Study Guide

Democratic Vistas

by Walt Whitman

Democratic Vistas Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Written when Walt Whitman was in his early fifties, Democratic Vistas demonstrates the author’s discouragement at what he saw in America. The sobering effects of the Civil War, the death of Abraham Lincoln, and the overwhelming change resulting from the Industrial Revolution are quite evident as Whitman attempts to introduce a plan for the development of a golden age in the New World.

Like Whitman’s poetry, the work has no substantial organization; it tends to ramble and to be repetitious. Nevertheless, in its portrait of Whitman’s philosophy, and in its analysis of the potentiality of the American society, Democratic Vistas is extremely significant. Its criticism of American politics, culture, and values in general was partly the result of the disillusionment that existed after the Civil War, but the considerations are still quite applicable to American society.

Simply stated, the thesis of Democratic Vistas is that, while America is surpassing all other nations industrially and has the material facilities to continue its advancement, it lacks a distinct culture or spiritual identity. According to Whitman, such an identity could only come about through works of literature written in new literary styles by new artists. In effect, he is stating that the United States has the human resources, the material resources, and the sound political structure to make itself the most nearly ideal society that has ever existed. As Whitman views the American scene, however, he sees no unique values, no real expression of these new concepts, but only a materialistic society relying on old ideas and traditional expressions. Thus, the overall result of the work is a plea for great literary works that would serve as a foundation for a new society.

Though the work has no organization other than the repetition of this same theme, Whitman’s approach follows four general divisions: a portrait of the American society and its values, a statement of the basic principles and ideals that represent the goals of the “mass, or lump character” of America, the principle of the individual as the focal point for the ideal society, and great literature as the force that will bring about this society.

Whitman begins by stating his central theme—that the United States will never be great unless it is able to separate itself from the Old World tradition: 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.

Whitman further states that the United States is a new experiment founded on new principles and cannot rely on old ideas. While some might argue that the “republic is, in performance, really enacting today the grandest arts, poems, etc., by beating up the wilderness into fertile farms, and in her railroads, ships, machinery, etc.,” Whitman responds that “society, in these States, is canker’d, crude, superstitious and rotten”: The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration; and the judiciary is tainted.

After dwelling on the “lamentable conditions” that exist in the United States, Whitman states that the answer to such problems is a “new-founded literature” that would be “consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men.”

Having thus established the tone of his essay, Whitman proceeds to the first main consideration, an analysis of the present American society. His portrait of the “lump character” shows that the artist has, in the past, had to struggle against the masses. He also shows that the reverse has been true, for literature “has never recognized the People.” It is Whitman’s belief that the United States is experiencing the birth of a new sort of mass personality that is courageous, all-inclusive, and potentially great. To deny cultural identity to this mass would be to destroy this potentiality. We believe the ulterior object of political and all other government (having, of course, provided for the police, the safety of life, property, and for the basic statute and common law, and their administration, always first in order), to be among the rest, not merely to rule, to repress disorder, etc., but to develop, to...

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Democratic Vistas Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980. Considers Democratic Vistas a mature reflection of Whitman’s feminism: his belief in women’s potential, their maternal and physical capabilities, and the need for female influence on society.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Examines Whitman’s politics. Argues that Democratic Vistas moves toward socialism and affirms a more feminized, cooperative society.

Holloway, Emory. Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1969. Considers Democratic Vistas a transitional work moving the poet from despair to hope, from physicality to spirituality, and from individuality to nationality in his writing.

Kummings, Donald D., ed. A Companion to Walt Whitman. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006. Provides information on Whitman’s life, the cultural and historical contexts of his works, his use of language, his writing style, and the reception and legacy of his writings. An essay by Robert Leigh Davis provides an analysis of Democratic Vistas.

Mancuso, Luke. “Reconstruction Is Still in Abeyance: Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and the Federalizing of National Identity.” In The Strange Sad War Revolving: Walt Whitman, Reconstruction, and the Emergence of Black Citizenship, 1865-1876. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1997. Argues that the essay is “symptomatic of the larger cultural debate” in post-Civil War America about granting voting rights to African Americans.

Rosenblatt, Louise. “Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and the ’New Ethnicity.’” In Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2005. Examines the work from the perspective of reader-response theory, arguing that Whitman shows his readers how men and women can accept themselves and others for their own uniqueness.

Scholnick, Robert J. “The American Context of Democratic Vistas.” In Walt Whitman: Here and Now, edited by Joann P. Krieg. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Considers the response of Democratic Vistas to the publication of Thomas Carlyle’s Shooting Niagra: And After (1867), other period reactions to Carlyle, and the pessimistic essays on similar themes by painter Eugene Benson.

Snyder, John. The Dear Love of Man: Tragic and Lyric Communion in Walt Whitman. Paris: Mouton, 1975. Argues that Democratic Vistas offers literature as a means of giving spiritual meaning to America’s corrupt and materialistic society. Whitman’s vision is both tragic concerning the present and idealistic about the future.