Victor Nuovo: Walt Whitman’s vision of democracy
Editor’s note: This is the 37th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
If this nation were endowed with a national religion, its name would be “democracy”; its foremost prophet, Walt Whitman (1819-92); its bible, “Leaves of Grass”; its original sin, slavery; and its redeemer, Abraham Lincoln.
“Leaves of Grass” is a collection of poems, or better, one long poem with many parts, each one integral to the whole. It was published in 1855, and was revised and enlarged five times, the final or “deathbed edition” appearing in 1892.
In the preface to the first edition, Whitman announced his theme, which would remain constant in all future editions, is this nation. To him, the United States of America is a great poem. And he declared himself its poet.
Whitman’s great poem is a perfect complement to “Civil Disobedience,” for whereas the latter asserts and celebrates the diversity of opinion and of free and open discourse upon which the political health of a nation depends, “Leaves of Grass” celebrates something more elemental: the diversity of its people, who are flesh and blood. Whereas Thoreau views our nation as a mighty fortress of ideas, whose weapon is free expression, Whitman perceives a nation incarnate in its people, tangible, many colored, diverse, their manifold sounds and scents filling the air, always rich in expression, relaxed and content in their bodies.
Here, on this continent, “is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses” … a nation whose genius is manifest in the common people, “their manners of speech dress friendships — the freshness and candor of their physiognomy — the picturesque looseness of their carriage … their deathless attachment to freedom —their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean.” He celebrates the wonderful leveling of their society and its unlimited diversity; the people have “the air of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors,” which is as it should be for people who are each and all, everywhere and always, free and equal.
It has been remarked by scholars of Whitman’s poetry that he used as a model the narrative form of the opening verses of the Book of Genesis. Certainly he echoes the theme of creation, the creation of a nation, of something entirely new that required of him the reinvention of poetry.
“Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and the sun …. there are millions of suns left
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand
nor look through the eyes of the dead
nor feed on the spectres of books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, or take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.”
And just here is the political connection:
“One’s-Self I sing, a single separate person
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word EnMasse
Of physiology from top to toe I sing…
The Female equally with the Male I sing
Of life immense in passion, pulse, and power.”
American Democracy as Whitman conceived it is not a system of political authority, or the rule of the majority, which is never perfectly inclusive, and sometimes cruelly exclusive, rather it is a thing organic and whole, and perfectly tangible: a people.
And in this respect, we may consider democracy as a religion for it encompasses the whole of life, in all its concreteness and actuality, its worldly hopes and fears. Whitman put no stock in the great historical religions, and least of all in their supernatural beliefs and expectation of a world to come. likewise, he did not regard body and soul as separate parts of an individual or of a nation, but as vital aspects. The soul is the breath of life, integral to the body. For him, a true democracy is a vital totality encompassing all the people, and thereby it becomes our only comfort in life and death.
Of old age he wrote these lines:
“I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself
grandly as it pours into the great sea [of death].”
He also thought that the nation was capable of redemption, and that it had a redeemer: Abraham Lincoln. In 1871, six years after Lincoln’s assassination, he summarized his thought in this poem:
“This dust was once the man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute, under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these states.”
It is noteworthy also that the only rhymed poem in “Leaves of Grass” is his elegy for Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!”
Whether a nation can be redeemed, whether the past can be redeemed, remain open questions, which becomes especially relevant when one takes into account the current state of affairs in this nation, and, beyond it, in the world. One thing is certain: a nation of immigrants that closes its borders to anyone seeking refuge and a better life is in violation of its own principles.
Postscript: The first edition of “Leaves of Grass” is available in a Penguin paperback; the “deathbed edition” is also available in paperback by Vintage. They should by at everyone’s bedside. “The Portable Whitman” is also recommended for its ample collection of Whitman’s prose writings, especially his “Democratic Vistas.”
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