The Democratic Value of Whitman's Words
by Eric Otto
Early reviews of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass evince an incipient awareness of the unifying and acutely democratic aspects of the poetry. An article in the November 13th, 1856, issue of the New York Daily Times describes the modest, self-published book of twelve seemingly formless poems: "As we read it again and again, and we will confess that we have returned to it often, a singular order seems to arise out of its chaotic verses" (2). The Daily Times's identification of "order" out of "chaos" in Leaves of Grass parallels America's theoretical declaration of e pluribus unum, one out of many—a uniquely democratic objective. Also manifesting the early perception of the democratic poetic in Leaves of Grass, yet focusing more on Whitman and his content, an 1856 edition of the North American Review asserts, "Walter Whitman, an American,—one of the roughs,—no sentimentalist,—no stander above men and women, or apart from them,—no more modest than immodest,—has tried to write down here, in a sort of prose poetry, a good deal of what he has seen, felt, and guessed at in a pilgrimage of some thirty-five years" (275). Here, Whitman is seen as the archetypal American, practicing the democratic ideal of human equality. The reviewers' awareness of order out of chaos and of the ideological American attitude of equality is a written history of the problems of nineteenth-century, post-Jacksonian America, for the presence of their observations, which celebrate Whitman's democratic vision, can only suggest the absence of that vision in American politics and culture.
Indeed, the language of mid-nineteenth-century reviews of Leaves of Grass reflects nostalgia for the community focus of early Jeffersonian America, a focus that was fading in a culture increasingly influenced by Andrew Jackson's liberal individualism. In his analysis of the disparity between the old community values and the new individualistic values of American politics, Robert V. Remini notes, "the Founding Fathers had agreed that a just government was based on the consent of the governed, but that did not necessarily translate into democratic rule" (24). This republican mode of government safeguarded unity among Americans because it advocated a trace of aristocratic regulation, insuring that the elite serve as a filter for political decisions and thus for maintaining order. Jackson, however, endorsed extreme democratic rule—governance by the people, by America's very citizens. "Jackson's view of the American system of government," Remini continues,
was completely different from the Founding Fathers', and far more democratic. First of all, he maintained that the people always remain active in the governing process. The people can never be excluded; they did not surrender their right of self-government when they adopted the Constitution. They exercise it regularly through the ballot box, which all agencies of government (including the Supreme Court) must obey. (25)With valid reasoning, government officials feared the social and political manifestation of Jackson's radically democratic theories. Remini, interpreting the argument of those who found problems in Jackson's agenda, states that "without a rule of law interpreted by a high court, the majority will tyrannize the minority" (26). Jackson, though, trusted in the deep-seated integrity of American citizens, who, in their individuality, would not allow social disorder.
Jackson's ideas certainly influenced American political organization, although not in the optimistic manner that he conceived. His radical democracy, as feared, influenced extreme individualism in terms of states' rights—especially regarding the institution of slavery—subsequently leading to threats of secession by the Southern states in 1850. These states wanted slavery to expand west as America acquired new territories such as California. California, however, entered the Union as a free state, upsetting Southern politicians and leading them to advocate a potential separation from the American Union (Levine 570). And while the Compromise of 1850 temporarily solved this issue, America nonetheless did eventually pull away from its unionist roots in 1860, leading to the Civil War.
Issues related to the threats of individualism pervaded American society as well beginning with Jackson's presidency in 1829. Discussing Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, a text which observes the state of democracy in mid-nineteenth-century America from the perspective of its French author, David Grimsted notices the author's recognition of democracy's unique social influence:
The family controlled only until children reached adulthood; people, especially those of conspicuous ability or ambition, readily changed locale and jobs as opportunity offered; class connections changed as one succeeded or one failed, especially in an economic sense; and one could readily change one's church to match one's new class connections or any new notions one had. (7-8)With all of this individual mobility, American society could no longer boast of union. "From many, many" incidentally replaced e pluribus unum.
