Whitman’s Theory of Organic Democracy
In section twenty-four of “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman’s most paradigmatic poem, the poet-narrator dramatically identifies himself and the scope of his literary mission: “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” (CRE 52). Discussions of Whitman often begin with this central metaphor, his equation of the individual self with the entire, social and material universe: “every atom belonging to me,” he declares, “as good belongs to you” (CRE 28). 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. Nine lines after he names himself (and all selves) the ultimate microcosm, he qualifies the claim by adding, “I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy.”
It is not surprising that Whitman made democracy the central concern of his literary vision. He was, in a sense, a political operative long before he became an innovative poet. His father was an enthusiast of the Democratic Party who claimed to his son to have been a friend of Thomas Paine. At the age of 21 he campaigned for Martin Van Buren, the handpicked successor of the great democrat of Whitman’s time, Andrew Jackson. And his education as a writer came largely as a result of his work for, and editorship of, several highly partisan New York newspapers from 1841 to 1849. Indeed, so intense were Whitman’s political sentiments that a few critics speculate that his turn to the more distant environs of visionary poetry in 1855 reflected some deep disillusionment with real-world politics as a vehicle of social change. If so, it is clear that visionary writing did nothing to alleviate his polemical instincts. In 1856, shortly after publishing his second edition of Leaves of Grass, he wrote “The Eighteenth Presidency,” a model of passionate political prose. In this unpublished tract, Whitman castigates the entire political class of The United States for its impotent attempts to confront the slavery crises, taking special aim at Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, presidents who
have shown that the villainy and shallowness of great rulers are just as eligible to These States as to any foreign despotism, kingdom, or empire—there is not a bit of difference. History is to record these two Presidencies as so far our topmost warning and shame. Never were publicly displayed more deformed, mediocre, sniveling, unreliable, false-hearted men! (Presidency 1310)
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that Whitman’s choice of democracy as poetic material derived merely from a preoccupation with politics. In the early nineteenth century, the curiosity of democracy was a widespread concern. It inspired nearly as much popular discussion as democratic politics. And to discuss democratic theory was to discuss America. When Whitman wrote that he used “America and democracy as convertible terms,” he was articulating an assumption widely shared in both the United States and Europe. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the first decades of that century he was but the most famous and insightful of what one historian refers to as the “stream of European visitors,” who came to discover whether “masterless men in a structureless society” could work (Wiebe 41). Though sometimes sympathetic, these “amateur scientists” “carefully compiled field reports” about “a strange new world” in which greed, uncouth manners, and hostility to class-based social hierarchy were creating a nation of ungovernable barbarians (Wiebe 42). To these observers, America was a problem because democracy was a problem. Both seemed the death knell of civilized life. But both also had its apologists—and Whitman was certainly among them. Thus as he nears the end of “Song of Myself,” the great poem that metaphorically yokes self and society within a democratic cosmos, he asks” Do you see O my brothers and sisters? / It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is happiness” (CRE 88).
The significance of Whitman’s most startling metaphor, however, transcends whatever small role it may have played in the debate over the virtues of practical democracy. More important is the way the metaphor itself enabled him to make a series of unprecedented—if under appreciated—contributions to democratic theory. In particular, Whitman’s imaginative formulation joins his two most useful theoretical innovations. First, Whitman’s democracy essentially erases the boundary between other democratic theories that traditionally compete with one another. Broadly speaking, notions of democracy divide into two camps: classical liberal theories that conceive the individual as a rights bearing autonomous being, and, alternatively, a host of other theories that either define the individual in essentially social terms or subordinate individuals to some notion of civic good. There are, of course, cross-fertilizations; but generally democratic ideas name either individualist or collective values as foundational and, therefore, those most necessary for the state to protect. By imaginatively erasing the distinction between the self and the social, however, Whitman denies privileged status to either loci of concern. Consequently, he advances a view of democracy that redefines the traditional interests of both the individual and the collective in ways that make them identical.
