Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Democratic Vistas [1871]
Author:
Wrobel, Arthur
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This lengthy prose work, published in an eighty-four-page pamphlet in 1871, is comprised of a trilogy of essays Walt Whitman originally intended for publication in the Galaxy magazine. Two appeared in the Galaxy : "Democracy" in December 1867 and "Personalism" in May 1868; he submitted the third, "Orbic Literature," to the Galaxy, but it did not appear.

The text of Democratic Vistas, which Whitman variously described as "memoranda" and "speculations," some of which date to the middle 1850s, shows evidence of Whitman's familiar propensity to tinker. Textual variations are evident in its several versions—from the "Rough Draft," Galaxy, pamphlet, and Two Rivulets (1876) versions to the Specimen Days & Collect version. The various additions and deletions, however, are minor and do not alter Whitman's purpose.

The immediate impulse for the writing of Democratic Vistas was the publication, in Horace Greeley's Tribune on 16 August 1867, of the complete text of Thomas Carlyle's Shooting Niagara: And After?, a blistering critique of democratizing trends, specifically enfranchisement legislation, in England and America. Carlyle's and Whitman's essays belong to a larger body of writings that appeared during the third quarter of the nineteenth century and attempted to address the spectacle of a putative moral and spiritual collapse. Unable to discern the providential arm operating through engineering marvels, a frenzied economic development, vulgar consumerism, and widespread social fragmentation, writers in this country and England attempted to recenter the concept of culture, conceiving of it as a beneficent instrument of political reconstruction. For them, the force of culture had the potential to integrate national life through its conceptualization of a common heritage and to elevate the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral faculties of citizens. Unlike his English counterparts, however, Whitman insistently defended the principles associated with the democratic, egalitarian ideal. As he points out in an anonymous review of Democratic Vistas, the essay attempts to demonstrate how freedom and individualism could not only "revolutionize & reconstruct politics, but Religion, Sociology, Manners, Literature & Art" as well (qtd. in Warren 79). The culture, he envisioned, would hold up a forgotten ideal that might yet recall people to perfection.

In taking up the challenge of reconstructing his country, Whitman assumes several roles: that of a Jeremiah—harsh and uncompromising in his detailing of America's many spiritual and moral failures; a cultural diagnostician who looks below the surface of America's body politic to "the inmost tissues, blood, vitality, morality, heart & brain" (qtd. in Warren 79) in order to determine a course of treatment; and a visionary seer who anticipates the unfolding of the Great Republic of the future comprised of superbly developed individuals whose freedom lies in their obedience to eternal spiritual laws.

Whitman's prose style in Democratic Vistas has been justly described as diffuse, tortured, and murky—one that seemingly dramatizes Whitman in his role as poet-prophet speaking out of a visionary trance. His procedure is no less obscure despite his statement near the beginning that describes it as dialectical: "I feel the parts harmoniously blended in my own realization and convictions, and present them to be read only in such oneness, each page and each claim and assertion modified and temper'd by the others" (363). There is some reason to argue that Whitman counters visionary projections with actualities and explores various sets of antitheses—individual and mass, material and spiritual, present and future—but whether he ever achieves a synthesis, or simply resorts to placing his trust in the familiar nineteenth-century theory of history as an irreversible record of democracy's advance, remains moot.

Democratic Vistas appears to be structured, roughly, according to the three Galaxy essays. From this perspective, Whitman initially surveys the "canker'd" present of post-Reconstruction America (369); he then describes his program for developing individualism, which he calls "Personalism," as it is nurtured by the emergence of a "New World literature" (405), the subject of the final part of his essay.

In the first part, Whitman inveighs, with apocalyptic fervor, against the awful discrepancy between "democracy's convictions, aspirations and the people's crudeness, vice, caprices" (363). Fixing his "moral microscope" on post-Reconstruction American society, he surveys a "dry and flat Sahara" (372). His indictment is uncompromising and comprehensive: he accuses American society of hypocrisy, business of a greed that borders on "depravity," and political life, both local and national, of being "saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration"; he describes churches as "dismal phantasms" and conversation as a mere "mass of badinage"; literature, he asserts, exhibits little more than "scornful superciliousness" (370). He is also distressed by the unmistakable signs of society's fragmentation, its fabric seemingly in imminent danger of being torn apart by a divisiveness he attributes to vestiges of feudalism—competing factions and classes, racial and gender tensions, distinctions between mass and polite culture, party politics, and incipient conflicts between labor and capital—as traditional standards retreat before the advance of accelerating change. He acknowledges that "the fear of conflicting and irreconcilable interiors, and the lack of a common skeleton, knitting all close, continually haunts me" (368). Commenting that "We sail a dangerous sea of seething currents, cross and under-currents, vortices—all so dark, untried," he asks with good reason, "and whither shall we turn?" (422).

