One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person. Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Although Walt Whitman was a journalist before he was a poet, and with the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855 began defending, prefacing, explaining his poetry in highly oratorical prose pieces, one can argue that prose was not altogether natural to him.
“To the ostent of the senses and eyes, I know,” he says early in Democratic Vistas, “the influences which stamp the world’s history are wars, uprisings or downfalls of dynasties, changeful movements of trade, important inventions, navigation, military or civil governments, advent of powerful personalities, conquerors, etc.” Ostent is typical Whitman, strongly suggestive if too archaic and even legendary to seem immediately right to our current notion that prose must be nothing but an instrument, “perfectly clear.” Whitman is shoveling at the reader a lot of history in that sentence, and as usual he prefers to catalogue rather than to analyze and explain. All history, nothing less! And like the procession into Noah’s Ark, a movement by couples. History, even in that one innocently pretentious sentence, is rhythmic and sexual. No solitaries here—except the neglected solitary poet who will soon be striking it up for poetry, America, democracy, the limitless future.
Whitman’s prose—especially when he is celebrating his own poetry and the “mission” of his poetry—is never really separate from his poetry. It is his poetry, in a slightly lower voice. If poetry, as Greek rhetoricians realized very early, somehow represents the aspiration of the human mind to condensation, to contraction under the highest inner pressure, prose to certain poets will always seem (not necessarily be) casual, second-best, too obviously directed to other people in their less passionate undertakings. It will even seem a diversion from the sometimes unbearable excitement and strain of making a poem that, as Yeats said, must click shut like a box.
Despite his famous looseness of form, the essential gift of unlimited free association with the under-surface of human fantasy and desire that was Whitman’s strategy—it was his way of summoning up for himself the ancient name and profession of poetry—Whitman knew that if a poem doesn’t “work,” it doesn’t exist. Whitman knew as well as Poe—who was afraid that a long poem must dispel a poem’s necessary close intensity—that a poem must become the reader’s experience of some pressing unity. Whitman’s poems are more like sonatas than they are like boxes, are dream journeys more than they are “perfectly integrated” arguments in lyric form. Whitman’s best poems are serial, suggest an unending movement round and round a self-evident center that is always in sight and becomes a “control” over experience, meditative, orphic, religious. When this “control” does not persuade us of its felt sublimity, the poem dissipates into the triviality of merely assertive personal efforts. Whitman kept trying all the time, “experimenting” with every possible item of free association by adding them all up. But when Whitman feels everything he is trying to say about his special relation to “divinity”—God dwells in us as perfect auto-suggestion!—he suddenly flashes out into the natural mystic, the poet of unlimited fraternity with human experience, that in his prose defenses and explanations of “L of G” (his impatient shorthand for Leaves of Grass) he was always claiming to be.
The most influential and lasting criticism in English has been written by poets—Sidney, Johnson, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Eliot—whose need to defend and explain their own poetry took wing as a new theory of poetry, hints for the imagination to slough off its old habits. Whitman tries to do the latter, but is not interested enough in poetry other than his own to make a non-sympathetic reader change his mind about Whitman’s poetry itself. He is not a theorist of art. Whitman’s prose defenses of his poetry—from the preface to Leaves of Grass through Democratic Vistas to “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”—have a fervor of self-definition that astonishes and grips the reader by its passionate outcry for recognition. But although they are idiosyncratic, self-willed, self-propelling, like Whitman’s poetry, they are not “criticism” of the kind that the great English poets have given us in the essays, lectures, letters that are their shop talk. Whitman’s abstractions are too self-concerned, his knowledge of ars poetica too threadbare, to give us a valuable critical theory of poetry. He read poetry—even Homer in a prose translation—as “national” or epic poetry, as suggestion rather than instruction to his own amazingly self-generated ambition. He seems to have been very little influenced by the poetry of other poets.
Nevertheless, Whitman is as original a prose writer as he is a poet. Democratic Vistas, together with his great personal diary of the Civil War, Specimen Days, make up an extraordinary self-portrait of the American poet in the 19th century, beleaguered by every possible threat to his existence as an artist, yet turning himself into the voice of his country’s inner aspirations.