In Walt Whitman's America, then, there existed a tension between what is and what should be, between an emphasis on individualism and an emphasis on a balance of the individual and the community. This opposition, though, is not Whitman's. For him, a "menace to democracy [. . .] is the danger of democratic societies disintegrating as individual citizens pursue their own selfish interests at the expense of the collectivity," and indeed Whitman saw the Jeffersonian concept of aristocratic community leadership as threatening to individual freedom; but democracy is not thus a flawed ideal (Adolph 77). Whitman scholars, in fact, continually note the poet's solid commitment to American democracy. Writing about "Song of Myself" in 1955, Richard Volney Chase claims that Whitman's world "is a fantastic world in which it is presumed that the self can become identical with all other selves in the universe, regardless of time and space. [. . .] Both politically and by nature man has ‘identity,’ in two senses of the word: on the one hand, he is integral in himself, unique, and separate; on the other hand, he is equal to, or even the same as, everyone else" (892-893). Whitman, as a nineteenth-century American, understood the way in which the concepts of individualism and community were antithetical, but he hoped to create a true democracy by emphasizing the relationships—rather than the oppositions—between the self and the many. He, as Sherry Southard notes, "realized that there was a problem reconciling democracy and individualism; yet he believed that eventually the two would merge and form something even greater than either alone" (46-47).
Whitman's democratic vision, like all visions, was forward looking, "an ideal to be realized in the American future, although it is undoubtedly fermenting at all times in the present national psyche" (Adolph 75). Surely, Whitman's psyche was busy negotiating methods for communicating true American democracy, a political and social goal that he would explore and attempt through poetry. As Whitman declares in his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, American democracy is a poetic concept: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem" (711). In this passage exists an instance of Whitman's conception of democratic union for a struggling America, for the plural States "are" a singular "poem." The poet "combine[s] an egalitarian vision of Union with a fiercely individualistic view of states’ rights, a balancing of the one and the many that would prove crucial in his poetic reworking of the political problems facing the American Union" (Levine 574). Language, as a "poetic reworking," is thus for Whitman a valid means of healing democracy, of finding a balanced relationship between the individual and the community. James E. Miller, Jr., focusing on Whitman and his commitment to democratic poesy states, "Whitman was concerned primarily with working out a poetics for America, a new theory of poetry for the New World democracy" (Walt Whitman 42). In a later work the same author claims "[Whitman] was the first American poet to see that, as America had begun a heretofore untried experiment in democratic governance, so the American poet must find a new epic form to match" (Leaves of Grass 12).
Working within the individual / community opposition of mid-nineteenth-century America, an opposition that essentially defines the ultimate threat to the United States at the time, Whitman hoped to heal America's social and political exigencies through his poetry. The content of his works delineates the various circumstances that exist within his American culture and within his own political and social philosophy—thought that is essentially Whitman's vision of democracy. Many of Whitman's poems, including major works such as "Song of Myself," can be studied with this contextual consideration, yet these elements can also be seen within clusters of poems, or within groupings in the clusters. One such grouping, which is central to the "Sea-Drift" cluster, consists of the poems "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," "On the Beach at Night Alone," "Song for All Seas, All Ships," and "After the Sea-Ship." Combined, these works demonstrate a shift from an individualistic worldview to a mature democratic worldview. Whitman reflects on the development of his own democratic poetic, tacitly envisioning America's progress to an ideal democratic nation in the process.
In "As I Ebb'd" Whitman is primarily concerned with his failure as a poet to recognize the elements of the world that are external to his self. He states,
Oppress'd with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,Whitman suggests his annoyance as he recalls the nature of an earlier poetic vision, a vision that dealt too much with his own self. His awareness that he "walk'd with that electric self seeking types," that he once held the search for his independent self in high regards, leads him to a discouraging thought: he has found out nothing about who he is because he knows nothing of the external world (17). Yet a hopeful democratic worldview is emerging in Whitman. He dismisses his extreme individualism and claims, "I too but signify at the utmost a little wash'd-up drift, / A few sands and dead leaves to gather, / Gather and merge myself as part of the sands and drift" (22-24). What seems to be the reduction of Whitman's significance, from a ruminating poet to a lump of sand and drift, is really the welcomed death of his solipsism and the birth of his ultimate democratic worldview.