The answer for Whitman lies in the transformation of the American nation and the mind of its people by a new class "of native authors, literatuses, . . . sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life . . . with results inside and underneath the elections of Presidents or Congresses" (365). Such a literature would speak to the "common people, the life-blood of democracy" (388), and "with an eye to practical life" (396) provide them with "a basic model or portrait of personality for general use" (397). The "mental-educational part" of Whitman's model would attend to everything from a program of stirpiculture aimed at producing an ideal birthstock for the new democracy of the future, to the commonplace of "food, drink, air, exercise, assimilation, digestion," and even manners and dress (397). Such a literature would "raise up and supply through the States a copious race of superb American men and women, cheerful, religious, ahead of any yet known" (395).

On a more sublime note, but no less pragmatic, Whitman values this literature for its moral and political efficacy. Such a literature would be the instrument by which American government would achieve its highest potential, namely "to develop, to open up to cultivation, to encourage the possibilities of all beneficent and manly outcroppage, and of that aspiration for independence, and the pride and self-respect latent in all characters" (379). Acting in concert with a beneficent government, this literature would foster a radical individualism which he names "Personalism." While recognizing that "the virtue of modern Individualism" potentially conflicts with "the ancient virtue of Patriotism, the fervid and absorbing love of general country" (373), Whitman nevertheless hopes that such a reformulation might restore a much-needed balance between the desire for personal liberty and communal solidarity. The "Personalism" he proposes projects an "image of completeness in separatism, of individual personal dignity, of a single person, either male or female, characterized in the main, not from extrinsic acquirements or position, but in the pride of himself or herself alone" (374). This construct retains Whitman's two great faiths: "the democratic republican principle," namely "the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards, and self-reliance" (362) and the common citizenry whose capacity for heroism and patriotism were confirmed for him during the Civil War. Conceding, however, that individualism potentially "isolates," he postulated the existence of a universal force called adhesiveness that could counter the excrescences of individualism while reconnecting the individual to the larger political body. This force fuses and binds "all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family . . . making the races comrades, and fraternizing all" (381).

The ideal manifestation of "Personalism" was to be found in a spiritualized future democratic state. Whitman's anticipation of this state's unfolding draws on a theory that measured historical change in terms of progress through various stages. For Whitman, civilization advanced from a "feudal, ecclesiastical, dynastic world" (366) to the American present of economic development and material abundance; the next stage entailed the emergence of a "sublime and serious Religious Democracy" (410). The "Vistas" in the title of Whitman's essay are those of the prophet-seer's glimpses into the features of this higher, religious-spiritual democracy. What he envisions is a homogeneous society, animated by a "fervid and tremendous Idea, melting everything else with resistless heat, and solving all lesser and definite distinctions in vast, indefinite, spiritual, emotional power" (368). Such a society is characterized by "the copious production of perfect characters among the people" (392–393) who are trained "in sanest, highest freedom" so as to "become a law, a series of laws, unto [themselves]" (375). Here the presence "of a sane and pervading religiousness" (393) undergirds a "rich, luxuriant, varied personalism" (392). In this construct, we are given Whitman's most explicit statement about democracy's agency for spiritualization.

Undoubtedly, Democratic Vistas is long on visionary lyricism and a bit short in practical suggestions. Richard Chase faults Whitman for being too sanguine in entertaining a view of history as a force that necessarily nurtures democracy; Arthur Golden for willfully blinding himself to the "canker'd" body politic of Reconstruction America and hoping it would simply disappear; David Marr for contradicting the spirit of democratic plurality in his yearning for a unitary national literature; and Betsy Erkkila for his failure to achieve any convincing reconciliation between vision and reality. However, as Harold Aspiz points out, Democratic Vistas needs its visionary content to give it substance, while Alan Trachtenberg notes that the split Whitman observed between literary and mass culture prophetically anticipates the condition we find ourselves in today.   Arthur Wrobel Bibliography 

Aspiz, Harold. "The Body Politic in Democratic Vistas." Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 105–119.

Chase, Richard. Walt Whitman Reconsidered. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1955.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Golden, Arthur. "The Obfuscations of Rhetoric: Whitman and the Visionary Experience." Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 88–102.

Grier, Edward F. "Walt Whitman, the Galaxy, and Democratic Vistas." American Literature 23 (1951): 332–350.

Mancuso, Luke. "'Reconstructing is still in Abeyance': Walt Whitman' s Democratic Vistas and the Federalizing of National Identity." ATQ 8 (1994): 229–250. 

Marr, David. American Worlds Since Emerson. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988.

Scholnick, Robert J. "The American Context of Democratic Vistas." Walt Whitman: Here and Now. Ed. Joann P. Krieg. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985. 147–156.

Trachtenberg, Alan, ed. Democratic Vistas: 1860–1880. New York: George Braziller, 1970.

Warren, James Perrin. "Reconstructing Language in Democratic Vistas." Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 79–87.

Whitman, Walt. Democratic Vistas. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964. 361–426.


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