Many Americans, many American writers, have seen themselves as personifications of America. This is an American habit, almost an American gift, made possible by the ability—in the absence of antiquity, the Middle Ages, the requisite kings and saints—to think of America as a virtuous abstraction. “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter,” wrote Scott Fitzgerald as late as The Crack-Up. (He went on to prove just how hard it was to “utter” by adding: “It was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”)
Whitman’s personification of America is deeper than the successive myths by writers of America as an explorer, an Enlightenment philosopher on his hill, a frontiersman, a prankish schoolboy, an innocent abroad, a Rough Rider, a desperate expatriate. Whitman convinces the reader that democracy in America (the subject of Tocqueville’s great book) made Whitman himself possible, that democracy in the most unlimited sense is what made Walt Whitman necessary, that democracy makes the new human dimension by which the reader understands him.
“Democracy ma femme,” democracy in the most unlimited sense, democracy as ideal equality through unexpected freedom, democracy as the purest aspiration for the “evolution” of the individual in the mass—here comes everybody! And at long last! This grave, great hope for a democracy just as despised in the classical republic as it was elsewhere—this was Whitman’s way of joining himself to his country. Democracy alone had made possible his self-discovery as a poet, democracy was a way of recognizing his subject matter in himself. Democracy was the masses out of whom Walt Whitman came. Democracy was openness to one-self, to others, to the God within oneself whom he deciphered as past and present, as the universal experience that we carry in our hearts. Above all, democracy was the promise of the future, of a future for the human race so long restricted by what Whitman liked to call “feudalism”—medieval privilege and inequality that he came to identify with European class society and class thinking at all times. “Feudalism” had persisted into the modern era, and so it is the ancien regime that Democratic Vistas will help to supplant. “Feudalism” was Europe, the past, a deadly contempt for ordinary human beings. Even the poetry of “feudalism,” in his easy roll call of the great poets of the past, Whitman honored only because he could put himself into the great line. His own ambition, never so clear as in Democratic Vistas, was to write the epic of the new, the modern, of America. “Feudal” poetry, whether in the Middle Ages or in 19th-century romantic imitations, had impoverished itself artistically by ignoring the mass, the average, the secret selves under the surface.
So it was “democracy” all over again, Whitman’s favorite because all-inclusive theme, that became the magnificent human claim of Democratic Vistas. It was a last desperate avowal that the future rested with democracy that Whitman was basing himself on. Democracy had been the making of him, had raised him from the ordinary Brooklyn crowd. Democracy would even in the Gilded Age (a crisis of corruption and materialism shockingly the aftermath of what had been a holy war for the Union and the freedom of the common man) make possible the long-delayed recognition of Whitman’s greatness as the first great modern poet. He was presenting “L of G” as his “visiting card to the coming generations in the New World.”
Only democracy, in Whitman’s America of the future, would redeem his worldly failure and relieve the critical (but of course temporary) materialism and corruption of the Gilded Age. The argument of Democratic Vistas was an effort to create Whitman’s reputation (sixteen years after he had first put Leaves of Grass to press) on the basis that “America” and “democracy” were the same terms, that the country and its “limitless future” were unrecognized epic material.
America as epic: America could now take its place among the great subjects of literature. Why had this not been recognized before? Because only a great epic poet could do justice to his country and its destiny. Democracy had not sufficiently proclaimed itself—had not adequately understood its spiritual “import”—until its great poet came along. The crisis of democracy, Whitman noted in the 1870’s, was being exaggerated and even misrepresented by writers who were not up to its artistic possibilities. These writers were all secular and shallow, without the requisite historic sense of what humanity had come through to achieve this much freedom and fraternity. Democracy was the oldest, the most persistent of human dreams. It had not found its full “voice” until the epic poet of the “modern” had arrived. An epic, as Pound was to say, “is a poem including history.” Whitman’s great point now was that the epic poet alone could see the past in perspective and could uniquely see and believe in the “vistas” that the past had made necessary.
Whitman published Democratic Vistas himself in Washington. (He set the type for the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855.) It was 1871, a low year in the fortunes of the republic and a typically low year in the life of Walt Whitman. Characteristically, he made up the text of this new prose testament, as he always did with his prose “ensembles,” by rummaging among his old prose pieces. He hurriedly combined two articles from Galaxy magazine—one on “Democracy” (December 1867), one on “Personalism” (May 1868), and parts of a third, “Orbic Literature,” not accepted by the magazine.
