"The Divine Literatus Comes": Religion and Poetry
in the Cultivation of Democratic Selfhood
Irrespective of Whitman's attitude towards the real American nation in the spring of 1865, it is nevertheless clear that the experience of writing "Calamus," Drum-Taps, and Sequel to Drum-Taps had the effect of permanently altering his poetic grammar—and thus, the vision of an ideal America he was capable of rendering in poetry. Critics often regard this change in the poet's career as a degradation in his ability, perhaps the consequence of a growing conservatism, a desire for a more "respectable" reputation, or just plain exhaustion. But while it is true that by 1865 he had already composed his greatest poetic works (with the exception of "Passage to India"), perhaps the real change marked by the works mentioned above was not so much a degradation as a complication, not a subtle repudiation of the vision his earlier poetics affirm, but a need to confront the many tensions it embodies. Thus, while the sweeping idealistic conceptions of Whitman's early work do indeed seem either irrelevant or antithetical to his more clipped and realistic late work, it may be more appropriate to treat this shift as marking a necessary doubleness in a coherent and comprehensive vision. Moreover, because the truths his vision speaks are at once opposed to each other yet also mutually dependent, it would have been practically impossible for the poet to discover them in such depth at the same moment in his career. That is, on the one hand, the language of agency Whitman develops while coming to terms with the experience he manages in Calamus would seem to be an indispensable element in any mature vision of democratic life; the same appears true of his recognition in Drum-Taps that human history cannot be treated as simply another expression of a balanced and ultimately safe natural history. Yet, on the other hand, it seems equally true that, had the poet been in full possession of these realizations in 1855, it is not likely that he could have produced such a rich and deeply insightful vision of democracy's cosmic dimensions as "Song of Myself."
Yet 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. The result is his very complex and difficult essay, Democratic Vistas. And here, I argue, 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, I believe, is his most profound and sustained meditation on democratic life; it is not only a comprehensive theory of democratic culture, but also an ambitious program, informed by his own native pragmatism, for the remediation of American culture and the full democratization of American society.
In this chapter I will attempt to piece together the elements of that pragmatic program, beginning with its democratic poetics—Whitman’s understanding of how imaginative literature functions (and should function) to promulgate the cultural assumptions that govern social life. Next, I will consider the centerpiece of Democratic Vistas, Whitman’s interrelated models for democratic self and society that shape the substance of the cultural assumptions he would have literature promote. And finally, I will explore how Whitman’s conception of democratic culture culminates in the notion of a secular, democratic religion. To experience democracy religiously, Whitman seemed to believe, was to come to a deep, emotional and spiritual understanding of the complex material ties that bind people together in a web of mutual obligation.
Aristocratic Literature and the Fossilization of Power
Much of Whitman's insight in Democratic Vistas comes as a response to Thomas Carlyle's 1867 polemic against democracy, "Shooting Niagara: and After?" Whitman had always understood that democracy could only be justified by a faith that every human being possessed a natural capacity for self-governance; thus, he was content in "the simple idea that the last, best dependence is to be upon humanity itself, and its own inherent, normal, full-grown qualities."1 But Carlyle, of course, had no such faith; inflamed by the enactment of Disraeli's Reform Bill, he argued that the slide toward greater and greater democracy in Britain and America was like shooting Niagara in a barrel. Human beings, he was sure, had no native gift for self-governance, and democracy only exacerbated their worst instincts:
" This is called the Constitutional system, Conservative system, and other fine names; and this at last has its fruits,--such as we see. Mendacity hanging in the very air we breathe; all men become, unconsciously or half or wholly consciously, liars to their own souls and to other men's; grimacing, finessing, paraphrasing, in continual hypocrisy of word, . . . clearly sincere about nothing whatever, except in silence, about the appetites of their own huge belly, and the readiest method of assuaging these. From a population of that sunk kind, ardent only in pursuits that are low and in industries that are sensuous and beaverish, there is little peril of human enthusiasms, or revolutionary transports, such as occurred in 1789.2"
"I was at first roused to much anger and abuse by this essay from Mr. Carlyle," Whitman wrote in a footnote to his Vistas, "so insulting to the theory of America." Even so, he had to acknowledge that he "had more than once been in the like mood" (PW 375). Several passages later, for example, he casts his own thoughts as the words of a "foreigner, an acute and good man" he had met before the war, and quotes him as saying:
"I have travel'd much in the United States, and watch'd their politicians, and listen'd to the speeches of the candidates, and read the journals, and gone into the public houses, and heard the unguarded talk of men. And I have found your vaunted America honeycomb'd from top to toe with infidelism, even to itself and its own programme. . . . I have everywhere found, primarily, thieves and scalliwags arranging the nominations to offices, and sometimes filling the offices themselves. . . . Of the holders of public office in the Nation or the States or their municipalities, I have found that not one in a hundred has been chosen by any spontaneous selection of the outsiders, the people, but all have been nominated and put through by little or large caucuses of the politicians, and have got in by corrupt rings and electioneering, not capacity or desert. I have noticed how the millions of sturdy farmers and mechanics are thus the helpless supple-jacks of comparatively few politicians. And I have noticed more and more, the alarming spectacle of parties usurping the government, and openly and shamelessly wielding it for party purposes." (PW 386)
Whitman's "mood" may indeed have been similar to Carlyle's; but here, his diagnosis was not. Where Carlyle saw a democratic herd whose "low-minded" instincts made it highly vulnerable to rhetorical seduction, Whitman saw a corrupt political establishment that retained its power by excluding the "common man"--those "sturdy farmers and mechanics." For Carlyle, too much democracy; for Whitman, too little. Still, Whitman's critique was not exclusively systemic. In an earlier passage, he had to "[c]onfess that everywhere, in shop, street, church, theatre, barroom, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning, infidelity--everywhere the youth puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe--everywhere an abnormal libidinousness." (PW 372). Like Carlyle, Whitman saw about him a nation of individuals ill-suited for democracy; but unlike Carlyle, as we shall see, he did not regard the behavior that troubled him as something essential to either human nature or democratic practice.