The second innovative contribution to democratic theory suggested by Whitman’s “kosmic” metaphor is its comprehensive scope. For Whitman, the universe, with all its conflicts and contradictions, is an organic whole—and democracy its defining quality and animating principle. This is to say that democracy names a variety of interdependent conditions and processes, none of which can be properly understood in isolation of the others. For example, the political process—arguably the central concern of most democratic theories—is for Whitman only one feature of total democracy; elections, he argues, are the political manifestation of a logic that operates throughout the universe. A full appreciation of democracy, then, requires an accounting of the ways the democratic processes of physical nature inform or parallel democratic social, political, economic and cultural practices—and, just as importantly, how our insights into the interrelation of those practices can guide our construction of the institutions that support democratic life.
Democracy and Nature
Whitman’s complete vision of democracy developed in stages throughout his poetic career, finally maturing with the publication of “Democratic Vistas” in 1871. His democratic ontology, however—his vision of a free and natural self—was fully articulated in the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Like many of the European political philosophers who precede him—most famously, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau—Whitman derives his notion of the political self from a conception of nature. But while it is true that each of the aforementioned philosophers constructed significantly different versions of the “state of nature,” Whitman’s conception of nature marked a radical, and instructive, departure from the entire tradition. In Western political thought, nature is typically evoked as a useful fiction, a hypothetical set of pre-civil conditions tailor-made to explain whatever version of the “social contract” a particular writer thinks ideal. Social contract theories generally legitimize state power either by stabilizing natural conditions thought desirable, or insulating human life from nature’s brutalizing vagaries. In all cases, social contracts function to separate human beings from their natural condition. But for Whitman, there was no separation. He regards human beings as thoroughly and inescapably natural beings. Hence the ideal state, the true state—the democratic state—is the one that most faithfully mirrors those qualities of nature Whitman regards as essential.
The significance of Whitman’s view of nature is especially striking when contrasted the ideas of John Locke, the thinker who exerted the most influence on Jefferson and thus American political doctrine. For Locke, original nature was essentially placid, static, and bountiful. But in essence, it was also something different and apart from humankind—and this condition lays the foundation for his conception of political rights. In the Second Treatise on Government, Locke writes “God gave the World to Men in Common; but since he gave it to them for their benefit, and the greatest Conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated”(291). The implication here is that nature is something external and ownable, not so much something that includes man but a resource that is available to him. And indeed, ownership is essential to Locke’s political conception of nature. Starting from the assumption that a man owns his own body and labor, Locke reasons that anything he removes from nature to develop and use “with the labour that was mine” must axiomatically become his property as well (289). Further, since the enjoyment of property rights generally requires collective security arrangements, men are compelled to form civil societies. Thus—and to put the point more instructively—since civil society is established in order to protect natural property rights, then the political rights that attend civil society should also be thought of as properties of the individual.
There is no equivalent doctrine of rights in Whitman’s democratic theory. To be sure, he assumed that all human beings enjoyed political rights and quite likely regarded them as both fundamental and inalienable. But unlike Locke, Whitman’s view of nature was not motivated by a need to legitimate individual liberty or governments organized to protect it. By Whitman’s time the notion of popular sovereignty was so well entrenched that, as Alexis de Tocqueville put it, “it was not even permissible to struggle against it any longer (59).” So the nature Whitman imagines is quite different from Locke’s; consequently, his vision of individual selfhood—including the political aspects of selfhood—is also substantially different. For Whitman, nature is an all-encompassing, ever-changing, integrated whole. Human beings are not the beneficiaries of nature, but aspects of it. As such, we are composed of the same material substance pervasive throughout the rest of the universe. In section 31 of “Song of Myself,” for example, he writes “I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots, / And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over” (CRE 59). This insistence on humanity’s fundamental materiality is ubiquitous in Whitman and is often linked to his understanding that nature is characterized by change. He refers to a nameless corpse in section 49 of “Song of Myself” as “good Manure,” and to “Life” itself as “the leavings of many deaths” (CRE 87). This is not a vision of man possessing nature or man invested with entitlements or rights. If anything, man is subordinated to nature and its processes. The only “natural law” Whitman recognizes is that of eternal regeneration through death.
