Thinking about Walt Whitman's America on this Fourth of July.

As Fourth of July was this weekend, I went back and read through Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and Leaves of Grass. I remember I found Democratic Vistas nigh-on incomprehensible the first time I read it, which was due, I suppose, to the lack of chapters, the density of the text, and - due to Whitman's poetic nature and his subscription to a Transcendentalist world-view - the text's lack of analytical argument. As Bliss Perry says in his introductory note to Leaves of Grass, Whitman doesn’t argue for big conclusions, so much as he assumes them and then draws them out in poetic detail.

I’ll say that initially I wasn't sure what to make of Whitman’s remarks on women. I started to read him with the fear that he talks with what could be an essentialist and complimentarian view of men and women when he asks, “Are there indeed Men here worth the name?… Are there perfect women to match the generous material luxuriance? Is there a pervading atmosphere of beautiful manners?” (Vistas, p. 13). If the manners of which he speaks would reinforce the gender roles of a pervious era - which might be how one could read his remark that “men and women and the earth and all upon it are simply to be take as they are…” (Leaves, p. 12) - then the beauty of these manners is disputable. But, he matches these remarks with extremely progressive suggestions that, “The day is coming when the deep questions on women’s entrance amid the arenas of practical life, politics, trades &c., will not only be argued all around us, but may be put to decision, and real experiment” (Vistas, p. 46). Moreover, the portraits of working women that he paints suggests that he believes women can give their lives meaning by working successfully outside of the home. When matched with his remarks on the improvement of mankind (see below), I’m left with a sympathetic view of Whitman as progressive and liberatory.

By contrast, there is no ambiguity in Whitmans’s remarks on equality. On this topic he's remarkably close to Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which - as John Keane makes the point - also deserves to be read this weekend. He’s emphatic that the history and identity of America is bound up in “the thought of Onenes, averaging, and including all,” and warns that entrenched interests will always take care of themselves first, and so, even though reformers and revolutionaries are often “inconsiderate” (which, I read in 19th C English as "ill-considered"), are nonetheless necessary to counterbalance the strength of the elite (Vistas, p. 27). If we reach to Whitman for a lens through which to look at contemporary America, then his claim that these revolutionaries should be treated with “indulgence, and even respect” prompts one to contest with those who dismiss Obama and other movements like Occupy Wall Street as engaged in class warfare or as a disorganized rabble of idealists. In our contemporary New Guilded Age Whitman's warning that “the depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater” (Vistas, p. 12) should give one pause. Moreover, his assertion that “the true gravitation-hold of Liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort - a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth” (Vistas, p. 27) brings into direct focus the question of whether the current economic structures are exerting an unmanagable centrifugal force. The rich worry about the return of the guillotine at the same time they drive their Mazzeratis past the new Hoovervilles of LA. If, as Cullen Murphy says in Are We Rome?, that the demise of that empire can be summed up in the three words “fewer had more,” then let’s heed Whitman’s advice that greater respect needs to be accorded to revolutionary-like figures, or at least those politicians somewhat outside the mainstream.   

Amongst the two things that struck me most in returning to these texts is Whitman’s emphasis upon the people as the source of the strength and virtue of democracy. On a day when (rightly or wrongly) many minds jump to James Madison, the Federalist Papers, and the ‘genius’ of the constitution such as the Separation of Powers, one should read Whitman for a robust repudiation of the centrality of these features of America. Of course, as we see in Federalist 10, several founding fathers were politically motivated by fear of the anarchism that democracy can engender. As they put it, a New Science of Politics was required to curtail the dissociative force of factions and lobbying groups in society, by spreading democratic decision making over as broad and area as possible and mediating the influence of the people through representative bodies in the Congress. In turn (Federalist 51), these political bodies need to be set against one another in order to prevent the domination of one faction of government over others. This is an institutional solution to a social problem; as people aren't angels government is necessary, so institutions must be created to control and channel social energy in productive ways. 

By contrast, Whitman sees in the people the center of social and political life, and the solution to any social and political problems. As he puts it, man’s history has been a shift from tyranny and dynastic rule leading up to American democracy, and what remains is to bring forward and modify everything else with the idea of "Something a man is… standing apart from all else, divine in his own right… and untouchable by canons of authority, or any rule derived from precedent, state-safety, the acts of legislatures, or even from what is called religion, modesty, or art” (Vistas, p. 16). On this view, the source or guide for political structures is not the problems that we face, such as economic and social cooperation. Instead, we start with what man is (and, to channel Rousseau) what he can be: “…The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors… but always most in the common people.” (Leaves, p. 3). 

