In his essay Democratic Vistas (1871) Walt Whitman writes, “Democracy... is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” And he was right, of course. Whitman’s assessment came almost a century after the Declaration of Independence, where these memorable lines were written: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As it turned out the men, or the main man who wrote this powerful declaration, Thomas Jefferson, did not quite mean it that way.
Broadly speaking, Jefferson meant white men, not women or people of color. He would later augment this view in Notes on the State of Virginia (1801), where, explaining to a French interlocutor the American system of constitutional governance—with its separation of powers, checks and balances, individual liberty, the separation of church and state—he defended slavery and wrote some of the most repugnant claims of white supremacy.
In its exclusivity to the males of the dominant racial group, our democracy was not unique. The democracies of Greece and Rome upon which it was modeled also did not include people of color or women. Some historians claim that the founding fathers foresaw our democracy becoming inclusive, that people of color and women would eventually, perhaps, take part in it. But as we all know, the process was agonizingly, traumatically slow. The Civil War brought an end to slavery, but inequality and oppression of people of color, as it became less blatant, never ceased. And now, half a century after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, we see various entrenched powers of wealth and racism continuing to challenge the right of poor and non-white citizens to vote as well as denying them any meaningful access to their representatives. Whitman’s statement that the history of democracy remains unwritten, because a full democracy has yet to be enacted, remains true.
The process was also excruciating for Whitman himself. He is famous for these lines from “Song of Myself”: “And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” lines that earned him the claim of being the poet of democracy. He published these lines less than a decade after his 1848 visit to New Orleans, where he witnessed the slave auction described in “I Sing the Body Electric.” His empathy for women is evident in Leaves of Grass, but was he thinking of people of color in the lines quoted above? Probably not. We know, however, that by the time he wrote Democratic Vistas—where his language is not free of racist insinuations, and despite the crudeness of the masses—Whitman believed that democracy was the best form of government.
What was needed, he argued in the essay, was a greater experience of individuality, a sense of “individual personal dignity, of a single person, either male or female, characterized in the main, not from extrinsic acquirements or position, but in the pride of himself or herself alone.” Whitman is pointing to a form of individuality, not of solipsism: a form of pure abstract thinking that brings the self into the mirror of reflection, where it sees itself as self and as part of humanity. In this mode of being, the self emits and receives sentiments and thoughts in equal measure that tear it away from the external bondages of race, nationality, and religion. His is not “individualism, which isolates”; rather it is “adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all.”
To function, Whitman explains, democracy must indeed impose “the leveler, the unyielding principle of the average.” Alongside this necessary equality must exist “the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself,” which he also calls “personalism.” Literature, songs, and esthetics, he adds, are of utmost “importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men” in society. The arts instill a sense of self-knowledge among individuals and a sense of belonging among humanity. These are the real twin engines of democracy, not its regulations and processes.
It is no wonder that authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, especially of the twentieth century, have had highly antagonistic relationships with the arts. Mao’s China of the Cultural Revolution offered its people only a handful of operas to enjoy, and the great leader himself was practically the only poet read at the time. Hitler’s regime expunged Germany of “impure arts.” The Taliban prohibited women from receiving an education, banned music and all books except religious ones. All around the world, antidemocratic forces demand allegiance, and the only art they accept is the one that legitimates, or at least stands neutral on, repression. A love poem, or any work of art that could potentially allow people to feel the interchangeability of feeling or engage in the spontaneous expression that art stimulates in us, is dangerous and therefore banned.
The lyric poem, with its compressed use of language, our most natural and rudimentary mode of expression, perhaps stands closer to the human soul than its sister arts. It can hide among ordinary speech or in our memories until we can privately take in its spiritual nourishment. Coming from someone else, or given to someone else, the lyric poem performs how the resistance between the I and you, the I and the other, can be quickly overcome, and moved into the overlapping and mutual spaces of private and collective consciousness. A perfect teaching tool of democracy, the lyric poem allows the individual to construct and experience a space “that fuses, ties and aggregates.”
Whitman’s rangy, sprawling, repetitive, and endearing Democratic Vistas is a passionate defense of democracy, an ardent response to Carlyle’s screed “Shooting Niagara.” Whitman recognizes the crudeness of the masses as human potential capable of generosity and virtue beyond the rough exterior they exhibit. He provides a solid defense of women and their undeniable right to participate in politics. The phrase “American race” and “races” recurs—and indeed many races are mentioned in the essay—but it is not quite clear if Whitman had fully made peace with the idea of an American “race” being made up of all races and colors.
If Whitman—and I’m sure his other admirers will respond to my views here—was not able to cross the racial divide fully in the United States, we as a nation have not crossed it at all when it comes to people of other nations. Even as our democracy made progress around the Western world, “others” have suffered from the brutal violence that democracies, infused with loathsome and loathing self-righteousness, have inflicted on them. The genocide of America’s native peoples took place under democratic rule, as well as massacres in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Iraq. Each of the world’s great democracies has a history of barbarism, genocide, massacre, and torture in its recent archives, and—more frighteningly—the capacity and the rationalizing rhetoric that would allow this history to be repeated. Clearly, the forces of love and aggregation that Whitman speaks of need to expand further and wider within our country and around the world.
I want to close this essay with two poems that explore the dynamics of how self-knowledge and freedom conjoin in creating the solidarity and reverence for human life necessary for democracy. As it begins, Whitman’s poem seems like an expression of desire for a passing stranger, who is both a he and a she. But as the poem progresses, the poet builds a whole life of encounters and affections with the stranger. The stranger himself or herself is not named or in any way specified, and no words pass between them. At some point the stranger slips from being specific into being abstract and generic, but also concretely present. He or she is necessary for the poet, and their connection will last forever. The stranger is the other for whom we allow ourselves to feel kinship and affection. As Whitman’s poetry demonstrates again and again with its catalogues of people, the poet’s desire to assume—or to slip into—another’s life is a daily enactment of his humanity, a democracy of the spirit that renders all others legitimate and necessary for his and our existence.
The second poem is by the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef. Here, too, the conversation about freedom is an address, as if both Youssef and Whitman want to stress to us that we do not seek liberty or democracy in order to conduct monologues, but rather to engage in dialogue, in a mutual social action. While Whitman’s speaker tells the stranger that he will never forget her or him, Youssef’s speaker is commanding his addressee to not forget his responsibility to others, that he, in fact, will not know the extent of his freedom or his sky, which one to choose and how much of it to inhabit, unless he positions himself on the earth and offers others the opportunity to soar. The “you” that Youssef is addressing is perhaps himself in exile at a time when he felt liberated and unhindered by oppression. But the “you” can also be us, Americans, who are free, but less free than we could be.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2019 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.