Liberty, Equality and Process
If Whitman’s construction of nature does not lead to a notion of rights as individual property, it does, nevertheless, integrate three fundamental expressions of democratic experience: (1) a bias for open, process-oriented systems over closed, rigidly ordered and hierarchical systems; (2) the belief that individual liberty is an absolute value; (3) a faith that when democracy is fully implemented it will inevitably lead to social equality.
The first of these, the bias for process-oriented systems, is the political version of his “open-road” philosophy in which he imagines the self as the product of a lifetime of freely embraced experiences—a developmental process. This philosophy was itself the psychological analogue of Whitman’s larger conception of nature as a place of infinite size and continuous change:
I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems,
And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther
Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding,
Outward and outward and forever outward.
My sun has his sun and round him obediently wheels,
He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit,
And greater sets follow, making specks of the greatest inside them.
There is no stoppage and never can be stoppage (CRE 82).
This is not just motion; it is creative change. Because the universe is constantly expanding, it is constantly remaking itself. It, and all within it, is the product of its own processes of self-invention. Thus he can write, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars” (CRE 59). Thus, too, he can embark on his own path of self-creation as he does in “Song of the Open Road.”
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose (CRE 149).
Along the poet’s journey of self-creation he affirms the shaping value of all that is new and unconventional: “You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides! / I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me” (CRE 150). Further, he knows that accessing the creative power of the unconventional means becoming wary of the conventional—in effect, asserting critical governing authority over his own developmental process:
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
Here, as elsewhere, Whitman finds in nature both a warrant and model for personal governance. In so doing he does not imagine governance as a conservative force employed merely to stabilize life; he views it as the process of harmonizing with nature’s own dynamic powers of creation—not only tolerating the destabilizing aspects of nature, but exploiting them. Importantly, though, he makes it clear that this process is not just personal, but social as well. The poem concludes, characteristically, with Whitman’s invitation to his readers:
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live? (CRE 159)
Affirming the “democratic process” has become a rhetorical cliché in the United States. Whitman, however, understood the radical implications of the emphasis on process. For one thing, rather than privileging stability, order, the known, it renders them targets of habitual suspicion. As a social value, process elevates inventiveness, experimentation, becoming—and the likely chaos associated with both—over stasis and tradition. It also elevates the unknowable future over secure past: “Thus,” he writes 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).
A preference for the notion of becoming over being also has obvious implications for the problem of national identity. Whitman famously embraced the idea of America as a “teeming nation of nations,” as he phrased it in the 1855 “Preface” (CRE 711). The foregoing passage (and others like it through out Leaves of Grass) illustrates how this view of national identity functions—and also distinguishes his view of national identity from that found in another great democratic theorist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. By inviting his readers to join him—love and the adventure of self-definition his only lure—Whitman implicitly repudiates (though it was probably not his intention) Rousseau’s version of the social contract. Here Whitman suggests that disparate people become a nation, a collective entity, by choice. That choice, moreover, is motivated and maintained by love, not necessity. And further, the meaning of their association, the particular ways they might characterize their own national identity, is always subject to change and renewal. For Rousseau (as for others, as we have seen), the social contract was not so much a continuation of nature but a correction of it. Men unite, he asserts, because the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in the state of nature are no longer sufficient. Nature presents “obstacles” to survival. In joining together, then, they surrender those individual resources in order to avail themselves of the greater resources of the group. But this is a conundrum for Rousseau because the most important resource to be surrendered is individual liberty: “the force and liberty of each man, being the primary instruments of his own self preservation.” This suggests that being in a group means being a slave to the group. Rousseau accepts this condition, but reasons that it is permissible because it is an equally shared condition: The single most important clause of the social contract demands
the total alienation of each member, with all his rights, to the community as a whole. For, in the first place, since each gives himself entirely, the condition is equal for all; and, since the condition is equal for all, it is in the interest of no one to make it burdensome to the rest (15).
