Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas is a rallying cry, and a very long one. Whitman witnessed hundreds of thousands of men die in the Civil War and the country he loved ripped apart by inherent differences. But how can folks from the same country be so different? What was inside of them that made them so different? Is it still inside of us? Whitman answers these questions, but sees the opposite of what they ask. It is not what is inside of us, rather what is lacking in us. He writes “It is as if we were somehow being endow’d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul”. The US is growing in wealth and size, but still the country suffers from divisiveness culminating in war. Tremendous economic achievement and expansion has done very little in solving social issues or creating an American identity that is truly democratic.
The essays in Vistas were published a few years after the Civil War ended. The war tested, and more or less destroyed, American democracy over the allowance of slavery in southern states. Slavery is inherently undemocratic, yet it was built into and thrived in a country established on equality, representation, and basic universal rights(for those qualified to be citizens). Robert Dahl writes in On Democracy that “democracy could not long exist unless its citizens manage to create and maintain a supportive political culture, indeed a general culture supportive of these ideals and practices”. This is what Whitman is realizing. He sees American society as “canker’d, crude, superstitious, and rotten” because inside of every citizen is “the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices”. Americans are beginning to feel conflicted between the values taught by their culture, and the reality in front of them. The only citizens who could vote were white male landowners, creating a ruling class that governed and exploited women, slaves, and those who didn’t own land. Slaves swelled the populations and representation of southern states, yet had no political power to affect that representation. The US could not support a democratic culture because it was inherently undemocratic.
In Whitman’s view Americans believed more in profit and appearance than in democracy. He hits citizens like a fist wrapped around a roll of quarters when he states
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 underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in
Whitman continues his criticism of American society, “I say that our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects”. Despite all the wealth, power, and land the US amasses, Americans were divided and suffered from a lack of identity.
Post-Civil War America is primed for its secondary succession. It is time for a new culture, a new identity to emerge that is rooted in true democratic values and ideals, that will extend into politics. Literature is at the heart of Whitman’s dream,
what finally and only is to make of our western world a nationality superior to any hither known, and out-topping the past, must be vigorous, yet unsuspected Literatures, perfect personalities and sociologies, original, transcendental, and expressing…democracy and the modern
He uses ‘literature’ to cover not only written works, but any artistic endeavour. Schools, religion, social institutions must be stripped and reformed in accordance as well. He envisions a culture rooted in democratic values that have been internalized in citizens and overflowing from their culture, unique to and created for and by Americans.