Carlyle's famous remedy for the excesses of democracy was to call for leadership from the "Aristocracy of Nature," those few who are equipped to live a "heroically human life" because they have been endowed by God with "wisdom, human talent, nobleness and courage."3 Literature, particularly biography, becomes especially important in this regard, for, as he argues in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, it is in the great literature of the past that we find the heroic principle exemplified.4 At first blush, Whitman would seem to offer a prescription which closely tracks Carlyle's reliance upon the heroic: in order to remediate "these lamentable conditions, to breathe into them the breath recuperative of sane and heroic life" he proposed "a new founded literature" (PW 372). But in fact, it is on just this point that Whitman turns most dramatically from Carlyle's solution—and, in the process, articulates a strikingly modern understanding of literature's political dimension. The imperative of Whitman's "new literature" was not to return to the past, but rather to break from it, for it was
not merely to copy and reflect existing surfaces, or pander to what is called taste--not to amuse, pass away time, celebrate the beautiful, the refined, the past, or exhibit technical, rhythmic, or grammatical dexterity --but a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men. (PW 372)
Like Carlyle, Whitman was interested in the moral function of literature, the "teaching and training of men." That literature has such a moral function to perform has been a staple of Western criticism since Aristotle. But what distinguishes Whitman's treatment here of literature's moral dimension is his recognition that aesthetic "taste" encodes the values of an historical "past," while moral education, properly conceived, should prepare people to live in the present. What literature teaches, he suggests, is not an ahistorical conception of virtue, but one which is, to some extent at least, historically contingent. More significant still is Whitman's understanding of both the inevitability and pervasiveness of literature's moral function. The moral process in literature is not limited to entertainingly packaged exhortations to do good which the reader may choose to ignore; rather, literature transmits the entire shared epistemology of a civilization--an epistemology, moreover, which is always in service of political and historical needs. In the opening paragraphs of the essay, for example, he writes that "[f]ew are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will" (PW 366). For support, he turns to ancient Greece and Medieval Europe:
"Nearer than this. It is not generally realized, but it is true, as the genius of Greece, and all the sociology, personality, politics and religion of those wonderful states, resided in their literature or esthetics, that what was afterwards the main support of European chivalry, the feudal, ecclesiastical, dynastic world over there--forming its osseous structure, holding it together for hundreds, thousands of years, preserving its flesh and bloom, giving it form, decision, rounding it out, and so saturating it in the conscious and unconscious blood, breed, belief, and intuitions of men, that it still prevails powerful to this day, in defiance of the mighty changes of time--was its literature, permeating to the very marrow, especially that major part, its enchanting songs, ballads, and poems." (PW 366)
By describing the totalizing, "saturating," "permeating," influence of literature on the "conscious and unconscious" beliefs and even "intuitions" of an entire People, Whitman has, of course, described something like the modern conception of culture. Or more precisely, he has conflated culture with the rhetorical forms by which culture is manifested and perpetuated. In this, too, Whitman was not entirely original. In Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine's The History of English Literature (the English translation of which appeared in 1871, just a few months after Whitman's publication of the full Democratic Vistas), Taine argued that a work of literature reflects not only the race and historical moment, but also the "milieu," of its origins.5 But whereas for Taine, culture was something inert in literature--something it passively reflected--for Whitman, literature was culture's shaping force. This is to say that, even though Whitman agreed that literature bore the marks of its historical origins, he was far more interested in (or aware of) the ways in which literature (and language) institutionalizes and perpetuates the values and power relations it encodes, long after their historical moment has passed. "[I]t is strictly true," he wrote, "that a few first‑class poets, philosophs, and authors, have substantially settled and given status to the entire religion, education, law, sociology, &c., of the hitherto civilized world, by tinging and often creating the atmospheres out of which they have arisen" (PW 366-67). And therein lies the problem, for what those "first-class poets" and others have institutionalized is an imaginative conception of the individual as a subservient being who must find its place within a feudal, hierarchical political system:
"Dominion strong is the body's; dominion stronger is the mind's. What has fill'd, and fills to‑day our intellect, our fancy, furnishing the standards therein, is yet foreign. The great poems, Shakspere included, are poisonous to the idea of the pride and dignity of the common people, the life‑blood of democracy. The models of our literature, as we get it from other lands, ultramarine, have had their birth in courts, and bask'd and grown in castle sunshine; all smells of princes' favors." (PW 388)
Whitman saw that the disease which afflicted democracy was indeed, as Carlyle might have put it, its reliance upon individuals who were in the main ill-equipped to govern themselves. But for Whitman, this was a point of social--not individual--criticism. Or more to the point, Whitman did not believe there to be a meaningful distinction between the two. The problem with the common man was the feudal ideas that informed his character--much the way the common woman of America suffered from "this fossil and unhealthy air which hangs about the word lady" (PW 389). Clearly, Whitman understood that individual human identity must reconcile itself to the political and economic norms of its social environment; thus no "People [who] have been listening to poems in which common humanity, deferential, bends low, humiliated, acknowledging superiors" can reasonably be regarded as prepared for egalitarian self-government (PW 412).
Political criticism, in other words, is in the first instance, literary criticism--which is to say, cultural criticism; for it is the culture that supplies the fictive models of identity appropriate to the political system in which the individual resides. America's political dysfunction, then, is a result of it seeming "singularly unaware that the models of persons, books, manners, &c., appropriate for former conditions and for European lands, are but exiles and exotics here. No current of her life, as shown on the surfaces of what is authoritatively called her society, accepts or runs into social or esthetic democracy; but all the currents set squarely against it. Never, in the Old World, was thoroughly upholster'd exterior appearance and show, mental and other, built entirely on the idea of caste, and on the sufficiency of mere outside acquisition--never were glibness, verbal intellect, more the test, the emulation--more loftily elevated as head and sample--than they are on the surface of our republican states this day. The writers of a time hint the mottoes of its gods. The Word of the modern, say these voices, is the word Culture." (PW 395)
By using the word "Culture" as a pejorative, Whitman has in mind, of course, the more narrow conception commonly associated (then as now) with elitist Victorian theories of education. The very word itself, in fact, prompts him to immediately quip that "[w]e find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy." Ironically, Whitman's rationale for disdaining the Victorian conception of culture in fact links him to the more modern school of cultural criticism at the same time that it functions as a critique of many of its excesses. For instance, in asking the elitists of his time whether "the processes of culture," that is, morally educative fictions, were "rapidly creating a class of supercilious infidels," he certainly anticipates the twentieth-century insight into the fictive and ideological quality of selfhood. And, by pointing out that those processes of culture were actually subjugating the as yet unrealized democratic America to the hierarchical forms of feudal society--a society kept alive through the artistic conventions it gave rise to--he also demonstrates an intuitive appreciation for the intricate ways that art and material society create each other. Thus, he would have offered qualified endorsement, I believe, to Stephen Greenblatt's formulation that "the work of art is the product of a negotiation between a creator or class of creators, equipped with a complex, communally shared repertoire of conventions, and the institutions and practices of society"--for such, in any event, is his understanding of the feudal inheritance.6 This is not to say, however, that he thought either those artistic conventions or those social practices as beyond modification by criticism; to the contrary, Democratic Vistas is a kind of blueprint for a kind of literary criticism designed to promote social change.