In this scheme, sovereign authority rests with what Rousseau famously calls the “general will,” so that in place of the individual personality, the act of association creates a collective body, a common identity by which gains its life and will (25-26). The problem with this construction, as so many of Rousseau’s critics have pointed out, is that is so removed from the actual interests and desires of the people it would claim to empower that it is as much a source of tyranny as collective will. The coercive potential of Rousseau’s general will becomes even more apparent when he writes of the legislator’s responsibility to make stable and perfect the new institutions he creates by “annihilating” the “natural resources” that enable individuality (41-45). Whitman, by contrast, imagines precisely those natural resources as the necessary material of collective identity formation. Hence, it is not surprising that he would imagine human sociality as a function of nature, not it’s alienation. Likewise, it is not surprising that, until he writes Democratic Vistas, Whitman makes almost no attempt to theorize social institutions. The purpose of stabilizing institutions is to arrest change and Whitman regarded change a creative force of life.
Whitman’s treatment of liberty, like his view of creative process, emerges as something like an existential condition. He regards freedom a fact of nature before it is a social or political utility. In this, too, Whitman differs somewhat from the western political tradition. Unlike John Milton, that is, he did not feel obliged to defend liberty on the grounds it permitted ideas to be tested and truth validated. And although he was clearly sympathetic with Laissez-Faire oriented writers such as Thomas Paine, he did not seem to feel obligated to rationalize a faith in freedom—particularly freedom from restrictive government—by arguing that it unleashed the natural forces by which society regulates and reconstitutes itself (167). Whitman thought of freedom as simply a fact of nature. It was self-evident to him that nature is infinite and self-directed, beyond the reach of some anterior authority. Freedom in nature did not need arguing for; sometimes it was sufficient to acknowledge that one’s own freedom and power were gained by harmonizing with nature: “My ties and ballasts leave me,” he announces at the start of an especially spirited catalogue in “Song of Myself,” “my elbows rest in sea-gaps, / I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents, / I am afoot with my vision” (CRE 61).
Whitman’s conception of a free and infinite universe does, however, have social and political implications. It would have to, of course, for whatever characterizes the essential qualities of nature must also characterize humanity itself. Thus he writes in the “Preface” to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass “the idea of political liberty is indispensable.” But because liberty is already justified by its grounding in nature, Whitman apparently feels no need to argue for it. In the discussion that follows this pronouncement, he does not bother to make the case for liberty by, for example, pointing out the material benefits of living in a free society. Rather, he is far more concerned to stress the importance of preserving liberty. Indeed, at one point he even reverses the logic by which freedom is justified by the material gain it enables: “Liberty is poorly served by men whose good intent is quelled from one failure or two failures or any number of failures.” That is, we should not value freedom because it is the means to material success; rather, the argument for material success (or at least, the avoidance of failure) is that it leaves one psychologically emboldened to fight for freedom. Freedom is not a utility. “Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and knows no discouragement.” Perhaps most basically, Whitman treats the wish for freedom as an innate human motivation that precedes and informs the particular ways cultures define it and the political arrangements societies devise to further it. As such, it cannot be defeated until “all life and all the souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth—then only shall the instinct of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth” (CRE 722-723).
Whitman’s view of equality also owes much to his conception of nature. And to be sure, no single term has inspired more controversy among democratic theoreticians than equality. Earlier, Enlightenment-era, theorists used the word to describe the way identical political rights were grounded in nature and thus protected individuals as they engaged in the unavoidably unequal pursuit of private gain. The social democrats who followed them, however, used the term more prescriptively, to denote nature’s mandate of social and economic parity. These later democrats would often re-read Jefferson’s famous assertion that “all Men are created equal” as, at worst, a grand lie or, at best, an expression of the utopian essence of America’s national mission. (Jefferson himself, of course, saw no contradiction in proclaiming equality on the one hand and then, on the other, arguing to John Adams that the best form of government is that which cultivates the “natural aristocracy” of virtuous and talented men.) Whitman’s view of equality bridges these approaches. He fully accepted the Jeffersonian and Enlightenment stress on the individual. In one of the short poems titled “Thought,” he reflects “Of Equality—as if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself—as if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same” (CRE 277).
