Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Caroline K. Sherman to Walt Whitman, 27 November 1889

Date: November 27, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03723

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.

Contributors to digital file: Kirby Little, Ashlyn Stewart, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock



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225 S. Leavitt St.
Chicago. Ill.
Nov. 27. 1889.
Walt Whitman

Dear Sir:

I enclose a notice of Edward Carpenter,1 whom I think you know and like.

I hope your health is such that life is still a joy to you,

Very truly yrs
Caroline K. Sherman


HE'S AN ENGLISH THOREAU2

Caroline K. Sherman Writes a Letter on Edward Carpenter.

Admirers of Edward Carpenter will be interested in the following letter written to THE HERALD by Caroline K. Sherman:

Among the many attempts to solve the social and economic problems which at the present time engage the minds of all thoughtful persons that of the Englishman, Edward Carpenter, is one of the most interesting and, perhaps, one of the most reasonable. Mr. Carpenter saw the innumerable difficulties that lie in the way of a satisfactory adjustment of the present order, or disorder, of things, and yet, firmly believing that such an adjustment was not impossible, he set to work, not so much to put forward some new theory of the conduct of life, which others ought to follow, as to realize practically in his own life the conditions essential to this better adjustment. He had graduated at Cambridge with distinguished honor, and although his studies had been mainly in the direction of mathematics and science, ethics and humanitarian interests generally occupied no small share of his attention. He was at this time decidedly conventional—his fortune, social standing and college education favoring the more conservative views of life. For a time he was engaged as university extension lecturer, giving to the masses in the larger towns the information, in a somewhat diluted form, which was furnished at the universities. During his engagement as extension lecturer he came across the writings of Walt Whitman, which, strange to say, made the turning point of his life. He began to question conventionalities and to weigh and estimate customary forms, and while he did not underrate their possible value, his disposition was to ignore them unless they were the worthy expressions of a genuine spirit. This naturally led him to a closer sympathy with humanity and to the belief that there might be a truer meaning of the word "equality" than is given in legal vocabluaries and a broader and more determined sense of justice than is found in the courts of equity. He saw, too, that there were indications here and there in all classes of a deeper feeling of human solidarity and genuine brotherliness, which might in time, if it became at all general, lead to a better order of society. This insight, however, did not lead Mr. Carpenter into the fatal mistake of supposing that a millennium can be had for the asking, or that a better condition of things can be brought about simply by passing a law commanding it. He knew well that before changing laws it is necessary first to change the aims and ideals of men, and that this cannot be effected by any sudden or violent process. In his own unaffected English he says:

"A change of society without change of heart amounts to nothing. If it is to be a substantial movement it must mean a changed ideal, a changed conception of daily life. These things first, and a larger share of the pudding afterward."

The change to which Mr. Carpenter refers is greater simplicity of living, courage of one's own convictions, needful charity of the faults and failings of others, and that spirit of helpfulness to the weak which enables them to help themselves. And he adds:

"If you have such a new ideal within you it is your clearest duty, as well as your best interest, to act it out in your own life at all apparent cost."

As to his own efforts in this direction Mr. Carpenter tells us:

"I began to wonder if the most sensible and obvious thing for me to do were not to just try and keep at least one little spot of earth clean, actually to try and produce clean, unadulterated food, to encourage honest work, to cultivate decent and healthful conditions for the workers and useful products for the public, and to maintain this state of affairs as long as I was able, taking the chance of the pecuniary results to myself. It would not be much, but it would be something. Just a little glimmer, as it were, in the darkness, but if others did the same the illuminations would increase and after a time we would be able to act our way better."

In accordance with this purpose Mr. Carpenter bought a little place of a dozen acres, erected a very simple cottage, and commenced raising vegetables for market, going to market himself with his pony and cart and selling his own produce. In this way he makes his living, benefiting at the same time those who choose to buy of him, since he is bent on being straightforward in all his dealings, and never palms off an inferior article as better than it actually is. In his dress he is simple and unaffected, wearing the flannel shirt and soft hat so becoming to the tourist. He chooses to wear sandals rather than boots, merely because they offer greater freedom of motion. This simple and altogether natural mode of life affords ample opportunity for thought and study, which is almost impossible to be found in luxurious households, where the care and anxiety in regulating as well as maintaining the establishment absorb most of the comfort and the greater part of the time. In many respects Mr. Carpenter is not unlike our own Thoreau—in his desire for a life that has some higher significance than meaningless conventionalities, in his purpose to realize practically what appears to him the most rational mode of life, making animal and sensuous wants subordinate to the higher intellectual and spiritual needs. He is like Thoreau, also, in that he is no professed philanthropist or propagandist, but resolutely follows his own bent, believing that to be the best course for himself. If others see a better way, let them pursue that. There is, however, this difference between the two men: Thoreau was disposed to be indifferent, not only to the common courtesies of life, but even to the real interests of humanity. It shocks us that he could write, as he did, in the memorable spring of '61, when the country was on the eve of its great civil war: "I do not so much regret the present condition of things in this country as I do that I ever heard of it. Blessed are they who never read a newspaper, for they shall see Nature, and through her, God." Mr. Carpenter, on the contrary, is keenly alive to anything pertaining to the real well-being of humanity, and watches with interest all honest efforts that tend to its advancement.

The little cottage in which Mr. Carpenter chooses to live is large in its hospitalities. Its unpretentious rooms are open to persons of widely different stations in life, for its owner will tolerate no artificial distinction. Here he has written a series of essays giving his own views of life and what to him makes life most desirable. These essays are widely known and appreciated in England, and have recently appeared in book form under the title of "England's Ideal." He has also written a volume of poems, somewhat Whitmanesque in style, for it is a curious fact that while Walt Whitman is read but little in America, and appreciated still less, he is read quite extensively in England, and the influence of his style as well as his thought is perceptible on many of the younger English writers. Whatever varying opinions there may be as to the peculiar views of men like Thoreau, Tolstoi, Edward Carpenter and others who advocate simpler modes of living as the essential requisite to the higher and more rational forms of happiness, there can be but one opinion as to the value of men like these, whose integrity of purpose and honest endeavor go far toward making even the humblest life desirable, and without which the most affluent circumstances do not make life worth living.

CAROLINE K. SHERMAN.

Correspondent:
Caroline K. Sherman (1842–1929) of Massachusetts was a writer and philosopher. She graduated from Wheaton Seminary and also received private instruction in theology and philosophy. She was a member of the Concord School of Philosophy, where she lectured in 1885. She served as Vice President of the Aristotelian Society, the chairwoman of the Woman's Branch Department of Philosophy and Science, World's Congress Auxiliary World's Columbian Exposition, and, after moving to Chicago, as a member of the Chicago Board of Education. She was the author of Dante's Vision of God; a Critical Analysis (Chicago: Scott Foresman & Co., 1897), and she married Jonathan Sherman, Jr., from Boston. See the brief biographical note that appears as a footnote to Caroline K. Sherman's "Characteristics of the Modern Woman," The Congress of Women, Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exhibition, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: S.I. Bell & Co., 1894), 764.

Notes:

1. 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). [back]

2. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was an American author, poet, and abolitionist best known for writing Walden and Civil Disobedience. He was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. [back]


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