Yet at the same time, the formulations Whitman developed as a response to nineteenth century advocates of "high culture" serve as useful correctives to some modern theoretical trends. Even though art can never be completely dissociated from the prevalent epistemological assumptions of its social context--and even though it is those assumptions, as translated into narratives, which are most likely to inform the fictive material an individual uses in the process of identity formation--still, Whitman insists, the self is something far more complex than merely the local manifestation of a literary, artistic, cultural, epistemological, or ideological phenomenon. For example, he will caution that individualism is in fact an outgrowth of such "opposite ideas" as national types. Hence "the mass or lump character" must always be "provided for. Only from it, and from its proper regulation . . . comes the chance of individualism." At the same time, he must immediately point out that "[t]he two are contradictory, but our task is to reconcile them" (PW 373). Not an easy task, for as he points out later in the essay, "[t]he quality of Being, in the object's self, according to its own central idea and purpose, . . . is the lesson of nature." Too much "cultivation," in the Victorian sense of the word, and one loses "the precious idiocrasy and special nativity and intention that he is" (PW 394). Thus he would not have agreed with Louis Althusser's sweeping reduction of subjectivity to the process of ideological structuration by the "state apparatuses" of capitalism; nor would he have agreed with the notion that identity is, as Foucault somewhere says, a mere fold in language. Identity, as Whitman insisted to the nineteenth-century purveyors of "high culture," is not just a cultural, but also a natural, fact. Indeed, it may even be the natural qualities of selfhood which are most deserving of veneration: "Shall a man lose himself in countless masses of adjustments," he asks, "and be so shaped with reference to this, that, and the other, that the simply good and healthy and brave parts of him are reduced and clipp'd away, like the bordering of a box in a garden?" (PW 395). The answer of Democratic Vistas is clearly no. But the answer only begs further questions; consequently, Whitman's elaboration of cultural democracy necessarily entails not only an understanding of how the self is born of both natural and cultural forces, but also how that self must function in a democratic society.
A "Programme of Culture"
One of the primary difficulties of literature, Whitman believes, is that it does not adequately account for the natural dimension of human life; consequently, finding some language capable of doing so becomes the first order of business of his “programme” of democratic culture. "Literature, strictly consider'd," he observes, "has never recognized the People, and whatever may be said, does not to-day" (PW 376). Rarely does one find "a fit scientific estimate and reverent appreciation of the People--of their measureless wealth of latent power and capacity, their vast, artistic contrasts of lights and shades--with, in America, their entire reliability in emergencies, and a certain breadth of historic grandeur, of peace or war, far surpassing all the vaunted samples of book-heroes, or any haut ton coteries, in all the records of the world." (PW 376-77)
Here Whitman wishes not only to represent, but also to valorize those qualities of the People--both individually and collectively--which they possess existentially, independent of cultural determinants. Such a "fit scientific estimate and reverent appreciation," he is sure, will "show that popular democracy, whatever its faults and dangers, practically justifies itself beyond the proudest claims and wildest hopes of its enthusiasts" (PW 377). To the modern ear, this wish will seem highly problematic: even if one were to assume that selfhood could be located, even partially, outside the realm of culture, still, the very call for a literature--a cultural device--capable of reducing the "non-cultural" aspects of self to the cultural medium of language will strike some as oxymoronic. No linguistic description of such a self, the familiar argument runs, can exist free of cultural bias. Nevertheless, we may resolve this paradox for Whitman, I believe, by simply declining to describe the self in ontological terms; rather, we may be satisfied to point to a sort of acting presence, recognizable only by its effects. In this it will be useful to return briefly to George Herbert Mead's distinction between the "I" and the "me," outlined in an earlier chapter of this study. The reader will recall that Mead understood the human sense of selfhood--self as an object of its own recognition--as a product of the relationship between two psychic functions: the subjective "I" and the objective (and social) "me." For Mead, the term "me" identifies the complex web of attitudes and values that govern social life, particularly as those cultural codes are "internalized," that is, imagined by an individual as conditioning the interplay of daily experience. This is to say that when people think of "themselves," they are conjuring up entities who are only visible to consciousness through the act of their negotiating with other objects and "selves." The "me" then, is the "cultured" aspect of the self. But there is also an uncultured aspect of the self, that which Mead calls the "I," the impulsive and immediate function of the self, whose novel responses to new situations has the effect of continuously modifying the objective "me" which is brought into consciousness. Just as the "me" is an historical entity in that it exists in time, as the record of a near infinite number of human negotiations with other selves and the material forces at play in the environment, so the "I" exists outside of culture and time; it is a potentiality to act in time--a latent capacity.7
In this light, Whitman's focus in the above passage on the physical virtues of the people is more explicable. By honoring their "wealth of latent power"--the kind of native will to act which precedes thought thus making them entirely reliable in emergencies (if perhaps less so at those times affording reflection)--he effectively marks off the impulsive "I," the natural, existential aspect of self, from critical sanction. It is the cultured self, the "me," in Mead's terms, which needs remediation. Indeed, Whitman would appear to suggest that it is the "I" which stands as proof that the "me" is redeemable. For it is not the intellection of the people he singles out, but their physicality--the many acts of personal strength and courage such as were exemplified in "the late secession war"--that "show that popular democracy, whatever its faults and dangers, practically justifies itself beyond the proudest claims and wildest hopes of its enthusiasts" (PW 377). And this justification holds even though "general humanity," as he immediately reminds us in the next paragraph, "has always, in every department, been full of perverse maleficence, and is so yet" (PW 379). Much later in the essay Whitman draws on the same logic of a bifurcated self as he outlines his program for remediation. "Pardon us," he begs mockingly of "Culture," "if we have seem'd to speak lightly of your office."