Even if nature does not provide the legal precondition for a conception of individual rights, the fact that we are all equally composed of the same material substances—the “gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains”—was enough to disprove the notion that nature was biased in favor hierarchical distinctions. For Whitman, the salient political truth about human beings, however, does not concern their common material origins but their distinction as individuals. “Births have brought us richness and variety,” he writes in “Song of Myself,” (CRE 80). And the variety he affirms is the uniqueness of individual human identity—something he treats as a thing acquired after birth, not a derivative of our material composition. “I too,” he writes in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “had receiv’d identity from my body” (CRE 162). That is to say, identity—particularly, the reception of it from the body—is a physical process. We are a function of sensory and social experience: “Is this then a touch? Quivering me to a new identity,” he asks in the famous autoerotic section 28 of “Song of Myself” (CRE 57).” Whitman did not conflate political equality with sameness. Hence, his belief in political equality did undermine the high value he placed on individual differences or the contribution such differences make to a rich social life.
This is not to say, however, that Whitman was sanguine about social inequality. An idea such as Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy” in which the most talented in society were rightfully promoted to positions of leadership is deeply antithetical to Whitman’s essential faith in human potential. More pointedly, it violated the moral implications of democracy itself. Still, Whitman was slow to regard social inequality as a problem requiring political reform. In his early work, inequality is represented as unethical elitism, an attitude to be scorned—not an intractable social fact. In the middle of one of the great catalogues of “Song of Myself,” for example, the poet sharply comments on invidious class distinctions by the way he juxtaposes the disparate people he subsumes in his collective identity:
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute-hand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open’d lips,
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck,
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other,
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you;)
The President holding a cabinet council is surrounded by the great Secretaries,
On the piazza walk three matrons stately and friendly with twined arms, (CRE 43).
As the voice of the moral ideal that defines a democratic people, the poet’s parenthetic embrace of the prostitute is a strong rebuke to class snobbery. And by bringing the impatient bride, the opium-eater, prostitute, the laughing crowds, and the three matrons together on equal footing with the President and his cabinet, he challenges us to think of them as equal. But he does not make them equal or explain why they’re not already so.
In the economically explosive, socially unstable, and politically corrupt years that followed The Civil War, Whitman would come to regard inequality as a cancer on democracy that needed curing. Unlike the primarily European thinkers of the social democratic tradition, however, he continued to work within the individualist framework. In “Democratic Vistas” he articulates a “programme of culture” to remediate inequality. He begins by responding to those critics of popular democracy who claim that social inequality merely reflects the unequal distribution of talents and abilities meted out by nature itself. Such writers as Thomas Carlyle (whom Whitman specifically addresses) had argued for some time that the effort to empower the lower classes was reckless because it ignored their innate deficiencies. Whitman’s retort was that such analyses fails because they have not been informed by “a fit scientific estimate and reverent appreciation of the People—of their measureless wealth of latent power and capacity” (PW 376). For Whitman, the problem is not that vast numbers of people are fated for underclass status because of some natural limitations; rather, they have been subordinated by the feudal values encoded in elitist culture. Aristocratic literature in particular has deprived them of the psychic and cognitive tools necessary to achieve full and equal selfhood. Whitman’s approach was to call for a new democratic literature. Such a literature would remedy inequality (and a host of other unsavory behaviors characteristic of underclass life) by privileging fundamentally democratic models of being, what he calls a “democratic ethnology of the future” (PW 396). In short, Whitman is not interested promoting a standardized personality type; rather, he singles out those physical attributes of common people he most admires—the “wealth of latent power” that enables them to govern their own bodies—and urges that they be translated into cultural and political terms. Such a literature, he believes, would inevitably foster a nation of people both intolerant of, and able to resist, any attempt to subjugate them.
