated and sometimes directly or indirectly influenced multiple movements in and after his own lifetime. Perhaps the same qualities that make Carpenter such an interesting character, his expansive activism and scholarship to benefit so many social causes, his interdisciplinary approaches to studying sexuality and consciousness as well as politics, and the many genres from pamphlets to poems that he tested his ideas in also points to why he remains understudied. It is difficult to place Carpenter at the center of any of the many fields emerging at the turn-of-the-century, from sexology to anthropology. He was interested in homosexuality but was neither studying it scientifically as his friend Havelock Ellis or at the center of politicizing it as was the German sex reformer Magnus Hirschfield. He used emerging methods in cultural anthropology to catalogue the presence of “intermediates” in many cultures in his book Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folks, but did not consistently stake his analysis of sexuality through cross-cultural comparisons. Carpenter’s ideas bubbled over disciplinary boundaries and relatively discreet social movements. As a result traces of Carpenter can be discovered across fields, but he never picked a place to fasten his own work. Rowbotham maps the history of his contributions and tracks the traces making this biography an important addition to knowledge about turn-of-the-century struggles to understand and live alternative forms of political and economic organization as well as understand the emergence of sexual identity at the intersections of poetry, politics, science, and life.

Carpenter’s attempt at living and thinking through the intersections of sexual desire and with it desire for new forms of sociality directly connected to utopian socialist vision and issue based work to ameliorate exploitation. The text is very timely. Queer theorists, including Leo Bersani and Tim Dean are currently attempting to theorize the role of desire in imagining and enacting new forms of sociality that critiques the rational subject of Liberal ideology harkening back to Carpenter’s own attempt to theorize the possibility of an intersubjectivity affectively experienced through non-possessive same-sex intimacy. Lisa Duggan’s recently published The Twilight of Equality? critiques the splintering of the Left in the US into camps that focus on economic class based inequalities and those who focus on identity based stratification arguing that in order to theorize new modes of political economic organization and provide productive critiques of neoliberalism its cultural as well as economic implications must be understood. These are tensions that Carpenter’s scholarship, activism, and life attempted to diminish. Although I would not argue that Carpenter’s scholarly and activist work make for a blueprint of political action, his desire to envision a new form of sociality remains relevant. Rowbotham states the timeliness of the text best at the end of her brief introduction: “The dilemma Carpenter lived so strenuously, how to imagine an alternative without becoming trapped in a prescriptive construct, is as relevant for rebels now as it was then” (8).

Works Cited

[1] In 1977 with Jeffrey Weeks, Rowbotham published Socialism and the New Life: The Personal and Sexual Politics of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis (Pluto Press)

Jennifer Miller is a Ph.D. student in George Mason University’s Cultural Studies Program.

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