At fifty-two, Whitman was prematurely aged, visibly slowing up, usually broke, and still generally neglected. His stock with what he often complains of in the Vistas as the “literary class” was still very low. He was certainly more notorious now than he had been in 1855. But in 1871 his reputation more resembled that of Allen Ginsberg publishing Howl than it did Virgil and the Sir Walter Scott Whitman kept invoking as his epic predecessors.
Whitman’s real failure after the Civil War had been to find a new audience with the material he had collected as a volunteer “nurse” in Washington. Drum-Taps, ending with the great elegy on Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” had been contemptuously dismissed by the “literary class.” Henry James and William Dean Howells, representative of the realistic novelists who were soon to dominate American writing, both reviewed Drum-Taps scornfully. Ironically, the little vignettes of war in Drum-Taps are often in the new realistic style. But it took James almost thirty years more to come around to Whitman, and then more out of homesickness than out of critical appreciation. The Whitman whose closest if not most public friendship was with the street-car conductor Peter Doyle wanted not only “amativeness” and “comradeship” but recognition by the “native literatus.” He was getting admired in England. William Michael Rossetti brought out a selection of Whitman’s poems, Swinburne’s book on Blake found a parallel in Whitman, Tennyson wrote an admiring letter. Anne Gilchrist, widow of Blake’s biographer, fell in love with Whitman through his poems and actually came to America to urge him (unsuccessfully) to marry her. But at home recognition took the form of special pleading by such heated partisans as William O’Connor (who dubbed him the Good Gray Poet) and such amiable “nature writers” as John Burroughs, whose Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person Whitman was helping to write.
On his annual vacations to his native Brooklyn and New York, Whitman found himself still more a curiosity than the poet who had confidently written in 1855: “An individual is as superb as a nation when he has the qualities which make a superb nation. The soul of the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation may well go halfway to meet that of its poets.” Still the outsider, Whitman was irritated and depressed by the inflated prosperity and tawdry display of it in “his” New York. It contrasted all too sharply with his own poverty and the brave show he had put up, in his own New York days before the war, as a local celebrity—radical democrat and loose-living journalist. He had been quite a cock of the walk around New York; he was now an eccentric and faintly seedy figure, a self-acclaimed genius who was still a government clerk in Washington only because friends in the service had vouched that his book was not “indecent.”
In the midst of New York’s war-propelled millionaires and their conspicuous ostentation, the New York of Jim Fiske and Jay Gould and their florid ladies, Whitman (whose ideal woman was a “clean” gray-haired matriarch) was moved to passionate complaint against his own society:
. . . society, in these States, is canker’d, crude, superstitious, and rotten. . . . I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. . . . The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. . . . The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. . . . The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business (this all-devouring modern word, business), the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. . . . The best class show but a mob of fashionably dress’d speculators and vulgarians. . . .
It was typical of Whitman’s democratic idealism not to relate this materialism and “infidelism” to the huge profits made out of the war—though he was quick to lament the contrast New York in the late 1860’s made with the always “heroic” picture of wounded and dying soldiers he had witnessed as a volunteer nurse in the Washington hospitals. He had made a gigantic all-purposive patriotic myth out of the Civil War—no other American writer would come near the level of Whitman’s patriotic exaltation about the war. It was now clear to him. amid the political corruption of Washington and the open crookedness of New York, that his failure to gain expected recognition as a great national poet was somehow connected to this. America was in a moral crisis far more dismaying than the Civil War. The Gilded Age put to question all his intuitive assumptions about unlimited democracy.
At the same time Whitman’s worldly failure could be explained by the degeneration of American politics and business. The wrong people were in charge. Literature itself had gone off the tracks. With all the “accretions” he was making to Leaves of Grass in the Gilded Age, his ambition in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”—to confer upon America the holy trinity of poet-president-nature, Whitman-Lincoln-America—was not understood. An age of belief had passed, and with it the “tremendous fervid IDEA.” Although he had shown himself a realist of sorts in the snapshots of soldier life in Drum-Taps, everything in Whitman cried out against a realism for realism’s sake, since this called for the artist to remove himself from his own work.
But Whitman realized that he could not simply bewail himself, for that would eliminate the dominating myth necessary to his poetry. He could not concentrate on attacking corruption and “weak infidelism” without falling into polemical journalism. What was necessary to Democratic Vistas was a reassertion of his faith in poetry and democracy so resounding and complete that it would lift the discussion of current American problems to a new level. It would shame the corrupt, restore the sense of transcendent values—that light from “another world,” as he put it in “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”—and reach into the future. Always an inspired maker of titles, he was never more inspired than when he hit upon Democratic Vistas. Here was democracy as both subject and object, both the perceiver and the perceived. Democracy as vision was one that could reach back into the classic republic in order to embrace the future.