Whitman’s “programme of culture” was a significant amendment to his democratic thought. It wove connections among the multitude of meanings Whitman ascribed to democracy. It also reconciled the more descriptive, “laissez-faire,” democratic vision of the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass with the more activist and revolutionary vision of his later work. That earlier vision is characterized by Whitman’s famous optimism—a euphoric faith that the democratic processes of nature would, like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, order a just society. Indeed, Whitman’s trademark invention of “free verse” is the stylistic manifestation of that vision of perfect freedom. But in 1859, Whitman’s well documented psycho-sexual crisis compelled him to develop a more personal (and, perhaps more conventional) application of his poetic style. In his Calamus poems (particularly in the earliest versions of those poems) Whitman uses his verse to remediate his own psychic turmoil. In effect, he incorporates into his poetics a kind of stylistic agency by which he does not so much passively describe the superhuman processes of nature, but instead tries to manage the natural emotional forces raging uncontrollably within himself. The political and democratic significance of this stylistic alteration is twofold: first, since much of his democratic theory is an expression of his style, a change in style implies a change in vision; second and more immediately, it positioned him, as the bard of democracy to creatively engage the twin failures of democracy in his generation: The Civil War and the orgy of corruption that followed it.
The tragedy of The Civil War did not undermine Whitman’s essential belief that democracy was the social and political expression of nature, but it did leave him open to the notion that human intelligence and agency were nature’s indispensable tools for creating equitable social life. The nature he imagined before The Civil War was so benign and human-friendly that he was willing to end his greatest poem by “bequeath[ing] myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love” (CRE 89). But by the war’s mid point, when Lincoln’s army was suffering some of its worst losses, Whitman apparently lost his confidence in nature as a cosmic guarantor of human success. In “Year That Trembled and Reel’d Beneath Me.” he writes
Year that trembled and reel’d beneath me!
Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed froze me,
A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,
Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,
Must I learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?
And sullen hymns of defeat? (CRE 308)
When the Union eventually did prevailed, Whitman was still unable to return to the innocent faith that nature alone, absent human intervention, was a sufficient agent of democracy. In a number of passages throughout “Democratic Vistas” he struggles with what appears to be evidence of nature’s deficiencies. In particular, “general humanity . . . has always, in every department, been full of perverse maleficence, and is so yet. In downcast hours the soul thinks it always will be—but soon recovers from such sickly moods” (PW 946).
Whitman can recover from his “sickly” despair because he concludes that such deficiencies are more of an aberration of nature than an example of its proper functioning. For centuries, the instruments of feudal culture (especially feudal literary models and motifs) had sustained aristocratic hierarchies by promoting the values of servility and dependence. Whitman argues that this cultural indoctrination has eviscerated the people’s natural capacity for self-governance. “The great poems,” he writes, “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). The problem, and thus the solution, was culture. In the Victorian era, however, culture meant “high culture,” a reservoir of elitist knowledge and values that social critics from the ruling class hoped would educate and thus control the increasingly powerful working classes. Whitman repudiated the antidemocratic values implicit in such an approach, but he did embraced the idea of culture as education.
"I do not so much object to the name, or word, but I should certainly insist . . . on a radical change of category. . . . 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." (PW 396)
In this context, “practical life” may be read as all that is natural in everyday life—the complex flow of emotion and thought, labor and leisure that beat out the rhythms of human experience. In his mature political thinking, then, Whitman attempts to re-theorize the concept of culture by reconnecting it to nature; in effect, he attempts to translate the democratic aspects of nature into a model of human sociality. So reconceived, educative culture can be used as a program for democratic reform.
Whitman’s notion of democratic culture takes full advantage of the transitive verb, “cultivate.” Self-government requires individuals “properly train’d in sanest, highest freedom” (PW374). To achieve this, he calls for a “New World literature”—new, democratically oriented archetypes, narratives other imaginative constructs that “cease to recognize a theory of character grown of feudal aristocracies, or form’d by merely literary standards” and instead “sternly promulgates her own new standard” of personal identity (PW 402). Whitman elaborates this model in his theory of “personalism,” which he sees as a complement to the more social dimension of democracy. He argues that both democratic society and the individuals within that society are products of a three-part developmental process. For the individual, the process begins with the cultivation of a “clear-blooded, strong-fibered physique,” the primary manifestation in nature of the principle of self-sufficiency and thus an appropriate analogue of higher forms of self-governance. The same value of self-sufficiency informs his discussion of the second dimension of his model, the “mental-educational” aspect. Third, he underscores the importance of cultivating the “simple, unsophisticated Conscience, the primary moral element.” Whitman identifies this moral element as an expression of an “all penetrating Religiousness,” but is careful to distinguish it from the contamination of “churches and creeds.” Protected from such institutional influences the spiritually sensitive individual may “enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable” (PW 397-399).