The whole civilization of the earth, we know, is yours, with all the glory and the light thereof. It is, indeed, in your own spirit, and seeking to tally the loftiest teachings of it, that we aim these poor utterances. (PW 403)
Nevertheless, there is more to being human than culture:
"For you, too, mighty minister! know that there is something greater than you, namely, the fresh, eternal qualities of Being. From them, and by them, as you at your best, we too evoke the last, the needed help, to vitalize our country and our days." (PW 403)
Though Whitman seems to invest more meaning in "the eternal qualities of Being" than Mead does in the "I," it is clear that both constructs are conceived as aspects of self that are prior to anything social or cultural; neither can fully account for the self, for the self is socially constructed as well. But since it is the social aspect of the self that is most susceptible to corruption, it is the social self that must be reconstructed through a program that makes use of those "fresh, eternal qualities of Being," the more or less physical traits for which cultural analogues (e.g., moral courage and decisiveness) might be imagined. "Thus we pronounce not so much against the principles of culture," Whitman continues, "we only supervise it, and promulge along with it, as deep, perhaps a deeper, principle" (PW 403).
The "deeper principle" Whitman would advance is not the antithesis of culture (in either the Victorian or modern sense of the word) but a selective synthesis of cultural and natural dimensions of selfhood in a democratic model of identity. "I should demand a programme of culture," he announces in formulating the "democratic ethnology of the future"; but the aim is not to create a standardized personality type congenial to prevalent economic power. Rather, Whitman's doctrine seeks to employ the cultural mechanisms necessary to "vitalize man's free play of special Personalism" in order to establish "over this continent, an idiocrasy of universalism" (PW 395, 396). The phrase "idiocrasy of universalism" is especially interesting because it captures the paradoxical relationship entailed in the doctrine between the self imagined as autonomous and the ubiquitous culture upon which it depends. Whitman's Personalism, that is, is a system of government whereby the individual self rules over itself; but this "idiocrasy" is only secured and sustained to the extent that it is ideologically informed by a universalized culture. Personalism, then, regards neither the individual nor the collective as supreme to the other in any sense, for they do not jockey for hierarchical position; rather, they are different aspects of the same "social self," distinguished only, perhaps, by their respective functions:
"For to democracy, the leveler, the unyielding principle of the average, is surely join'd another principle, equally unyielding, closely tracking the first, indispensable to it, opposite, (as the sexes are opposite,) and whose existence, confronting and ever modifying the other, often clashing, paradoxical, yet neither of highest avail without the other, plainly supplies to these grand cosmic politics of ours, and to the launch'd forth mortal dangers of republicanism, to-day or any day, the counterpart and offset whereby Nature restrains the deadly original relentlessness of all her first-class laws. This second principle is individuality, the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself--identity--personalism." (PW 391)
As the above passage suggests, such terms as "self," "society," "democracy," and "individualism" are not stable categories but mutually modifying dimensions of some larger whole. Each is implicated in the other and all are conceived as both natural as well as cultural facts--two terms that also blur and defy simple categorical separation. So as we attempt to derive a schematic of the democratic self from Whitman's "programme of culture," it is with the understanding that he thought of his model of identity as less a matter of artifice (an arbitrarily designed cultural construct, superadded to natural human society) than as the cultural extrapolation of natural, existential democracy itself--an expression primarily valuable as a critical standard.
For Whitman, the ideal democratic self, the centerpiece of his programme of culture, is based on a triadic model that stresses physical, mental and religious development. A "towering selfhood,” he calls it, “not physically perfect only--not satisfied with the mere mind's and learning's stores, but religious, possessing the idea of the infinite" (PW 403). Though he here privileges the religious, it is clear that the other two elements, the physical and mental, are important as well—and all three dimensions are more complex than they might at first appear. Of the physical, he writes that "[t]o our model, a clear-blooded, strong-fibred physique, is indispensable;" the mature "well-begotten self" should be "brave, perceptive, under control, neither too talkative nor too reticent, neither flippant nor sombre; of the bodily figure, the movements easy, the complexion showing the best blood, somewhat flush'd, breast expanded, an erect attitude, a voice whose sound outvies music, eyes of calm and steady gaze, yet capable also of flashing, . . ." (PW 397)
That Whitman assumed a real correspondence between physical and moral prowess--and that he further believed such powers to be inheritable--are notions that modern critics often single out for their problematic implications. M. Jimmie Killingsworth, for example, is troubled that "Whitman's women--rather than developing fully as the archetypal model for creative power--become something of a cog in the eugenic machine."8 And certainly, no thoughtful consideration of Whitman's treatment of the body in Democratic Vistas can pretend ignorance of his fascination with eugenics.
That said, an interpretation of the way physicality functions in Whitman's democratic theory need not be restricted by eugenicist theory. Following George Herbert Mead's construction of the I/me relationship, I have already argued above that physicality in Democratic Vistas functions well as the immediate, impulsive aspect of the self, precursor and counterpoint to the cultured realm of self-consciousness. To that point I would like to add two simple--but related and important--points: first, that Whitman's emphasis on the physical serves to underscore the primary significance of action as a principle criterion of human value. Action is at the heart of Whitman's Pragmatism, as it is at the heart of pragmatic theory generally. It is the same pragmatic impulse, for example, that prompted Emerson to observe in "Experience" that at Brook Farm "the noblest theory of life sat on the noblest figures of young men and maidens, quite powerless and melancholy. It would not rake or pitch a ton of hay; it would not rub down a horse; and the men and maidens it left pale and hungry."9 And it is the same instinct that lay behind William James' claim in Pragmatism that "the possession of true thoughts means everywhere the possession of invaluable instruments of action."10 Pragmatic thinkers have characteristically held that fundamentally, life is an activity before it is--or can be--anything else. Whitman's stress on the physical, which is to say the capacity of the self to act, serves to remind us that quality in life derives in part from an ability to generate and control the activity of living.
