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Written in the aftermath of the American Civil War during the ferment of national Reconstruction, Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas remains one of the most penetrating analyses of democracy ever written. Diagnosing democracy’s failures as well as laying out its vast possibilities, Whitman offers an unflinching assessment of the ongoing social experiment known as the United States. Now available for the first time in a facsimile of the original 1870-1871 edition, with an introduction and annotations by noted Whitman scholar Ed Folsom that illuminate the essay’s historical and cultural contexts, this searing analysis of American culture offers readers today the opportunity to argue with Whitman over the nature of democracy and the future of the nation.
Living in Washington, D.C., where Congress granted male African Americans the right to vote nearly five years before the fifteenth amendment extended that right across the nation, and working for the office charged with enforcing the new civil rights amendments to the Constitution, Whitman was at the volatile center of his nation’s massive attempt to reconstruct and redefine itself after the tumultuous years of civil war. In the enduring cultural document that Democratic Vistas has become, the great poet of democracy analyzes the role that literature plays in the development of a culture, the inevitable tensions between the “democratic individual” and the “democratic nationality,” and the corrosive effects of materialism on the democratic spirit.
His own conflicting racial biases notwithstanding, Whitman in Democratic Vistas offers his most eloquent and extended articulation of the beckoning American democratic future. At a time when the nation has elected a president whom Whitman could never have imagined, his controversial and provocative book is a timely reminder of those occasions when we experience the expansion of America’s democratic dream.
Whitman's powerful and evocative title, Democratic Vistas, is much better known than the essay it names. Widely used in American culture over the past century, "democratic vistas" has served as the title for numerous books and countless essays and has become a kind of shorthand phrase for that distinctly American sense that the nation's egalitarian fulfillment is always just on the horizon, the faith that our founding ideals are not behind us but always still ahead of us, in our perpetually beckoning future. So, when the New York Times wanted a title for its Book Review section focusing on Barack Obama's inauguration, it embraced Whitman's title; "Democratic Vistas" once again seemed to sum up the feelings of the nation after it had elected its first African American president. The cover of the January 18, 2009, issue of the Book Review carried the inscription "Democratic Vistas: Inauguration 2009" over an illustration by Richard McGuire showing Obama, from the back, taking the oath of office as he looked out over Washington, D.C., onto a vista stretching across the continent, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the dim distance.
McGuire's illustration puts us in the position of looking over Obama's shoulder to contemplate the same vast potentiality that the first African American president now gazes on. Like McGuire's image, Whitman's essay evokes the sense that national democratic fulfillment would occur in some unrealized future, speaking differently, meaning differently, to succeeding generations of Americans. Therefore, it somehow seemed appropriate, as the nation celebrated the election of a president whom Whitman never could have imagined, to speak once again Whitman's memorable title. McGuire's image is remarkably evocative, in part because Whitman's essay, while very much concerned with the future of democracy in America, is in fact silent about the issue of race. Amid all its prophecies and condemnations of the United States, among the hopes and fears it expresses, the essay manages to evade the question of racial equality, even though Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas when the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, guaranteeing civil rights to freed slaves and suffrage to male African Americans, went into effect. At the very time he was conceiving his essay, Whitman was living in Washington, D.C., where African Americans first exercised their right to vote and where the African American population was increasing dramatically in those years during and after the Civil War.
We will examine the irony and the importance of Whitman's evasion of the subject of race a bit later, but let us begin by examining the ways in which Whitman's essay is appropriate for those occasions on which we experience the expansion of America's democratic dream. Whitman always wrote about democracy itself as something that did not yet exist, something that was only now in the process of evolving. Democracy always remained for Whitman an ideal goal, never a realized practice. He saw democracy as an inevitable evolutionary force in human history, and he did all he could to urge the evolution along, but he was under no illusion that a functioning democratic society would come easily or quickly. His efforts in Leaves of Grass had been to try to invent a poetry as open, as nondiscriminatory, and as absorptive as he imagined an ideal democracy would be. He tried, in other words, to construct a democratic voice that would serve as a model for his society-a difficult task since he was well aware that his nation and his world were still filled with antidemocratic sentiments, laws, customs, and institutions, and he knew that no writer, including himself, could rise above all the biases and blindnesses of his particular historical moment. But he was convinced that the United States in the nineteenth century was in the process of becoming the first culture in human history to experience the beginnings of a true democracy.