The terms of Whitman’s apocalyptic reach were the poet as epic hero, the poet as herald of his country’s greatness and even as maker and shaper of its destiny. I have noted that Whitman was very little influenced by the language and style of other poets—he was a homemade original, all compact of his idiosyncratic genius even in what Henry James was to mock as Whitman’s “too extensive knowledge of foreign languages”—Democracy ma femme, Allons, camerado. But as he so assertively made clear in a long footnote early in Democratic Vistas, he did place himself among the epic poets, the great national artists. Whitman’s personal mastery of his own art was perhaps a secret even to himself; it certainly remains one. But his most conscious ambition was to poetry as the most essential and traditional view of a particular culture. This was his greatest hope and most sought-after consolation: to be the poet of the American people, a standard that his master Emerson had been too aloof and apolitical to meet. The poet was not just representative of his country’s past—of its underlying and unconscious myth—he was to summon it to its future.
Whitman, like Lincoln, Mazzini, Hugo, Dostoevsky, represents 19th-century nationalism in its “orbic,” most exalted state. The great French historian Fernand Braudel notes that “before the nationalism of the 19th century, people felt united only by the bonds of religious belief; in other words, by civilization.” American nationhood, though created as much by conquest and expropriation as by the “great idea,” was raised in Whitman—as his old friend Alexander Stephens said of Lincoln—to “religious mysticism.” Whitman had his own way of interpreting “manifest destiny.” He did not call America “holy,” as Dostoevsky and other Slavophiles called their country “Holy Russia.” But Whitman might have understood what Dostoevsky had Stavrogin say in The Possessed: “I’m raising the nation to God. And indeed, has it ever been otherwise? A people forms the body of its god. A nation is a nation only so long as it has its particular god and excludes as irreconcilable all other gods; so long as it believes that with the help of its god it will conquer and destroy all other gods. All great nations have so believed since the beginning of time. . . .”
“All great nations. . . .” Neither Dostoevsky nor Whitman saw himself as the folklorist of a negligible country. But the “great nation” was of a greatness yet-to-be. Whitman saw America as still unformed, its essential final attribute to be conferred on it by literature. Religion minus super-naturalism was now to yield its best influence to literature. “The priest departs,” Whitman wrote exultantly, “the divine literatus comes.” Even science would speak for man’s evolutionary development into a “higher” and more “spiritual” sphere. Even the staggering expansion of the United States (Whitman quoted in a footnote Vice President Colfax’s bragging statistics) testified to the fact that the possibilities were all there. The promise of American life was the modern gospel. And the poet as prophet, “singer,” “combiner” was there to prove that America’s unique offering was “lessons of variety and freedom” as great “as the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe.”
The American mission, in short, was the most intensely natural one imaginable. Life in its most overflowing possibilities would no longer be curtailed. Poetry was the bond by which people would recognize their own unexplored possibilities, or as we now say, their unconscious. So poetry would make democracy live: by easing the individual’s recognition of himself.
Was there ever, in the light of the century since Democratic Vistas, such a seeming romantic irrelevance as Whitman’s ringing declaration?
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. . . . There is one need, a hiatus the profoundest, that no eye seems to perceive, no voice to state. Our fundamental want in the United States, with closest, amplest deference to present conditions, and to the future, is of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatuses, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into a new breath of life. . . .
View’d today, from a point of view sufficiently over-arching, the problem of humanity all over the civilized world is social and religious, and is to be finally met and treated by literature. The priest departs, the divine literatus comes. Never was anything more wanted than, today, and here in the States, the poet of the modern is wanted, or the great literatus of the modern. . . . Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance (in some respects the sole reliance) of American democracy.
It probably never occurred to Whitman that he might not be the best proponent of this position. His passionate, vascular, ultimately self-celebrating prose could make as many difficulties for his argument as the headlong materialistic expansion of the United States. Democratic Vistas has too often been honored simply because Whitman wrote it and because it is so intense a statement about larger matters—in the voice of the poet who sometimes seems to make the largest possible claim for poetry because he feels unrecognized. But in point of fact Whitman never tries to “prove” his claim for poetry, as the great romantic poets did from Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads to Emerson’s amazingly intuitive “The Poet.” The fact is that Whitman wrote prose, as he wrote poetry, in great musical sweeps and chords, in magnificent sound effects. He convinces, as he said elsewhere, “by my presence”: he becomes the voice, the authority, the almighty friend he claims to be. “But preluding no longer, let me strike the keynote of the following strain. . . . I shall use the words America and democracy as convertible terms. Not an ordinary one is the issue. The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.”
