Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Edward Carpenter to Walt Whitman, 11 December 1890

Date: December 11, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01245

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: The annotation, "f'm Edw'd Carpenter | Ceylon," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Kirby Little, Ian Faith, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock



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Kurunégala
Ceylon1
11 Dec 90

My dear Walt—

It's good to get your letter of Nov 2nd forwarded to me here.2 Too bad my not acknowledging your books—they arrived all right sometime in Septr and I forwarded one copy to the Fords.3 I like the edition—it has a good monumental character about it. Your writing (in this last letter) looks as if you were well as ever, but I expect you vary—and sometimes pretty bad I fear, though never quite beaten. It is strange what a long time of suffering you have had in later life—you who were so healthy when young.

I have come out here, dear Walt, to spend the winter, partly or chiefly in order to get at first hand the results of the Eastern thought & tradition in matters relating to religion—and the result is very interesting. I am staying just now with my friend Arunáchalam4 whose name you may remember. He has been very much pulled in this direction lately—and his Guru or Teacher is also here. This people has an extraordinary genius for religion and the force with which they abstract themselves from the world in their endeavor towards union with the universal consciousness is something remarkable—& such as we have little idea of in the West. That a certain few attain this union, and with it unusual powers, is quite evident—and in attaining it they cast off all the bonds of caste & ceremonial & become free; so that one finds here behind the outer religion of the people a hidden few who are perfectly democratic and whose watchwords are Freedom Equality & Joy—and this has been the esoteric teaching of the Vedas5 & Upanishads6 for now thousands of years.

The main method of attaining this union or emancipation is the suppression of Thought [which of course is abundantly indicated in yr L. of G.—tho' I don't know that it is actually formulated there]. When Thought is gone you are one piece with the universe, & by suppression you attain mastery and so can use thought or not use it, as you like.

In the systematising and realising of these ideas these fellows here seem to have far outstripped us. On the other hand I think they are wanting in the part of Love. The word does not attract them—they do not care for others. They are gentle & kind, but glad after all to forget the world & everybody in contemplation of the divine being. Here I feel I cannot quite go with them—there is something cold & abstract in the business!

However it is possible that in the union of the East & West both sides will be more perfectly represented & balanced in the future than they have ever been before. Wonderful isn't it? how these things have been known & worked out for ages.

Give my love to Dr Bucke7 if you write or see him—not forgetting H. Stafford,8 and with much love to yourself dear Walt & many remembrances & good hopes of rendezvous sometime or other

yrs ever
Edw. Carpenter


Correspondent:
Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) was an English writer and Whitman disciple. Like many other young disillusioned Englishmen, he deemed Whitman a prophetic spokesman of an ideal state cemented in the bonds of brotherhood. Carpenter—a socialist philosopher who in his book Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure posited civilization as a "disease" with a lifespan of approximately one thousand years before human society cured itself—became an advocate for same-sex love and a contributing early founder of Britain's Labour Party. On July 12, 1874, he wrote for the first time to Whitman: "Because you have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart. . . . For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature." For further discussion of Carpenter, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Carpenter, Edward [1844–1929]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).

Notes:

1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman: | 328 Mickle St: | Camden N.J. | U.S. America. It is postmarked: Kurunegal | DE 12 | 90 | PAID; Camden, N.J. | Jan | 11 | 4 PM | 1891 | Rec'd; Colombo | C | DE 13 | 90 | PAID. [back]

2. See Whitman's letter to Carpenter of November 2, 1890. [back]

3. Isabella Ford (1855–1924) was an English feminist, socialist, and writer. Elizabeth (Bessie) Ford was her sister. Both were introduced to Whitman's writings by Edward Carpenter and they quickly became admirers of the aged poet. [back]

4. Ponnambalam Arunachalam (1853–1924) of Sri Lanka was a Ceylon Tamil Civil Servant, author, and translator. He was educated at the Royal Academy, Colombo, before going on to attend Christ's College, Cambridge, where he met and became friends with Edward Carpenter, an English Writer and Whitman disciple. Because of Arunachalam, Carpenter became interested in Hindu philosophy and classical Indian texts. Arunachalam was later admitted to the bar and went on to serve as a Member of both the Executive Council and the Legislative Council of Ceylon (Robert Aldrich, Cultural Encounters and Homoeroticism in Sri Lanka: Sex and Serendipity (New York: Routledge, 2014), 34–35. He was knighted in 1914 and came to be considered one of the most significant early-twentieth-century political figures in his nation. For more on his role in Ceylon politics, see Gnanapala Welhengama and Nirmala Pillay, "The Ponnambalam brothers," The Rise of Tamil Separatism in Sri Lanka: From Communalism to Secession (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), 85–113. [back]

5. The Vedas are a body of religious texts that originate in ancient India. They are composed in Vedic Sanskrit and are among the oldest works of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. [back]

6. The Upanishads are Vedic Sanskrit religious texts that include teachings that form the foundation of Hinduism. The Upanishads discuss meditation, philosophy, and spiritual and ontological knowledge.  [back]

7. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. Walt Whitman met the 18-year-old Harry Lamb Stafford (1858–1918) in 1876, beginning a relationship which was almost entirely overlooked by early Whitman scholarship, in part because Stafford's name appears nowhere in the first six volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden—though it does appear frequently in the last three volumes, which were published only in the 1990s. Whitman occasionally referred to Stafford as "My (adopted) son" (as in a December 13, 1876, letter to John H. Johnston), but the relationship between the two also had a romantic, erotic charge to it. In 1883, Harry married Eva Westcott. For further discussion of Stafford, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Stafford, Harry L. (b.1858)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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