Whitman’s adoration for America in particular comes in large part from the fact that he believes the American race of people to be particularly well adapted and developed, and therefore the highest embodiment of these qualities of humanity (Leaves, p. 4). Although, it should be said, he is quick to point out the failures of the American people, not out of disrespect, but out of a real love for the country and the people (Vistas, p. 10-11). As the greatest example of democracy, America possesses within it a remarkable number of developed common people, but there is still work to be done. Most of the success in raising up the people has been economic and material, and is therefore “an almost complete failure in its social aspects, in any superb general personal character, and in real grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results” (Vistas, p. 12). The task then is to further improve the character of the people in a variety of different ways:

“I should demand a programme of culture, drawn out, not for a single class alone, or for the parlors or lecture-rooms, but with an eye to practical life, the west, the working-men, the facts of farms and jack-planes and engineers, and of the broad range of the women also of the middle and working strata, and with reference to the perfect equality of women, and of a grand and powerful motherhood… The best culture will always be that of the manly and courageous instincts, and loving perceptions, and of self-respect -- aiming to form, over this continent, an idiocrasy of universalism, which, true child of America, will bring joy to its mother, returning to her in her own spirit, recruiting myriads of offspring, able, natural, perceptive, tolerant, devout believers in her, America, and with some definite instinct why and for what she has arisen, most vast, most formidable of historic births, and is, now and here, with wonderful step, journeying through Time." (Vistas, p. 40)

What I find remarkable in this focus on character is the deeply humanistic and cosmopolitan element to it. Whereas the focus on developing character is often put to conservative ends - as we see, for example, in George Will’s book Statecraft as Soulcraft - Whitman proposes a conception of human dignity and liberation that would not be wholly out of place with that of the Enlightenment philosophs. I’ll say that I’m not sure what to make of his reference to an “idiocrasy of universalism” in the preceding block quote, but his claim that the creation of people worthy of democracy will require religion unsullied by quackerry (Vistas, p. 24-5) wouldn’t be amiss in a tract by Voltaire. Similarly, Whitman’s repeated reference to human dignity and his assertion that we should be dependent “upon Humanity itself, and its own inherent, normal full grown qualities, without any superstitious support whatever" (Vistas, p. 17) evokes Immanuel Kant’s conception of the dignified man as one not tugged to-and-fro by competing animal instincts (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785), but instead (What is Enlightenment?, 1784) as someone willing to Sapere Aude!; to have the courage to use his own reason to critique the church and other dubious superstitions. Of course, Whitman’s mysticism, his belief in the truth of religion (suitably purged of quackery), and his willingness to look beyond cold calculating rationality puts him in a different camp to these Enlightenment figures. But his cosmopolitan emphasis upon humanity gives the contemporary children of the Enlightenment something to grab on to in Whitman’s thinking.   

Let me end where Whitman begins. He opens Vistas and his preface to Leaves with a paean to America as “essentially the greatest poem” (Leaves, p. 3), and having “assumed the task” of protecting and extending “the moral and political speculations of ages… the Democratic Republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards” (Vistas, p. 3). As he continues to say, the role of America is global and essential, as it is democracy “alone [that] can bind, and ever seeks to bind, all nations, all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood of family” (Vistas, p. 24). In light of this, he says, America’s greatness and exceptionalism depend "almost entirely on the future” (Vistas, p. 1, 37). 

How markedly different is this picture of America’s greatness to what we see in contemporary political discourse! It seems to be a political shibboleth that each politician must state clearly, unequivocally, and repeatedly that “America is the greatest country on earth.” Any (perceived) deviation from this is akin to an 'apology tour', or evidence that, as Rudy Gulianni recently put it (racist undertones aside), that one “doesn’t love” America. Perhaps this change is a function of the professionalization of politics. As politics depends more on celebrity, prestige, and name recognition than - as Whitman would have it - the ‘common man’, so it is that these kinds of non-cognitive statements of love need to be repeated. And, indeed, maybe this is a point in Whitman’s favor. In light of this, and in order not to let our rhetoric get ahead of us, I propose we reflect seriously on the following quotation:

“We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken'd, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted” (Vistas, p. 37)

The question before us on this Fourth of July, then, is not what makes us remarkable. Instead, the question is, what do we have left to do? The ability to sincerely and openly ask this question is what makes a democracy exceptional.