The new identity that Whitman proclaims in "As I Ebb'd" allows him to begin the process of envisioning a truly democratic union of individual and community. He sees himself as a washed-up piece of matter, achieving meaning as he relates to other individuals. Demonstrating this, Whitman writes,
Me and mine, loose windrows, little corpses,Whitman accepts his position among the sands, first observing himself ("Me and mine"), then perceiving the community that he occupies ("loose windrows"), and finally noting the individual members of that community ("little corpses," "sands," "fragments"). Each member is certainly autonomous and, in fact, is one of "many moods"—though still part of the interwoven drifts. "As I Ebb'd" ends with a confident affirmation of Whitman's newly discovered democracy: the poet completes the sentence begun in line 57 with the declaration, "we too lie in drifts [. . .]" (71). Whitman becomes a part of the "we" in "As I Ebb'd"; from many—which include his self—he begins to perceive one.
The poet confirms his mature democratic vision in "On the Beach at Night Alone." Having realized, in "As I Ebb'd," that the truly democratic individual must expand her or his perceptions beyond the self and recognize the interrelatedness of all things, Whitman then engages in this kind of union. He states, "As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future. / A vast similitude interlocks all" (3-4). Whitman understands the "clef," or the musical key, of the universe—the guiding tone that unites "all" in harmony. Included in this "all" are "All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds, / [. . .] / All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages, / All identities [. . .]" (8, 10-11). With his recently enlightened worldview, Whitman comfortably observes the democratic unification of independent objects. Humans, countries, colors, languages—these "things," despite the obvious contrasts of their relationships with and within each other, are interlocked in a radically individualistic but community focused organization. As a democratic vision, Whitman's is indeed mature and hopeful. He ends the poem with an optimistic anticipation of unification: "This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann'd, / And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them" (13-14). Here, Whitman foreshadows the expansion of his vision into the political and social realm, an expansion that occurs in two ensuing poems of the "Sea-Drift" cluster: "Song for All Seas" and "After the Sea-Ship."
So far, Whitman's democratic revelation is largely a personal vision, yet in "Song for All Seas" it grows to encompass the political sphere. In the "Sea-Drift" cluster, "Song for All Seas" follows "On the Beach at Night Alone," which, as noted above, ends with a highly optimistic vision—but still an abstract perception—of democracy. However, the shift from the latter poem to the former poem represents the shift from Whitman's personal, philosophical idea to the manifestation of this democratic philosophy in the physical world, which is, in this poem, the political realm. This shift occurs as Whitman recognizes the tension between what is (political differences resulting from individualism) and what should be (unification). The poem begins, "To-day a rude brief recitative, / Of ships sailing the seas, each with its special flag or ship signal" (1-2). Whitman's perception of various "special flag[s]" indeed opposes his ideal democratic vision. But, immediately thereafter this "rude brief recitative"—literally a musical descent from what is greatly harmonious, like Whitman's vision in "On the beach at Night Alone," to what is more coarsely spoken, like the reality of political disparity—is reconciled with what opposes it: unification.
After establishing the political differences between unification and disunity, Whitman applies his new philosophy of democracy to national politics, reconciling these differences and ending "Song for All Seas" with a poetic celebration of this reconciliation. The poet writes, "Of dashing spray, and the winds piping and blowing, / And out of these a chant for the sailors of all nations, / Fitful, like a surge" (4-6). An opposition exists between the ocean spray, which represents a unifying precept (similar to the "sands and drift" of "As I Ebb'd"), and the "sailors of all nations," who represent many nations of individuals. This opposition, however, is broken down when Whitman observes "Thou sea that pickest and cullest the race in time, and unitest nations," for the unifying aspect of the sea connects the individualistic aspects of political difference (10). All in all, what was the "rude brief recitative" of many flags is now transformed into a truly democratic worldview—the unification of independent political ideologies into a conjoined community:
Flaunt out O sea your separate flags of nations!Political differences, rooted in individualism, disappear as "all nations" of political thought are merged in a common "signal," or, to revisit "On the Beach at Night Alone," in "the clef of the universes" (3).
