Democratic Vistas by Walt Whitman: Summary & Theme

Instructor: Matthew Hill
''Democratic Vistas'' was a reflective essay by the American poet Walt Whitman. Discouraged by the post-Civil War mood, he championed a return to national unity and art appreciation.

Biography of Walt Whitman

A great pall hung over the nation following the Civil War. Democracy, it seemed for Walt Whitman, was in danger, and Whitman envisioned a new generation of artists to rescue the nation. Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in West Hills, New York. Though a contemporary of other literary giants, he is generally considered America's most influential poet. He founded his own newspaper, wrote for and edited others, was fiercely opposed to slavery, and worked in an army hospital during the Civil War. His most famous work, Leaves of Grass, is considered his enduring classic. It was in the post-Civil War era, though, that he was motivated to write Democratic Vistas in response to changing events in American political culture.

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Historical Context

To understand Democratic Vistas, we have to understand its historical background. Whitman penned this work just six years after the end of the Civil War. The country was divided along political and racial lines, and a general pall hung over the nation. Whitman sensed that national unity had broken down and that democratic values were threatened. On top of this, he was infuriated when in August 1867, the New York Tribune reprinted Englishman Thomas Carlyle's essay 'Shooting Niagara: And After?', in which Carlyle attacked the virtues of democracy.

In response, Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas which was a three-part series of essays published in the Galaxy Magazine under various titles. The first was under the title 'Democracy' in December 1867, the second as 'Personalism' in May 1868, and the third as 'Orbic Literature', though not published in the Galaxy. In 1871, the essays were published as Democratic Vistas in single form as an 84-page pamphlet.

An 1883 frontpiece of Leaves of Grass
Leaves of Grass

Democracy in Peril

His work was very nationalistic in tone, though not in the sense of an aggressive Manifest Destiny. Whitman showered praise on the nation's geographical expansion, its population growth, its abundant natural resources, and its wealth-producing capabilities. However, Whitman worried that national unity was breaking down and that America was losing its sense of collective identity. Furthermore, the common heritage that once fused the country together through core ideals and goals was now aimlessly adrift.

Democracy and Feudalism

Interestingly, Whitman blames a lingering feudalism in the United States. By this he means constant feuding between race, class, gender, and economic status. He argues that these categories were the product of an outdated system that democracy rejects, as they were rooted in ancient way of organizing society under the thumb of powerful rulers and tradition.

Whitman argued that democracy gradually broke mankind away from rooting society in ancient traditions and authorities that determined the social caste and social pecking order, and instead rooted authority in the sovereignty of the people. He wrote: 'The radiation of this truth is the key of the most significant doings of our immediately preceding three centuries, and has been the political genesis and life of America.' In contrast, this is exactly what writers like Carlyle feared. The loss of a centralizing authority and the unpredictable nature of democracy seemed a recipe for chaos rather than political liberation. Whitman does not deny these fears, but promotes democracy as the ideal form of government.

A 1940 commemorative stamp of Walt Whitman
Stamp of Walt Whitman

New Generation of Artists

His solution was to raise up a new breed of artists and literary figures to create more distinctive forms of American literature to their European counterparts. He wrote: 'I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences.'

He wanted, in essence, to break away from outdated forms and chart a new vision. The 'fundamental want to-day in the United States,' he wrote, 'is of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known.' In his scheme, women would also play a central role: 'With these, and out of these, I promulge new races of Teachers, and of perfect Women, indispensable to endow the birth-stock of a New World.'

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