This is the context for the second point I wish to make about Whitman's emphasis on physicality. The beauty of his "strong-fibered physique" is not at all reducible to some ideal proportionality of parts. This is no celebration of the “ideal” body. Indeed, most of the attributes Whitman celebrates are completely invisible in a motionless, resting body. They are not simply passive, inherent properties of being, but qualities of action that are presumed to be indicative of essential qualities of being. These valorized qualities might thus be the recognizable features of a person who tempers or manages his or her actions—one who is "under control," able to achieve an ease of movement, or has an ability to modulate speech and mood. The same qualities might also, of course, be evinced by one liberated to act in a prudent yet decisive way in society--bravery, the expanded breast, erect attitude, and "eyes of calm and steady gaze, yet capable also of flashing." This is neither narcissism nor the creed of a cult of athleticism: in its physicality, Whitman's model does not stand as a call to muscular symmetry and development, but rather muscular achievement.
The second aspect of Whitman’s model democratic self, "the mental-educational part," is one he curiously chooses to articulate in cautious, almost reluctant terms: "enlargement of intellect, stores of cephalic knowledge, &c., the concentration thitherward of all the customs of our age, especially in America, is so overweening, and provides so fully for that part, that, important necessary as it is, it really needs nothing from us here--except, indeed, a phrase of warning and restraint." (PW 397)
Though Whitman does not, in fact, detail the reason for his uneasiness with mental processes, it is still reasonably clear that it stems from his oft-stated his fear of the way the too-highly cultured intellect alienates a person from his or her own authentic--original--goodness. It is only when "Causes, original things, being attended to," he writes, that "the right manners unerringly follow" (PW 397). But his fear of the mind’s power to distort is also, of course, a profound appreciation of its enormous power, as he suggests later in the essay when he writes that "we have again pointedly to confess that all the objective grandeurs of the world yield themselves up, and depend on mentality alone" (PW 404). Both the magic and the danger of mind derive from its role as mediator between the material world and the human soul.
Here, and here only, all balances, all rests. "For the mind, which alone builds the permanent edifice, haughtily builds it to itself. By it, with what follows it, are convey'd to mortal sense the culminations of the materialistic, the known, and a prophecy of the unknown. To take expression, to incarnate, to endow a literature with grand and archetypal models--to fill with pride and love the utmost capacity, and to achieve spiritual meanings, and suggest the future--these, and these only, satisfy the soul. We must not say one word against real materials; but the wise know that they do not become real till touched by emotions, the mind." (PW 404)
In claiming that the mind functions to make "real materials" truly real, Whitman employs two connotations of the word real: first, the mind makes things real by vitalizing them, making them seem more immediate by investing them with a sense of emotional urgency; second, the mind realizes materiality by organizing it into prophetic "spiritual meanings" which "satisfy the soul." That is, not only does the mind construct the reality in which we live, it directs the way we live by constructing an emotionally and spiritually satisfying vision of the future we might build. Viewed in this light, Whitman's caution is far less a call to have the workings of mind scrupulously authenticated by the native inclinations of the primitive human than it is a keen awareness of the fact that we construct the reality in which we live.
For some, Whitman’s use of the term “spiritual” in the passage above to describe one of the mind’s functions might suggest that he is blurring the categories of his model. After all, spirituality is often associated with the moral and the religious—and “Religiousness” is the third dimension of his model. A similar concern might have been raised regarding his treatment of body and mind. In his discussion of physicality, for example, it may have appeared as though he located the moral aspect of being in the body--and hoped to preserve it from the corruptions of mind and culture. Indeed, this is the source of his trepidation of European modes of culture and education. Likewise, in the context of his treatment of mentality, he discusses the importance of the conscience; and in an earlier version of the essay he asserted that "[t]he subtle antiseptic called health is not more requisite to the bodily physiology, than Conscience is to the moral and mental physiology" (PW 398, emphasis added). Taken together, these seemingly divergent trends in Whitman's thought might suggest that he was unsure about whether moral capacity was physical or mental. This is a confusion, however, only when viewed from within the framework of a rigidly held mind/body dualism--which, as Dewey observed of all such philosophies, begin misguidedly with the "results of a reflection that has already torn in two, the subject-matter experienced and the operations and states of experiencing."11 Whitman’s blurring of such categorical distinctions, then, only underscores the fact that he wrote from the pragmatic perspective of an integrated self in which mind and body are understood as but conceptual tools for analysis. And from this perspective, it makes perfect sense to write on the one hand of an individual's capacity to act on a vision of the good, and on the other, of an individual's capacity to conceptualize that good which must be acted upon.
The third component of Whitman's model democratic self, “Religiousness,” is also both less and more than it might seem. For example, although he does believe that the conscience must be influenced by a powerful religious sensibility, absent which the "modern civilizee, with his all-schooling and his wondrous appliances, will still show himself but an amputation," moral instinct, for Whitman, is really more of a tangent of what he calls “religiousness” than its essential core (PW 398). His notion of religiousness is more in line with transcendental thought. It is a highly privatized emotional state--completely antithetical to the social institutions of "churches and creeds"--characterized by "the meditation, the devout ecstasy, the soaring flight" (PW 398). "Only here," he writes, when one is removed from the public practices of worship, can one find
communion with the mysteries, "the eternal problems, whence? whither? Alone, and identity, and the mood--and the soul emerges, and all statements, churches, sermons, melt away like vapors. Alone, and silent thought and awe and aspiration--and then the interior consciousness, like a hitherto unseen inscription, in magic ink, beams out its wondrous lines to the sense. Bibles may convey, and priests expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one's isolated Self, to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable." (PW 399)
Whitman’s triadic model of democratic selfhood is certainly the heart of his notion of “Personalism,” his “programme of culture.” But it is not the whole. For Whitman, full democratic selfhood is impossible to imagine outside the context of a fully democratic society. Hence, his triadic ideal of the democratic self is inextricably connected to another triad, a three-stage developmental model of social democracy. The first stage is characterized by the "planning and putting on record the political foundation rights of immense masses of people--indeed all people," and the various political institutions dedicated to preserving those rights; the second stage is "material prosperity," by which he means the development of a broad-based industrial and consumer economy, supported by technological innovations and an educational infrastructure. Confident that in America these two stages had been achieved, Whitman now heralded the "Third stage, rising out of the previous ones"--a democratic literary culture, capped "by a sublime and serious Religious Democracy sternly taking command, dissolving the old, sloughing off surfaces, and from its own interior and vital principles, reconstructing, democratizing society" (PW 410). A democratic religious aesthetic is the ultimate achievement of both individual as well as social development. And the fact that he writes of this religious aesthetic as both an intensely private feature of individual consciousness and a ubiquitous cultural force capable of reconstructing all of society does not point to a contradiction in his models, but underscores their reciprocity.