Whitman believes that religion is politically important, a necessary quality of full democratic selfhood, because it provides the means and motive for connecting to others. Democracy may certainly depend on the development of strong individuals; but strong individuality, however essential, also tends to alienate people from one another. Whitman was troubled by this tendency, for he placed great value in social cohesion. The idea of social unity clearly resonated with his conception of cosmic integration. It was also the thing that made democratic cooperation possible—and life in general rewarding. For a democratic society to thrive, then, it needed some mechanism for counterbalancing the fragmenting effects of the same individualism it necessarily cultivates. Religion, especially the mystical experience of “communing with the unutterable,” promises just such a mechanism: Anticipating William James’ assertion that the ecstatic experience reflects a common psychological need to sense that one’s own consciousness is “continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him,” Whitman’s notion of religion permits democratic individuals an imaginative experience in which (despite evidence to the contrary) they are part of something larger than themselves (774). In a democracy, a proper religious sensibility is an emotional state whereby individuals sense themselves folded into a seamless social whole.
Fittingly then, religiousness is not only the third stage of his scheme for personality; it is also the third stage of his theory of democratic society. Indeed, the earlier stages receive comparatively little attention: he regards democratic political arrangements like the “rights of immense masses of people” that are secured by the Federal Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as merely the first stage of democratic development. Such legal structures are obviously necessary—but what makes them so valuable is the role they play in fostering democratic personality and culture. “Political democracy,” he writes “. . . supplies a training school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium” (PW 385). Similarly, he treats his second stage of democratic social evolution, the “material prosperity, wealth,” and the widely distributed fruits of economic development, as a reasonable expectation of democratic life, but not its definitive quality. It is the third stage he emphasizes, “without which the other two were useless,” “a sublime and serious Religious Democracy” (PW 409-410). The profound function of religion for Whitman is that it weds the private and public spheres. As he puts it in the “Preface 1872—As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free,”
"As there can be, in my opinion, no sane and complete Personality—nor any grand and electric Nationality, without the stock element of Religion imbuing all the other elements, (like heat in chemistry, invisible itself, but the life of all visible life,) so there can be no Poetry worthy the name without that element behind all. . . . . . The time has certainly come to begin to discharge the idea of Religion, in the United States, from mere ecclesiasticism, and from Sundays and Churches and church-going, and assign it to that general position, [. . . ] inside of all human character. [. . . ] The People, especially the young men and women of America, must begin to learn that Religion, (like Poetry,) is something far, far different from what they supposed. It is, indeed, too important to the power and perpetuity of the New World to be consigned any longer to the churches, old or new, Catholic or Protestant—Saint this, or Saint that. . . . It must be consigned henceforth to Democracy en masse, and to Literature. It must enter into the Poems of the Nation. It must make the Nation." (CRE 745)
Whitman’s theory of democracy is, at least in part, a theory of democratic culture—and there is nothing new about the notion of cultural democracy. In the most famous statement on democracy to emerge from the ancient world, for example, the funeral oration Thucydides attributes to Pericles at the start of the Peloponnesian war, the primary focus is Athenian democratic culture, not political organization. “Because we are governed for the many and not for the few,” he says, “we go by the name democracy.” Then Pericles teases out the social behavior and values such a democratic purpose implies: “We are generous towards one another,” he claims, and refuse to “get angry at our neighbor if he does as he pleases.” Moreover, democratically minded Athenians are inclined to obey all laws, especially those “meant to relieve victims of oppression,” even when they are “unwritten” and enforced only by “penalty of shame” (73). It is not unreasonable to read such optimistic sentiments as prefiguring Whitman’s insistence that “intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man,” is the emotional core of democratic life (PW 414). But what distinguishes Whitman’s democratic theory from its ancient (and modern) precursors is its totality and dynamism. Whitman is not content merely to describe an idealistic version of the ideas and values that may accompany democratic life; he sees democratic culture as the ideological blood of a humane and organic social life.