In the dictionary Whitman used, Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language, democracy is defined as "a form of government, in which the supreme power is lodged in the hands of the people collectively, or in which the people exercise the powers of legislation," and the definition ends with a single example: "Such was the government of Athens." This dictionary makes no mention of American democracy. Whitman took issue with this definition, and, when he talks about the evolution of democracy in Democratic Vistas, he ignores Athenian democracy. For him, human history is not so much a back-and-forth struggle between democratic and antidemocratic forces as it is an unbroken evolution away from feudalism toward the natural and rational democratic future. When he defines democracy, then, his definition contains no past examples or models, but instead looks only toward the future, which of course renders any act of actual definition impossible. So in Democratic Vistas, he offers perhaps the best nondefinition of democracy ever formulated: "We have frequently printed the word Democracy," he says, "yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken'd." He goes on to say that it is a "great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted." Democracy, in other words, is the most significant word in the American language and yet remains a word for which there is still no definition, because no society has yet lived the history that would illustrate it. Again and again in Democratic Vistas, this idea emerges: Whitman assumes "Democracy to be at present in its embryo condition," and he insists that "the fruition of democracy ... resides altogether in the future."
Whitman also disagreed with Webster's emphasis on the "form of government" as the essential aspect of a democracy. What is most striking about Whitman's emphasis in Democratic Vistas is his insistence that a democratic literature was the most essential factor, for as long as the imagination of the country remained shackled by feudalistic models of literature, by romances that reinforced power hierarchies and gender discrimination, and by a conception of literary production that put authorship only in the hands of the educated elite, then democracy would never flourish, regardless of the form of government. Whitman was finally more intrigued with the way a democratic self would act than the way a democratic society would function, and the defining of this revolutionary new self, he knew, was a job for the poet. A democracy, then, would require a new kind of imaginative relationship between reader and author, a more equalizing give and take, and so Whitman argued that "a new Literature," a "democratic literature of the future," and especially "a new Poetry, are to be, in my opinion, the only sure and worthy supports and expressions of the American democracy." The greatest duty of the American poet, Whitman believed, was to write the "epic of democracy," to go about the business of "making a new history, a history of democracy, making the old history a dwarf" (PW 2:522). The poet of democracy would change a nation's reading habits and in so doing would create the imaginative energy necessary to break down feudalistic assumptions and to construct a new democratic frame of mind. That is why, in Democratic Vistas, Whitman emphasizes not just the need for a new democratic literature, but for a muscular, rebellious, democratic reader, capable of engaging, challenging, and completing the demands of the new literature: "Books are to be call'd for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast's struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay-the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train'd, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers."
Whitman was not a naive apologist for democracy. He regularly cast a skeptical eye on American culture, and, as he makes clear at the beginning of Democratic Vistas, he was keenly aware of the many shortcomings of the then-current state of American democracy as well as of some of the basic contradictions of democratic theory. It would be hard to find a more bracing critique of the state of America than the one Whitman offers near the beginning of the essay as he takes on the role of a physician examining the diseased body politic of the nation: "I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. ... The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout." As always, though, Whitman tried to view the appalling present as a stage America had to go through to achieve its promising future. During the Civil War, for example, Whitman castigated the U.S. military for its feudalistic and antidemocratic organization, and yet he also argued that two of the great "proofs" of democracy in America were the voluntary arming of the troops and the peaceful disbanding of the armies after the war was over (PW 1:25). The military thus at once offered distressing and hopeful signs, as it, like much of American society, struggled (as it continues to do today) to discover the implications of democratic reformation.
Still, by the time he wrote Democratic Vistas, Whitman was less sanguine than he had ever been about democracy's inevitable success. He begins his essay by alternately agreeing with and disputing the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle's famous attacks on democracy. As Whitman gradually builds a case for the continuing evolution of American democracy and the need for a more spiritual phase of democracy to replace the material phase that the country seemed mired in after the Civil War, he wrestles with the thorny problems of democratic theory, especially the irresolvable tension between the many and the one, between the social cohesion necessary to make a democracy work and the equally important necessity of individual freedom. For Whitman, the issue was always the negotiation of the "democratic individual" with "democratic nationality" (PW 2:463). In the essay, he names his provisional solution to this problem "Personalism," a blending of the one and the many, a balancing of individuality with camaraderie-the love for one's democratic and equal others in all their diversity balanced against the pride in one's own identity. In order to "counterbalance and offset" the "materialistic and vulgar American democracy," Whitman looked to "the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship, (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love)."