Whitman’s conception of democratic religion, then, is the point at which his models for democratic self and democratic society clearly intersect. And so it is important to understand what Whitman meant by "religious democracy"—and particularly, how he distinguished between its extremely private and its radically public functions. In order to do so, however, it is first necessary to comment on the reciprocity of his models for self and society. The point has already been made that Whitman saw self and society as integral parts of some larger unity; but it should also be remembered that “democracy” was not only the name he assigned to that unity, but also the process by which it was achieved. And the idea of democracy as a fundamental life process—beyond, that is, the commonplace understanding of the democratic process as a political system entailing elections and the like—is central to his conception of how his models of self and society interrelate. "The purpose of democracy," he wrote early in the essay, " . . . is to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man, properly train'd in sanest, highest, freedom, may and must become a law, and a series of laws, unto himself, surrounding and providing for, not only his own personal control, but all his relations to other individuals, and to the State" (PW 374-75). What self and society share, in other words, is a process for self-regulation; the tools, talents and mechanics that individuals employ to govern their own lives are, in some sense, the same as those necessary for the governance of social relations. It follows then that for Whitman, self and society mutually reinforced each other; for to be “properly train’d” in the process of managing one, is to be schooled in the process of managing the other. Indeed, Whitman’s emphatic insistence that democracy validate itself "at all hazards" no doubt stems from his fear that, absent the energies of "train'd" and enlightened democratic citizens, Carlyle may well have the last word on democracy's dangers. And in so fearing, it is worth noting, we see just how far the poet has come from his faith in the notion of laissez-faire inevitability.
Whitman’s caveat that self-governance is only possible once man has been “properly train’d in sanest, highest freedom” also requires some explanation. Read out of context, it might appear that Whitman has resolved Carlyle’s complaint by constructing a deus ex machina by which democracy is stabilized by expert tutelage from without. How, and by whom, then, is the individual to be trained? Whitman’s initial answer, in fact, seems to acknowledge the need for a bureaucracy of experts: "I say the mission of government . . . is not repression alone," he writes, "and not authority alone, . . . [but] to train communities through all their grades, beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves" (PW 380). It soon becomes clear, however, that Whitman does not have in mind here state-sponsored instruction in the political arts; rather, he is describing the way democratic government functions as an educative experience. Since people are educated for self-governance (on both social and individual levels) only through the practice of self-governance, government’s most profound mission is to maintain itself as that vehicle of training. He writes that "[p]olitical democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training-school for making first-class men. It is life's gymnasium, not of good only, but of all" (PW 385). This is precisely the same point that Michael Walzer makes in his defense of multiculturalism: "[I]ndividuals are stronger, more confident, more savvy," he writes, "when they are participants in a common life, responsible to and for other people. … It is only in the context of associational activity that individuals learn to deliberate, argue, make decisions, and take responsibility."12 This is exactly the dynamic expressed by Dewey's maxim that human knowledge is a function of the laboring process: "[t]he exacting conditions imposed by nature that have to be observed in order that work be carried through to success,” Dewey writes, “are the source of all noting and recording of nature's doings" (EN 102).
Whitman imagines the same basic principle—except that, like Walzer, he is inclined to think of it as a fundamental of the political process in which the conditions of nature that must be learned are the social and cultural dynamics that must be successfully negotiated before collective life can move in some intelligent direction. The larger point, however, is that, once gained, democratic knowledge--the knowledge of how to participate in cooperative, egalitarian governance--can and should be applied to the problem of building a spiritual community. Political democracy is thus the first stage in his social model--not its conclusion--because it provides the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for further material and spiritual development. For this reason, Whitman regards the community, the collective practice of self-government, as more important than the notion of private individual private rights: "We endow the masses with the suffrage for their own sake, no doubt; then, perhaps still more, from another point of view, for community's sake. Leaving the rest to the sentimentalists, we present freedom as sufficient in its scientific aspect, cold as ice, reasoning, deductive, clear and passionless as crystal" (PW 381). But the meaning of community, of course, is not limited to the idea of local, political organization: "Did you, too, O friend, suppose that democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs" (PW 389).
Whitman’s democratic models of self and society, then, are connected through their interdependence: both are developmental, and each requires the energies of the other for its own development. Democracy is the process by which self and society nurture each other’s growth. True to his pragmatic sensibility, in other words, democracy is for Whitman what philosophy is for William James and experience is for John Dewey--a method. As such, it must forever look to the future it wishes to make better. He writes, "I submit, therefore, that the fruition of democracy, on aught like a grand scale, resides altogether in the future" (PW 390). This is an important feature of Democratic Vistas, but it should also serve as an important corrective to some modern critical appraisals. Some recent critics have interpreted Whitman's turn to the future as a measure of psychological compensation. David Reynolds, for example, writes in his cultural biography of the poet that "[h]is evolutionary framework allowed him to deflect things to the future, and, simultaneously, to accept even the less promising facets of the present."13 Perhaps. But if the suggestion is that the futurist orientation of Democratic Vistas is only significant as evidence of Whitman's desperate (and pathetic) struggle to preserve his faith in a failed democracy, then I believe the view is misguided. Democratic Vistas only makes explicit a view of process and the future that had been latent, implicit, and developing from the first edition of Leaves of Grass (as I attempted to make clear in my discussions of "Song of Myself" and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"). And however much this insight may have been nurtured by psychological need, it was also necessitated by the evolving logic of his own philosophy. "Thus," he concludes, "we presume to write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade, and a blank" (PW 391). And in so saying, he not only describes all those who have written in the pragmatic tradition such as Emerson, James, Dewey, but also all who are moved to speculate on the meaning of democratic life.