Indeed, for Whitman, democratic life is humane precisely because it is organic. The ideological polarities that have inspired the western world’s most bloody conflicts—self and society, nature and culture, religion and science—have no champion in Whitman because each names some vital element in his interrelated vision of democracy. To tease out the implications of that web of relations is to lay the imaginative foundations of future human progress. He makes the point directly by answering a rhetorical question in “Democratic Vistas”: “Did you, too, O friend, suppose 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—in religion, literature, colleges, and schools—democracy in all public and private life” (PW 389). So conceived, Whitman’s democracy is far more ambitious, far more demanding, than anything the eighteenth century founders of American democracy imagined. It is also a democracy he rightly assumes to be “at present in its embryo condition.” (PW 392).
Stephen John Mack
References and Further Reading
Agard, Walter R. (1942). What Democracy Meant to the Greeks. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press.
Erkkila, Betsy. (1989). Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford University Press.
Folsom, Ed. (1998). “Democracy.” In Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Eds. J. R.
LeMaster & Donald D. Kummings. New York: Garland. 171-174.
James, William. (1977). “Conclusions [to The Varieties of Religious Experience].” In
The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Ed. John J.
McDermott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jefferson, Thomas. (1959). “Letter to John Adams: October 28, 1813” in The Adams-
Jefferson Letters; the Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. Vol. 2. Ed. Lester J. Cappon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Kateb, George. (1990). “Walt Whitman and the culture of Democracy.” Political Theory
Kaufman-Osborn, Timothy V. (1994). “The Politics of the Enlightenment: A Pragmatic
Reconstruction.” In Lyman H. Legters, John P Burk, and Arthur DiQuattro (Eds.)
Critical Perspectives on Democracy. (pp. 21-43). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield
Lakoff, Sanford. (1996). Democracy: History, Theory, Practice. Boulder: Westview
Larson, Kerry C. (1988). Whitman’s Drama of Consensus. Chicago: Chicago
Lipson, Leslie. (1964). The Democratic Civilization. New York: Oxford University
Locke, John. (1988). Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Mack, Stephen. (2002). The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American democracy.
Iowa City: Iowa University Press.
Paine, Thomas. (1942). “Rights of Man.” In Basic Writings of Thomas Paine. New
Parker, Hershel. (1996). “The Real ‘Live Oak, with Moss’: Straight Talk about
Whitman’s Gay Manifesto.” Nineteenth Century Literature 51, 145-160.
Rosenblum, Nancy L. (1990). “Strange Attractors: How Individuals Connect to Form
Democratic Unity.” Political Theory 18, 576-585.
Thomas, M. Wynn. (1997/1998). “Weathering the Storm: Whitman and the Civil War.”
Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 93, 87-109.
Thucydides. (1998). The Peloponnesian War. Eds. Walter Blanco and Jennifer Tolbert
Roberts. New York: Norton.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. ((1969). Democracy in America. Trans. George Lawrence. Ed.
J. P. Mayer. New York: Harper & Row.
Whitman, Walt. (1964). “Democratic Vistas.” In Prose Works, 1892. Vol.2. Ed. Floyd
Stoval. New York: New York University Press. (Abbreviated PW in text.)
Whitman, Walt. (1982). “The Eighteenth Presidency.” Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Ed.
Justin Kaplan. New York: The Library of America
Whitman, Walt. (1965). Comprehensive Readers Edition. Eds. Harold W. Blodgett and
Scully Bradley. New York: Norton. (Abbreviated CRE in text.).
Weibe, Robert H. (1995). Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.