Whitman was too stirred and impatient when he wrote the essays “Democracy” and “Personal-ism”—and especially when he “hastily toss’d them together”—to analyze his position for the unconverted. He was making an avowal of himself. And the rhapsodic affirmations of poetry, the keen cutting criticisms of American society, the abundant contradictions, are bound up with Whitman’s inevitable form of monologue, sonata, oratory, dithyrambic self-celebration.
Thus one of the weaknesses of Democratic Vistas, if we look at it purely as a political essay, seems to be the overflowing contradictoriness about Whitman’s ability to see every side at once, that was exactly Whitman’s gift as a poet of unlimited “vistas.” Kafka once noted that Whitman “combined the contemplation of nature and civilization, which are apparently contradictory, into a single intoxicating vision of life.” In Democratic Vistas Whitman scathingly attacks American money-making and business, then turns around to say that “My theory includes riches.” And note that the power and richness of New York “completely satisfy my sense of power, fullness, motion, etc. and give me, through my aesthetic conscience, a continued exaltation and absolute fulfillment.” He took it for granted that any American could still become rich. His real position is that a country so full of “power, fullness, motion,” shows such a marvelous energy, fulfillment, that the inequalities (of which he did not have too much to say) and the corruption (obviously temporary) are as nothing. America was a success, made a great human picture. So he proudly echoes Vice President Colfax’s Fourth of July brag: “From a territorial area of less than nine hundred thousand square miles, the Union has expanded into over four millions and a half. . . .”
Whitman always saw things in chords, in combination. He never really distinguished between democracy as a new revelation and America as brute economic power; he combined the “fervid tremendous IDEA” with what Americans in the age of big business have naively but more honestly come to call “the system.” Whitman’s all-too-musical way of thinking, which led him so beautifully to praise music as “the combiner,” also led him to fuse all his favorite images of America in ways that, to our disenchanted generation, may just seem remote.
They were not remote to Whitman. There lies at the heart of Democratic Vistas the desperate, unprovable belief that America is more than its history. America was not being true to its essential premise of democracy unlimited, which meant the individual in command of his own soul. The greatest possible model of this was the poet, who had the fullest access to “nature”—to the unconscious and unrealized. All great countries have had great poets. Since a great national poet is the inspiration, the combining, formative spirit of a true democracy, the seeming failure of democracy since the Civil War can be identified with America’s failure to make the fullest possible use of Walt Whitman.
The logic of this, though doubtful to other people, was nevertheless so compelling to Whitman that it is important to realize that just this claim made him the great “poet of democracy” to non-Americans still struggling for democracy. Whitman was appreciated in hidebound, time-bound England by those literary men and pioneer socialists for whom America was still what it had been to thinkers as different as Blake and Tocqueville: the country of democracy, where any man could find a place. Democracy still meant the masses, the common people; it was exactly Whitman’s faith that no one should be denied his chance, that great men (like Walt Whitman) came out of the masses, that endeared him to those living in a restrictive class society. It was not necessary to prove that democracy was better: it was just important to believe it and live it, as Whitman did in his writing.
Exactly a century after Democratic Vistas, it is clear that America has welcomed the masses and (incidentally?) that it has realized human change on a mass scale beyond anything in recorded history. Yet there has never been a time in America when the idea of democracy has been so much doubted—and typically, on a mass scale. Whitman lived in a century when religion was openly passing into secular creeds; but today religion seems more and more a private, almost “eccentric” pastime, with no obvious application to society. The individual’s “realization” of his deepest hopes has to do with economic advancement and security, not the perfection of his “soul.” The false and tendentious identification of democracy with capitalism has become so complete that as a natural corollary the enemies of capitalism become, all too willingly, the enemies of democracy. Carlyle in “Shooting Niagara: And After?,” the 1867 essay that helped provoke Whitman into Democratic Vistas, said in absolute contempt for the masses that the danger of democracy was that its claims had no limit. He decried the “velocity increasing” of democracy and worried that England would have “to take the Niagara leap of completed Democracy one day. . . .” This, Carlyle said with his usual brutality, meant “Swannery” and “The Nigger Question.” Carlyle’s “Shooting Niagara” was provoked by “this delirious new reform measure” of 1867 (the Parliamentary Reform Act, which enfranchised the working class in the towns and was the first reform act since 1832):
It accelerates notably what I have long looked upon as inevitable: pushed us at once into the Niagara Rapids; irresistibly propelled, with ever-increasing velocity we shall now arrive; who knows how soon! . . .
