Edmund Carpenter

Scholar, Philanthropist

    Edmund Carpenter, an anthropologist, art historian, ethnographer, and co-founder with Marshall McLuhan of modern media theory, died on July 1 in Southampton. A longtime East Hampton resident who was known as Ted, he was 88 and had suffered from aphasia.
    In addition to having made pioneering contributions to the social sciences over six decades, Mr. Carpenter will be remembered here for donating, with his wife, Adelaide de Menil, eight 18th and 19th-century structures to the public, several of which have been incorporated into a new East Hampton Town Hall complex.
    Mr. Carpenter’s work with Marshall McLuhan and his pioneering work in visual anthropology and ethnomusicology were detailed in a biography by the anthropologists Harald Prins and John Bishop. Another biographer, Ellen Harold, described his study of the Stone Age cultures of Papua New Guinea, where Ms. de Menil accompanied him in 1969 and ’70. Concerned about the Papuans’ encounter with literacy, film, and radio, Mr. Carpenter wrote: “I think media are so powerful that they swallow cultures. I think of them as invisible environments, which surround and destroy old environments.”
    Mr. Carpenter was one of the first public personalities on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s television network in the 1950s. During that time, he visited the Canadian Arctic, living in Aivilik igloos and studying the disappearing culture. His love of Arctic art was celebrated in 2007 in an exhibit he curated at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. It was subsequently shown at the Menil Collection in Houston.
    His collaboration with Mr. McLuhan began when they were teachers at the University of Toronto, Together, they edited an anthology called “Explorations in Communication.” Mr. Carpenter’s book “They Became What They Beheld” originally appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1970 under Mr. McLuhan’s byline, but, according to The New York Times, was actually penned by Mr. Carpenter following his friend’s admission to the hospital for brain surgery. Mr. Carpenter had participated in the writing of “Understanding Media,” the book that made Mr. McLuhan famous.
    Mr. Carpenter also was the author of other books and publications, among them the 12-volume “Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art.” Based on the archival research of Carl Schuster, whose work Mr. Carpenter researched for eight years at the Museum of Ethnology in Basel, Switzerland, it traces artistic symbolism around the world over 30,000 years. Mr. Carpenter’s 1972 book about Papua New Guinea, “Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!” and, more recently, “Two Essays: Chief and Greed,” a book about the New York Museum of the American Indian, are perhaps his best known.
    Over the years, Mr. Carpenter also taught at Adelphi, Fordham, Harvard, and New York Universities and the New School. He founded a program at San Fernando Valley State College that focused on film about anthropology and art.
    In a paper describing his appreciation for the structures built here in earlier times, which he and Ms. de Menil saved and moved to their oceanfront property on Further Lane, Mr. Carpenter noted that local house builders had been shipbuilders, too.
    “The technology of ship-building, when applied to local architecture, produced the simple, direct, enormously elegant buildings of eastern Long Island,” he wrote. “They eliminated the overhang, abandoned the saltbox, changed the proportions throughout, building an internal skeleton of oak, all beautifully proportioned and balanced.”
    Edmund Snow Carpenter was born on Sept. 2, 1922, in Rochester. His college years were interrupted by World War II, during which he was a marine in the Pacific theater, including at Iwo Jima. He also served as a judge advocate during the Guam war trials, and directed 500 Japanese war prisoners in an archaeological dig on that island. Returning to the University of Pennsylvania after the war, Mr. Carpenter studied with and became a disciple of the anthropologist Frank G. Speck.
    In addition to his wife, Mr. Carpenter is survived by three sons from a former marriage. They are Stephen Carpenter of Columbus, Ohio, Rys Carpenter of Pittsboro, N.C., and Ian Carpenter of Astoria, Queens. A sister, Barbara Grace Carpenter, lives in Rochester.
    A small gathering of friends was held at the de Menil-Carpenter house in Northwest, East Hampton, last weekend, and a memorial service is to be held at a later date. Lorraine Spiess, who spoke, has described Mr. Carpenter as a “modest man” whose “contributions to multiple disciplines are lasting.”