For Whitman, then, a democratic self was one that came to recognize vast multitudes of possibility within its own identity, one that could imagine how one's own identity, given altered circumstances, might incorporate the identity of anyone in the culture, from the most marginalized to the most exalted and powerful. To experience democratic selfhood, then, an American needed to engage in the radical act of imagining how she or he could share an identity with every member of the society, of learning to love difference by recognizing the possibility of that difference within a multitudinous self, a self that had been enlarged by nondiscriminatory practice, nurtured by a new absorptive and antifeudalistic literature, and enriched by love that crossed conventional boundaries. Democratic Vistas stands as Whitman's most eloquent and extended articulation of the hazy, beckoning, illusive American democratic future.
Whitman's genius in Democratic Vistas may in fact have resided in his ability to focus on the nation's future vistas instead of on its degraded present. Had Whitman simply engaged the problems America was facing in the late 1860s about reuniting the nation and granting civil rights to freed slaves, his essay might well have ended up being an interesting historical piece but not the enduring cultural document it has become. Still, it is important to place this essay at the scene of its writing, to know just where Whitman was when he wrote the essay, just what he was doing, just what social and political environment he found himself in, and just what he was thinking about the major issues of the day, for all of these elements were vital aspects of the construction of Democratic Vistas. This was an essay conceived and written in Washington, D.C., and it is Whitman's quintessential Washington publication, growing out of his interactions with the tens of thousands of Civil War soldiers he cared for in D.C. hospitals, out of his experience as a government clerk, where he directly engaged most of the major social and political issues that confronted America during and after the war, and out of his daily life as a citizen of the nation's capital, a city on the edge of the South whose populace was not happy with what the war had brought to town. It is no accident that Whitman chose to put "Washington, D.C., 1871" prominently on both the cover and title page of his book, for this was a work that grew organically out of its time and place every bit as much as the original Leaves of Grass grew out of Brooklyn, New York, in 1855 (as its title page clearly announced).
When we picture Whitman in Washington, D.C., we tend to imagine him during the Civil War, as he observed Abraham Lincoln when the president rode back and forth from the White House to his summer retreat at the Soldiers' Home, journeys occasionally marked by the president and the poet nodding to each other as Lincoln passed by; visiting the wounded soldiers in the many makeshift hospitals that dotted the capital during the war; being fired from his clerk's position in the Department of the Interior by Secretary James Harlan, who disapproved of the poet's immoral writings and perhaps also of his habit of working on his poetry during job hours (and then, just after the war, being defended so eloquently by his friend William Douglas O'Connor, who published his scathing attack on Harlan and his hagiographic exoneration of Whitman in his 1866 pamphlet The Good Gray Poet). But in many ways the most revealing part of Whitman's residency in Washington occurred in the five years following the war, as Whitman found himself at the very center of the nation's massive attempt to reconstruct and redefine itself. This politically chaotic era was the period that produced Democratic Vistas.
While entire books have been written on the Whitman/ Lincoln associations, and everyone knows Whitman's elegies for the assassinated president, "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," very little has been written on the much closer relationship Whitman had with Lincoln's vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson from Tennessee. While Whitman wrote no poems about Johnson, he generally endorsed the beleaguered president's policies and emulated his attitude of forgiveness toward the South. Whitman worked for all three of Johnson's attorneys general during the four years Johnson served out Lincoln's second term (1865-1869). These were quieter years in Whitman's personal life, but the scene around him was tumultuous as Congress, led by radical Republicans, set out to construct a multiracial society, and as President Johnson tried to resist, developing an enmity with Congress that would lead to his impeachment. The tumultuous year of 1865-which saw the surrender of the Confederacy, the assassination of Lincoln and attempted assassination of Secretary of State William Seward, the killing of Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth and the trial and conviction of his co-conspirators, the capturing of the Confederacy's president Jefferson Davis, President Johnson's attempts to restore the Union largely by forgiving those states that rebelled and turning their governance over to Southerners, and the growing hostility between Congress and Johnson-ended with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the United States and its territories, and thus completing and making permanent Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Excerpted from Democratic Vistas by Walt Whitman Copyright © 2010 by the University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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