Certain it is, that there is nothing but vulgarity in our People’s expectations, resolutions or desires, in this Epoch. It is all a peaceable mouldering or tumbling down from mere rottenness and decay; whether slowly mouldering or rapidly tumbling, there will be found nothing real or true in the rubbish-heap, but a most true desire of making money easily, and of eating it pleasantly.
The solution, Carlyle interestingly went on, was to discipline all this chaos and restlessness into a fixed thing. “To change nomadic contract into permanent; to annihilate the soot and dirt and squalid horror now defacing this England, once so clean and comely while it was poor. . . . One often wishes the entire Population could be thoroughly drilled; . . . ultimately the point of actual Military Service should be required of it. . . .”
Carlyle understood, as well as any fascist or Communist of our day, that fear is the fear of other people’s freedom. Whitman’s belief in democracy pure and simple, democracy as an ethical absolute, democracy as our obligation to others who are a form of ourselves, was not to be shared by believers in “free enterprise,” by the robber barons in his time and by the monopolists in ours. Nor was it to be shared by the bureaucracy that came in with the crisis of the 1930’s and that has steadily solidified itself through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the permanent war economy. Even the student rebels of the 1960’s, who often lived like Whitman’s ideal comrades of the “open road,” nevertheless found it more natural to admire authoritarian China, Albania, North Vietnam, Cuba than the “Amerika” that rocked with their protests. Watergate, though in the end presumably a victory of the Congress and the people over the conspirators in the White House, is too often blamed by our “opinion-makers” not on the conspirators but on democracy itself.
Democracy in America today is certainly very far from being the totally “open society” that Whitman believed in. Whitman could not have conceived that a “secret government” in Washington would think of the American people as enemies. He could not have anticipated the kind of intimidation that mass culture and mass opinion have made possible in an age of incessant propaganda, hysterical journalism, excessive social organization, technological manipulation. His “naive,” old-fashioned idea of democracy as an open invitation to everybody is certainly not shared by his fellow writers in America. The writer in America is too often the most contemptuous critic of democracy, though it is still not possible for him to say so plainly. Totalitarian horrors have given the lie to the old American faith in human nature, and the natural specialization and professionalization of intellect in a technological age—to say nothing of the writer’s lowered prestige—has made many an American writer feel that he must defend art from the masses. Amidst the scandals and crises that rocked the United States in the second administration of Richard Nixon, Gore Vidal wrote this new version of Democratic Vistas:
Political corruption has been with us since the first Congress at Philadelphia, and there is nothing to be done about it as long as we are what we are. In fact, as election costs mount, the corruption will tend to be institutionalized by the small group of legislators and bankers, generals and industrialists who own and govern the United States, Inc. But it does not take great prescience to realize that they are playing a losing game. As the polity becomes more and more conscious of the moral nullity at the center of American life, there will develop not the revolutionary situation dreamed of in certain radical circles but, rather, a deep contempt for the nation and its institutions, an apathy bound to be exploited by clever human engineers. In the name of saving the environment and restoring virtue, they will continue the dismantling of an unloved and unhonored republic. But then republics are social anomalies, as Thomas Jefferson must have suspected when he claimed to see, off there in the distance, no larger than a Federalist’s head, the minatory shape of the despot’s crown. . . .
The argument is without nuance, the disaffection is savage. The writer recites with joyous assurance “the dismantling of an unloved and unhonored republic”—with perfect contempt for the people who make it up. It was contempt that Whitman identified with the second-rate: perfect vanity, or intelligence without vision and without hope. Intellectuals are always the first to feel despair. Is it possible that Whitman’s “vistas,” his ultimately positive vision of the future, still appeals least of all to the intellectual class, to the American writer? Is he still, among his own, the great outsider? He would have minded, but not too much. Of course Whitman took the republic for granted. It was “democracy” he was pleading for, democracy within an American mind that had already gone too far to turn back.
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