Friday, January 23, 2009

The Urning men

A very interesting LRB piece by Colm Tóibín on Sheila Rowbotham's new biography of Edward Carpenter. Lots there worth pondering, but because I am a frivolous person I will give only the part that's most like gossip:
Forster compared Carpenter’s personality to that of a religious teacher, a guru perched in Sheffield: ‘It depended on contact and couldn’t be written down on paper, and its effect was to increase one’s vitality, so that one went away better able to do one’s work. One’s own work not his; it was an influence, not a doctrine. It suggested the direct transference of power.’ The charm was not universally received, however. Lytton Strachey always greeted Carpenter’s name ‘with a series of little squeaks’ and, according to Rowbotham, ‘disdained the Carpenterian simple life nearly as much as heterosexual copulation’.

Of all the young men who came to stay, the one who left the most interesting account was a rich and rare young American, Chester Alan Arthur III, who was on a mission to study homoerotic activity among the volunteers of the Irish revolution. This, as we can fully understand, did not take him long and so he returned to see Carpenter when the sage was 80. More than forty years later he gave Allen Ginsberg an account of Carpenter’s sexual skills. ‘At last his hand was moving between my legs and his tongue was in my belly-button. And then when he was tickling my fundament just behind the balls and I could not hold it any longer, his mouth closed just over the head of my penis and I could feel my young vitality flowing into his old age.’ In the morning, the old goat did it again, after which Merrill arrived with two cups of tea and another lodger sponged Carpenter and the young American down with a wet towel.

Chester Alan Arthur III also recounted that Carpenter told him that he had had sex with Whitman in 1877. If this is the case, it is of considerable interest because Arthur went on to have an affair with Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On the Road. This connects the great old poet of the roads with the Beat Generation with only two degrees of separation – Carpenter and Arthur. It is a sign of Rowbothom’s seriousness and scrupulousness as a biographer that she is careful with this material and, with good reason, suspicious of its complete accuracy. For my own part, I believe every word of it.


  1. "Change involved the right of George Bernard Shaw to say that the long lying-in-state of the dead queen was a danger to public health..."


    Though how much change this was, I don't know. When Shaw was told the Queen was going to bestow the Order of Merit upon him he's supposed to have quipped that he already bestowed it upon himself!