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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294

Democratic Vistas, written by Walt Whitman, is an early American work from 1871. This work is comprised of three essays that discuss democracy and Whitman's opinions on the role that democracy will play in United States history.

Most of Whitman's opinions on America are negative as a result of...

(The entire section contains 2143 words.)

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Democratic Vistas, written by Walt Whitman, is an early American work from 1871. This work is comprised of three essays that discuss democracy and Whitman's opinions on the role that democracy will play in United States history.

Most of Whitman's opinions on America are negative as a result of the effects the Civil War had on the country. In his essays, Whitman attempts to offer a solution for the problems he believes are occurring in America. His goal is to develop a "Golden Age" in the New World. Whitman believes that in order for America to be great, America must stray from old traditions and beliefs and focus more on art, poetry, schools, science, and new technologies that can teach and train men.

Whitman provides criticism of American culture, politics and government, and values throughout these essays.

The work is divided into three main considerations, the first being American society and government, the second being Americans as individuals, and the third being about American literature.

Whitman believes that America should have a cultural identity in order to be successful. He also believes that the government should aim to nurture this identity and cultivate growth and independence from other countries but solidarity in America.

As far as individual Americans, Whitman thinks that all people should be able to express their own personalism. Whitman encourages individuality and creativity among the American people. He does not agree with materialism.

As a poet and writer, it makes sense that Whitman had a strong opinion about the importance of literature. He believes that literature should be used to educate and enhance the American culture by teaching morals and faith.

Democratic Vistas is in itself a warning for the American people, encouraging the type of growth Whitman deems important and necessary.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1849

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 open up to cultivation, to encourage the possibilities of all beneficent and manly outcroppage, and of that aspiration for independence, and the pride and self-respect latent in all characters.

In other words, Whitman believed that physical freedom is only part of America’s goal. The society as a whole can progress only when it possesses a cultural freedom and a set of ideals that will enable the people to attain a transcendent spirituality. Still, the law and the political form are important to Whitman, for it is only in this governmental structure that people of all races and backgrounds can be brought together. Whitman even sees in the future a greater prosperity of the masses and a tremendous growth of society: “The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort—a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth.”

According to Whitman, this wealth, plus a genuine solidarity of mass spirit and integrity, will make this system survive. Two examples that he gives to prove this point are that “the land which could raise such as the late rebellion, could also put it down,” and that the fervor of the Americans is also evident in the interest that they show in the election of their leaders: “I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.”

Having discussed the quality of the United States’ political system and the character of the mass of its people, Whitman then turns to the individual, for “rich, luxuriant, varied personalism,” argues Whitman, is the key to civilization. All else, such as literature or government, is important only insofar as it assists in the “production of perfect characters among the people.” It was Whitman’s belief that this principle is the basis for the United States’ future.

Whitman defines individuality as creativity, that independent thought by which each person is able to transcend the mass, and he states that it is precisely this quality that Americans lack. He attributes this failure to an attachment to “Culture,” or traditional learning. The scholar, for example, is taught what to believe, and consequently believes in nothing. Rather than serving to motivate creativity, this type of culture only systematizes and stagnates individuality.

It is not that Whitman objects to culture; he argued earlier for the necessity of a unique culture if the United States was to rise above materialism. He simply believes that, instead of being limited to the “parlors or lecture rooms,” culture should be distributed among all people of all classes. In short, the masses should be given the opportunity to achieve identity. The nation has indeed developed people who are physically strong and educated, says Whitman, but the “gloomiest consequences” will result if people are left with an “unsophisticated Conscience.”

The third and final section of the essay is devoted to the concept of a great American literature, the power that Whitman believes will enable the development of the “primary moral element” necessary for an enhanced American culture: A boundless field to fill! A new creation, with needed orbic works launch’d forth, to revolve in free and lawful circuits—to move, self-poised, through the ether, and shine like heaven’s own suns! With such, and nothing less, we suggest that New World Literature, fit to rise upon, cohere, and finalize in time, these States.

By “New World Literature” Whitman does not mean quantity; this nation has, he states, more publications than any other country. Rather, he is referring to literary forms that would represent the United States as the Bible, the works of Homer, Plato, and Aeschylus represent their respective civilizations. Nor should Americans resort to the achievements of the past, for these works were written for remote times and problems: “Ye powerful and resplendent ones! ye were, in your atmospheres, grown not for America, but rather for her foes, the feudal and the old—while our genius is democratic and modern.” Whitman summarizes what has thus far been accomplished by describing the stages of development in American writing. He states that America has gone through two stages in preparation for a third and final stage, without which the first two become useless: “The First stage was the planning and putting on record the political foundation rights of immense masses of people. . . . The Second stage relates to material prosperity, wealth, produce. . . .” The third and final stage will be “a native expression-spirit,” “a sublime and serious Religious Democracy sternly taking command.” This spirit of impetus can come from no other land, because the foundations for this literature exist only in the United States.

The artist who will produce this literature will be a student of nature. “Part of the test of a great literatus,” says Whitman, “shall be the absence in him of the idea of the covert, the lurid, the maleficent, the devil . . . hell, natural depravity, and the like.” More important, however, will be his faith, his simplicity of statement, and his “adherence to natural standards.”

Whitman is no less explicit in his description of the themes of these great works. He says, “Nature, true Nature, and the true idea of Nature, long absent, must, above all, become fully restored, enlarged, and must furnish the pervading atmosphere to poems, and the test of all high literary and aesthetic compositions.”

Here Whitman is not referring to the “posyes and nightingales of the English poets,” but to the spiritual significance, symbolic and implicit, in the unity of all created matter. By means of this expression all men will be able to understand the essential harmony in the universe and thus regain their faith which has been “scared away by science.”

Exactly how the artist will go about this process is not really made clear; but Whitman does say that a whole new idea of composition must be the means. In any case, he assures the reader that the nation cannot rest on what has already been accomplished; the hope of the nation is in the future.

The final tone of Whitman’s essay is one that pervades the whole work; he is desperate and is trying to convince the reader that he or she should also be concerned. Earlier in his career, Whitman had thought that great American literature was on the verge of being created. At the writing of Democratic Vistas, he sees that that of which he has dreamed has not occurred, and he attempts to motivate the potential philosopher-artists through this essay. The result is that, when he has not obscured his message with too many words, he has given an excellent critique of American society that is as significant now as it was in Whitman’s day.

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