Here, then, we return to Whitman’s interconnected democratic models of self and society—in particular their intersecting third stage: democratic religion. Indeed, for Whitman, the meaning of democracy was ultimately a religious one. Some version of religion had always been important to him; but here, at the divide between his earlier, laissez-faire vision of democracy, and his mature vision of democratic life, religion takes on a deeper significance and a more central role. Now, individual “religiousness” (and its social counterpart, “Religious Democracy”) generally takes on an apparently mystical quality for Whitman, the emotional and spiritual core of a vital nation-building force: Along with poetry and literature, the "new Metaphysics," he writes in Democratic Vistas, were to be "the only sure and worthy supports and expressions of the American Democracy" (PW 416). In "Preface 1872--As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free," he would put the mater more directly, asserting that religion "must enter into the Poems of the Nation. It must make the nation."14 Whitman saw that to “make the nation” meant to conceptualize a national identity--not a nation of juxtaposed but dissociated souls such as he celebrated before 1860--but a public, a cohesive organization of free people motivated by an essential need to work together to build the structures of democratic life. More importantly, however, he recognized that this was essentially a cultural, indeed religious, project. Whitman believed that the desire to belong, to be a part of any human organization such as a nation, was a manifestation of an essential, far deeper (and far wider) human desire to feel organically connected to a power that holds together the rest of natural life. Years later, William James would make essentially the same point by arguing that religious or ecstatic experience is motivated by a deep need to sense that one's individual consciousness is actually "conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him."15 This may very well be a fundamentally religious desire, but, to the extent that the "MORE" is conceived of as social and democratic, it is also political--implying a set of social obligations.
Whitman attempts to take advantage of the bonding power of mystical experience by calling for a poetry that re-imagines the connections between self and society as an analogical extension of the connections between self and the cosmos. Thus he argues in a note to Democratic Vistas that however fine a literary work's esthetic or intellectual merits, it should be dismissed if it
violates or ignores, or even does not celebrate, the central divine idea of All, suffusing universe, of eternal trains of purpose, in the development, by however slow degrees, of the physical, moral, and spiritual kosmos. I say he has studied, meditated to no profit, whatever may be his mere erudition, who has not absorb'd this simple consciousness and faith. It is not entirely new--but it is for Democracy to elaborate it, and look to build upon and expand from it, with uncompromising reliance. (PW 418)
To celebrate "the central divine idea of all" is to use poetic expression as a vehicle for intuiting the democratic dimensions of the cosmos. This is not quite transcendental epistemology, however; for even though he would have the individual "enter the pure ether" so as to "commune with the unutterable," as he phrased it in a passage quoted earlier, he makes no promise that hard knowledge will somehow be the result. The real gain, he believes, is a heightened awareness of, and joy in, the interconnectedness of life itself. Indeed, he continues in the note cited directly above to say that "Though little or nothing can be known, perceiv'd, except from a point of view which is evanescent, yet we know at least one permanency, that Time and Space, in the will of God, furnish successive chains, completions of material births and beginnings, solve all discrepancies, fears and doubts, and eventually fulfill happiness" (PW 418). The awesome power of religious experience to make notions of connection seem real and immediate is also, of course, the source of its power to delude. As Whitman puts it, "even in religious fervor there is a touch of animal heat" (PW 415). Thus, he also cautions that—the emotion-induced sense of deep connection notwithstanding—the truth claims of religion are always suspect and must be subject to the critique of science; for "abstract religion," he writes, "is easily led astray, ever credulous, and is capable of devouring, remorseless, like fire and flame" (PW 416).
Whitman's democratic religion does not offer the mystical experience as an unmediated channel to the moral universe; rather, he has coordinated an apparently innate human desire for self-transcendence--the desire to feel oneself united with a universal order--with a conception of that order that has been derived from empirical science’s view of the physical universe and then cast into democratic terms. The ecstatic experience can offer a heightened appreciation of the metaphoric possibilities of the natural universe because it permits the private consciousness to project its intuition of an "All" onto a material universe already presumed to be unified by physical "laws." Thus, in moments of contemplation, when the mind is cleared of surrounding noise:
"Then noiseless, with flowing steps, the lord, the sun, the last ideal comes. By the names right, justice, truth, we suggest, but do not describe it. To the world of men it remains a dream, an idea as they call it. But no dream is it to the wise--but the proudest, almost only solid lasting thing of all. Its analogy in the material universe is what holds together this world, and every object upon it, and carries its dynamics on forever sure and safe." (PW 415).
The important analogy to be drawn, then, is not so much with the sum total of disparate parts that comprise a seemingly fragmented universe; rather, Whitman is concerned with the system of relations that makes it whole. In a meditative state, and through the intuitive observation of "the shows and forms presented by Nature, . . . and above all, from those developments either in Nature or human personality in which power . . . transacts itself," the poet, "by the divine magic of his genius, projects them, their analogies, by curious removes, indirections, in literature and art" (PW 419).
If Whitman were working within the rigid framework of some correspondence theory, he might fairly be accused of a foolish, perhaps even pernicious naiveté. After all, the material universe is an extremely violent place where the unifying transactions of power can just as easily seem brutal as they can loving and egalitarian. His is not a theory of correspondence, however, but a theory of poetry; the analogies for truth, right and justice are not to be found, but made. If we are to be a part of a universe far grander than ourselves--and if we are predisposed by a restless imagination to understand the deepest meaning of our lives as a derivative of our place in that universe, then organizing our empirical knowledge of that universe into a spiritual argument for democracy becomes an imperative. Thus when Whitman argues that the "Kosmos" is informed by "a moral purpose, a visible or invisible intention" that parallels the work of the "greatest literatus," he is but challenging those poets to shape the culture by reading the cosmos to warrant an "[i]ntense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man--which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviours of every land and age, and which seems to promise, when thoroughly develop'd, cultivated and recognized in manners and literature, the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these States." (PW 414)
In a note he adds that "democracy infers such loving comradeship, as its most inevitable twin or counterpart"; but comradeship is grounded pragmatically as well, for it "is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship, . . . that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof" (PW 414-15).
Whitman's assertion that religious practice is, in words quoted earlier, "exclusively for the noiseless operation of one's isolated Self, to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable," does not constitute a contradiction with his understanding of it as an essentially social, democratizing force (PW 399). Rather, religion for Whitman names a practice, a set of beliefs, an arrangement of social relationships, and a mode of feeling which, taken together, function to reconcile the private and public self. On the one hand, for example, Whitman's democracy is an individualistic, privatized way of life: throughout Democratic Vistas Whitman calls for an "idiocrasy," men and women whose "strong-fibered physique" and critical control over the constructions of the mind enable them each to become a "law and a series of laws unto himself" (PW 375). Even his endorsement of Jeffersonian political rights and Madisonian constitutional hydraulics underscores his acceptance of the notion of a bounded, autonomous self. Yet, on the other hand, the very fact that the self is bounded argues for some means of transcending those bounds--some way for the self to negotiate between its local autonomy and its place and function within a larger social--even cosmic--sphere.
