Essays and Excerpts

Whitman’s Theory of Organic Democracy

“Discussions of Whitman often begin with this central metaphor, his equation of the individual self with the entire, social and material universe . . . But if the safest thing we can say about Whitman’s own “kosmic” identity is that it really means everything, then perhaps the most important thing we can say about that everything is that it defines—and is defined by—democracy. . . .” more 

Americans: Ever Forgetful and Free

“Deep memory is simply out of bounds in America.  It’s the void that defines us.  Just as certain memories shape a personality in fairly predictable ways, so too the absence of memory forges a particular kind of character.  Make that absence a cultural policy and you get Americans. . . . ” more

John Ellsworth Mack 1912-2003

“John Mack seemed in every way a paradox.  Indeed, he was a most irreverent reverend.  He defied the expectations of those who confuse piety with timidity and cowardice, and, consciously or not, repudiated the notion that allegiance to the moral law of the universe could be gauged by one’s willingness to solemnly obey the rules of ‘polite society.’. . .”  more

On Teaching and Democracy

“Though I had begun my self-education process for narrow careerist purposes, and had treated writing as merely a skill one learned in order to communicate pre-existing thought, I could not fail to see that writing, and especially the process of learning to writ, was transforming me. . . .” more

What Father Did Know Best

“Prior to the birth of our son I had given a great deal of thought to being a parent—but no thought at all to being a father. Not, at least, since the age of seven or eight when I was pretty sure that I knew exactly what fathers did--and pretty sure as well that my own father did not.   Since both my parents worked, my father could not claim the status of "lone provider." He didn't hunt or fish or, for that matter, even look athletic. He didn't tinker with cars--didn't, in fact, even drive.   Yet, it seems to me now, that he was more of a "real" father than the cartoonish "Mr. Mom" version we are spoonfed today. . . .” more


The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy


“[For Whitman,] Loyalty to America . . . is loyalty to a utopian democratic creed—a  ‘civic religion.’  In practice, such patriotism means permitting oneself genuine pride in those moments in history when Americans were able to translate their ideals into successful public policy.   But even more importantly, it means laying legitimate claim to those democratic values and ideals—both as a resource for imagining new policy goals and as a powerful rhetorical tool to aid in achieving them.” more

Chapter 7 “‘The Divine Literatus Comes’: Religion and Poetry in the Cultivation of Democratic Selfhood”

“Whitman's "doubleness" is also, in many ways, America's doubleness, as the nation has always struggled to reconcile its ambitious ideals with the ugly realities that seem to belie them.  And by 1867, more troubled than he had ever been by America's doubleness, Whitman turned to prose in an attempt to resolve the contradiction between the obligations that democracy entails and the freedom it necessitates—indeed, to reconstruct his very vision of democracy in a way that accounts for both its promise and its failure . . .Whitman strives to orchestrate a multiplicity of dualities and tensions, in both America and in his vision of it, into a single conception of democratic culture, one that imagines the individual self as unique and free only in the context of participation in a democratic society . . . What emerges . . . is an ambitious program, informed by his own native pragmatism, for the remediation of American culture and the full democratization of American society.” more

“Conclusion: Toward an Organic Democracy”

“Whitman worked from the premise that his duty as the national bard was to put democratic theory, the cultural lifeblood of nineteenth-century America, to verse.  The poet's "spirit," he wrote in the 1855 Preface, "responds to his country's spirit"--and his country's spirit was democracy (CRE 713).  He also knew that it was only through the medium of poetry that he would be able to suggest the contours of an idea so comprehensive, yet so illusive and suffused with futurity, that its final and precise meaning could never be completely articulated.  "Thus,” he could assert in Democratic Vistas,  “we presume to write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade, and a blank." (PW 391)   But of course, such a formulation inevitably begs the pragmatic question: can so purposefully vague a theory of human organization—a map so “blank” as Whitman’s democracy—possibly matter?  Can such an abstract vision of associative life make any practical difference in the actual lives of real people?  I believe it can and does.” more

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