Democratic Vistas: startled by sin

October 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

1948 US stamp honoring Walt Whitman

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Something startles me when I thought I was safest. This opening line from Whitman’s “This Compost” (originally published in the 1856 edition) comes to mind when I try to make sense of “Democratic Vistas.” Whitman seems startled by where he finds himself in post-Civil War, reconstruction America. (Remember Emerson’s opening line in his great essay “Experience”: Where do we find ourselves?) It is and isn’t the America and the democracy he had been envisioning in his writing since 1855. It is strange and familiar. And I feel startled by the essay: interested in where it wants to go, familiar with some of its echoes of the Whitman of Leaves of Grass, and startled by its inability to get there. You thought Emerson’s essays were strange? Folsom and Price in chapter 6 of Re-Scripting Walt Whitman provide helpful social and historical context for Whitman’s essay and for the problem of reconstruction in his writing. I copy below two relevant paragraphs. Should you be interested in doing more with this strange but important text in Whitman, or with Whitman and race and reconstruction, I invite you to read further in the chapter.

If “Passage to India” and “After All Not to Create Only” were celebratory (perhaps at times naively so), Democratic Vistas mounted sustained criticism of Reconstruction-era failures. Based in part on essays that had appeared in the New York journal the Galaxy in 1867 and 1868, Democratic Vistas responds most immediately to a racist diatribe by the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, “Shooting Niagara: And After?” Carlyle’s “great man” view of history left him impatient with democracy and opposed to efforts to expand the franchise in either the US or Britain. For him, the folly of giving the vote to blacks was akin to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Whitman grants Carlyle some general points, acknowledging, for example, the “appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the U.S.” because of the “people’s crudeness, vices, caprices.” In fact, Whitman gazes piercingly at a society “canker’d, crude, superstitious and rotten,” in which the “depravity of our business classes . . . is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater.” Yet he contrasts these current problems with “democracy’s convictions [and] aspirations” and ultimately provides a ringing endorsement of democracy as the safest and only legitimate course for the US. His thought on the intertwined fates of the US and democracy—his “convertible terms”—is future-oriented. He preceded the philosopher and educator John Dewey in arguing that the United States was not yet made and thus could not be categorically assessed, just as the history of democracy was yet to be written because “that history has yet to be enacted.” “We have frequently printed the word Democracy,” Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas; “Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d” (PW, 2:390). Democracy always remained for Whitman an ideal goal, “resid[ing] altogether in the future” (PW, 2:390), and never a realized practice. The history of America, so he hoped, would eventually define the word for the first time, because in his own day, he believed, democracy was only “in its embryo condition” (PW, 2:392). Crucial to his program for strengthening democracy are what he calls “personalism” (a form of individualism in which every person develops uniquely but always remains aware of his or her interconnectedness with the larger social body) and the nurturance of an appropriate “New World literature” that would demand more aggressive reading habits, literature that would awaken the populace and make them argue with the author instead of lull them to sleep and have them passively accept whatever the author professed.

For all of the idealism of Democratic Vistas, however, the work clearly arose out of Whitman’s struggle with the radical politics of the Reconstruction era, and it raises troubling and perhaps unanswerable questions about his attitudes toward the Radical Republican agenda of quickly securing civil rights and voting rights for freed (male) slaves. If Whitman’s faith in the future of American democracy was clear, his vision of the place of African Americans in that future was blurred. As he was writing Democratic Vistas, the shape of the new nation was uncertain, as malleable as the intense debates and shifting votes of a Congress that was revising the very Constitution and threatening to impeach the president, Andrew Johnson. Whitman, during this time, continued to spend evenings visiting the Civil War hospitals that remained opened, still filled with wounded soldiers two years after the war had ended, but he also devoted some of his time to trips to the Capitol to watch the extraordinary night sessions with their impassioned debates on Reconstruction legislation, including the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. For the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress, the war increasingly seemed to have been fought not just to emancipate the slaves (the Thirteenth Amendment had taken care of that) but to enfranchise them and guarantee them equal rights under the Constitution (this was the arena of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and the amazing debates dealt with the very tricky issue of trying to unwrite the Constitutional provision that slaves counted as only three-fifths of a person, and trying to inscribe just what the black person’s newly granted full humanity meant). Whitman, like many Americans, was unsure about where he stood on these momentous issues.

Whitman refers early in the essay to the People–the promise of America and democracy, but also, always, the problem. The people, we learn, are in need of some learning. But the People are ungrammatical, untidy, and their sins gaunt and ill-bred. (968)  But who are the people? Who are to be included? How do the people learn or realize this democracy that is not yet fulfilled?

Where does Whitman leave us? He argues that Democracy is still unwritten, and that it will be written, or brought to life, by the Poet or Literatus. So, in the early 1870s, we seem to be right back where we started: with Emerson’s call for an American scholar (in 1837) and Poet (in the 1840s). Whitman defines the need for this literature, without defining the type or shape of it. Does he know what it looks like? Is it Whitman’s own literature? Whitman’s notion of gymnastic reading, described toward the end of Democratic Vistas (not included in the excerpt in Norton), suggests why he is hesitant to define things:

Prospecting thus the coming unsped days, and that new order in them — marking the endless train of exercise, development, unwind, in nation as in man, which life is for — we see, fore-indicated, amid these prospects and hopes, new law-forces of spoken and written language — not merely the pedagogue-forms, correct, regular, familiar with precedents, made for matters of outside propriety, fine words, thoughts definitely told out — but a language fann’d by the breath of Nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects, and for what it plants and invigorates to grow — tallies life and character, and seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it. In fact, a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these States. 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.

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