The assertion that Whitman’s notion of democratic transcendence is organically and appropriately linked to his avowed project of nation-building is, however, not without controversy. One especially serious challenge to the idea has come from the political philosopher George Kateb in a series of recently published articles in which he offers a penetrating analysis of Whitman’s theory of democratic culture. For example, in his “Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy,” Kateb is particularly concerned with what he calls Whitman’s concept of “democratic individuality,” which he affirms and distinguishes from the poet’s “pursuit of an image of a democratic American nationality.” For Kateb, Whitman’s democratic individuality is based not on a celebration of the particularity of individual people—those psychologically or culturally based idiosyncrasies that set them apart from one another—but rather on the possibility of them coming to a deep (albeit fleeting) awareness of their fundamental sameness. All people, Kateb argues, share the same resevoir of latent potentiality; thus, “[a]ll the personalities I encounter, I already am: that is to say, I could become or could have become something like what others are.” Whitman is at his democratic best, then, when he is encouraging us to recognize this “highest truth about human beings,” teaching us to live “in receptivity or responsiveness, in a connectedness different from any other. Such connectedness is not the same as nationhood or group identity.” Indeed, Kateb views it as the very opposite of a heightened recognition of difference, particularity, or the “sinister project of nationalism.”16
The difficulty in Kateb’s view is not in his understanding of Whitman’s “democratic individualism,” for it seems to me that in his very subtle appreciation of Whitman’s individualism he captures the essence of the poet’s conception of democratic religion. The problem, I believe, is Kateb’s disinclination to recognize the corresponding value and necessity of group (or, indeed, national) identity—or to acknowledge that group identity can quite easily be reconciled with his notion of democratic individualism. Similar qualifications are, in fact, raised in several (otherwise favorable) responses to Kateb that appear along with the essay quoted above. Nancy L. Rosenblum, for example, cautions that despite Kateb’s commitment to rights-based democracy, in his “faithful[ness] to Whitman, what emerges most clearly is not the institutional apparatus of democratic politics,” but merely “pluralist democratic culture.”17 But of course, democratic politics is, in large measure, a matter of seeking justice through the consolidation of particular cultural experiences, shared interests or ideological commitments into distinct “representative” group identities. And, as Leo Marx observed in his response to Kateb, “[w]hat really shapes the lives of most people in the United States is their socioeconomic and cultural status: their inclusion in groups defined by class, gender, race, or ethnicity.”18 By these lights, group identity is not so odious—and neither is national identity when similarly conceived as a mechanism for harnessing political will. Even Kateb is quick to acknowledge that “[i]t is better, however, not to pretend that receptivity can be a direct and continuous principle of public policy.”19
On the other hand, when we insist that Whitman’s notion of democratic religious experience be contextualized exactly as Whitman intended it to be—as one highly important ingredient in a larger, multifaceted theory of democratic culture, then we can begin to see how democratic “religiousness” might not only inculcate and strengthen a sense of democratic nationality, but also enlighten it by subordinating its darker possibilities. And it is in precisely that context that Kateb’s description of that experience becomes most powerful and poignant:
"Whitman’s highest hope must be that there will be moods or moments in which an individual comes to and remembers or realizes the deep meanings of living in a rights-based democracy. These occasions of self-concentration may be rare, but they should have some more pervasive and longer-lasting effect, even if somewhat thinned out. Whitman’s model for such moments is poetic inspiration, but his phrases about the mood of composition are interchangeable with those he uses in a Notebook to describe existential receptivity to the world: 'the idea of a trance, yet with all the senses alert—only a state of high exalted musing—the tangible and material with all its shows—the objective world suspended or surmounted for a while and the powers in exaltation, freedom, vision,' but also in democratically inspired deeds from the most casual to the most disciplined. Attentiveness and empathy, even if not continuously strong, gradually build up the overt connectedness of a democratically receptive culture: its tolerance, its hospitableness, and its appetite for movement, novelty, mixture, and impurity.20
Throughout this discussion I have referred to Democratic Vistas—particularly the theoretical framework that necessitates self-transcendence--as a theory of culture; and that it is, for something like the modern conception of culture lies beneath his recognition that "the social and the political world[s]" are not held together so much by "legislation, police, treaties, and dread of punishment, as [they are by] the latent eternal intuitional sense, in humanity, of [their] fairness, manliness, decorum, &c." (PW 421). But the term culture does not quite do justice to the importance Whitman places on ecstatic experience, particularly to his assumption that the desire for transcendence is an innate--and valuable--part of being human. Whitman's own interpretation of the word "religion" may come closer to describing the more apparently "mystical" aspects of his vision--yet this label, too, seems inappropriate for a vision that relies so deeply upon secular political arrangements, however corrupt, while expressing explicit hostility to the traditional religious institutions of church and creed, however sincere. Whitman's democratic vision defies categorization because democracy--as Whitman properly understood the word--can only suffer when confined to one or another corner of human life. That said, however, it is important to remember that Democratic Vistas is a democratic poetics. Near the conclusion of the essay, Whitman writes that "In the future of these States must arise poets immenser far, and make great poems of death. The poems of life are great, but there must be the poems of the purports of life, not only in itself, but beyond itself" (PW 421).
Much has already been said of Whitman's philosophy of death and its place in democratic ideology; here, it is important only to observe that death marks the divide between the 'me' and the 'not me,' the private self and everything else--the beginning point of transcendence. Just as physical death is the prerequisite for material decomposition and the individual's reunion with the dusty egalitarian cosmos from which life and identity spring, so figurative death--a fictive escape from the confines of selfhood--is necessary to vividly imagine our bonds to that social world that lies beyond private subjectivity. Whitman knew that full and complete democratic life depended upon our ability to be in that world, if only occasionally, and if for only a few, ecstatic moments--for the shadow of such moments is enough to cast doubt on the evidence of our senses that we are each, ultimately, alone and without obligation to others. And Whitman also knew that the creation of that world, and more, the dissemination of an imaginative experience of that world, lay far beyond the powers of expository discourse--for such things define the spiritual function of the democratic poet.