Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584
Since Democratic Vistas is not a novel but a wide-ranging non-fiction work dealing primarily with ideas, perhaps we should refer to its "subjects" rather than its "characters." But the latter term is still applicable given that Whitman does in fact deal with people and not merely topics in the abstract.
In the first chapter, which is itself called "Democratic Vistas," the American people as a whole are the main character. Whitman, as elsewhere in his writings, sees something distinct and unique about the Americans and their democracy which will enable them to move humanity as a whole forward in a manner not accomplished before. And, again as elsewhere, Whitman focuses upon women and their accomplishments. He mentions specifically several women entrepreneurs and praises them for their independence and ability to break free of the constraints of the past.
Walt Whitman himself is another principal character of his book. He describes his own life—his literary development, the accomplishment of writing Leaves of Grass, and his acknowledgement that his magnum opus as yet hasn't been widely understood and that it might take a century for this to occur. He mentions his having camped with the Union Army during the Civil War and that had it not been for his witnessing of battlefield events, his writings would not have been possible as they were.
Much of his book deals with other authors and their works, so these people as well are "characters" in Democratic Vistas. His observations on Shakespeare are especially interesting because, although he recognizes Shakespeare's greatness, Whitman sees him as a representative of the old feudal world prior to the advent of democracy. Yet at the same time (if I understand this section of the Shakespeare chapter properly), he seems to detect in the historical plays a hidden agenda of subversiveness against that existing feudal system—which was, after all, already beginning to disintegrate in Shakespeare's own time.
The other writers to whom Whitman devotes individual chapters are Robert Burns and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He gives much praise, though of a qualified sort, to both of them. Of particular interest is his mention of Tennyson's early "Locksley Hall" and the sequel to it just recently published at the time Whitman is writing.
In the latter part of Democratic Vistas, Whitman resumes his focus upon himself and his writings. As would be almost impossible for anyone at the time to omit in a book dealing with contemporary ideas, Charles Darwin and his theories are examined as well. Near the close of the book, inevitably so with Whitman, he relates a "Lincoln Reminiscence." Abraham Lincoln is probably the most important "character" not necessarily in Democratic Vistas but in Whitman's life as a whole. Whitman recalls Lincoln having told an anecdote to a delegation of bank presidents who met with him during the War to express their concern about what they believed would be the imminent failure of the war effort. Lincoln's response was that a clergyman with whom he had boarded during his youth had awakened him in the middle of the night to tell him that Judgement Day had arrived. When young Abraham looked out the window, he saw what was apparently a meteor shower, but behind it the eternal stars could be seen in their calm, fixed positions. This anecdote was a parable by Lincoln about the wrongness of pessimism. Whitman, like Lincoln, was an optimist as well even in his darkest times. Democratic Vistas, like Whitman's poetry, is an expression of that optimism.