Having celebrated his reconciliation of the individual / community opposition in the political sphere, Whitman then turns to another challenge: the reconciliation of this opposition in the social sphere by illumining society with his reformed political ideology. The poet succeeds in "After the Sea-Ship." In this poem, the sea-ship represents the ideal political democracy that Whitman has created in "Song for All Seas." The "one flag above all the rest" of "Song for All Seas" becomes a metonymic device depicting what now displays that "pennant universal"—the ship ("Song for All Seas" 22). Similarly, and corroborating the claim that the ship does indeed represent Whitman's new democracy, the unifying sea of "Song for All Seas" continues to follow the flag, or, the ship:
After the sea-ship, after the whistling winds,The ship is set on course, "displac[ing] the surface," creating a wake that is "flashing and frolicsome," and gathering "A motley procession with many a fleck of foam and many fragments" (8, 10, 11). Whitman preserves the individuality of people in his democratic poetic, for they are still "fleck[s] of foam and many fragments." They, however, are united "in the wake following," committed to a new democracy (12).
While Whitman's envisioning of America's
progress toward an ideal democracy is textual, the poet's philosophical
position on the role of literature in America allows his poems to exist
not only as cultural artifacts, influenced by historic political and social
discourse, but also as cultural models that actively participate in the
construction of future political and social discourse. This is not to say
that the past did not greatly influence Whitman, for some of his poetry,
as shown, was written in reaction to the exigency of American political
and social disintegration that had been lingering since the early debates
between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. But Whitman wrote with
the knowledge that history is not final and does not decide the fate of
the culture that has produced that history—present and future discourse
does, and America, for Whitman, had the opportunity to implement this philosophy
and achieve unique democratic goals. And while Whitman's claims that "The
Americans [. . .] have probably the fullest poetical nature," and that
"Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most
need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest,"
are radical claims for literary culture in itself, they demonstrate the
poet's (Whitman's or the American Renaissance poet's) transcendence of
historical models, whether literary, political, social, or any other structure
created by Old World thought (Preface 711, 714). His art is one mode of
the totality of American discourse; thus, in asserting a new democratic
identity through poetry, Whitman actively asserts a new democratic identity
for American politics and culture. As James Perrin Warren notes in Walt
Whitman's Language Experiment, "the 'language experiment' of Leaves
of Grass should reveal Whitman's strategies for unlocking 'new potentialities'
in the speech and spirit of nineteenth-century America" (11). Indeed, the
"speech and spirit" does shift with Whitman; his words lead America toward
real democratic unity.
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Chase, Richard Volney. "One's Self I Sing." Bradley and Blodgett 889-895.
Grimsted, David. Introduction. Notions of the Americans: 1820-1860. Ed. David Grimsted. New York: George Braziller, 1970. 3-22.
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"Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn. 1855." Rev. of Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. North American Review Jan. 1856: 275-277.
Levine, Herbert J. "Union and Disunion in 'Song of Myself.'" American Literature 59.4 (1987): 570-589.
Miller, James E., Jr. Leaves of Grass: America's Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992.
- - - . Walt Whitman. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Remini, Robert V. The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays on Democracy, Indian Removal, and Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988.
Southard, Sherry. "Whitman and Language: Great Beginnings for Great American Poetry." Mount Olive Review 4 (Spring 1990): 45-54.
Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.
Whitman, Walt. "After the Sea-Ship." Bradley and Blodgett 263.
- - - . "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life." Bradley and Blodgett 253-256.
- - - . "On the Beach at Night Alone." Bradley and Blodgett 260-261.
- - - . "Song for All Seas, All Ships." Bradley and Blodgett 261-262.
- - - . "Preface 1855—Leaves of Grass, First Edition." Bradley and Blodgett 711-731.
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