Never and Forever: Walt Whitman's Coherent Contradictions in Democratic Vistas
Walt Whitman: Yay or Nay?
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Poet of Paradoxes
It should not surprise a careful reader of Walt Whitman’s works that he not only wrote revolutionary poetry, but also some rather progressive prose. His lengthy essay Democratic Vistas is full of his ideology in black and white, not at all colored with poetic phrasing. While some critics choose to focus on Whitman’s poetry for its ambiguous references to homosexuality or his love of nature, the serious reader must also read some of his other works in order to begin to understand his poems. Indeed, the same love of nature Whitman displays in “Leaves of Grass” is present in Democratic Vistas, and his political and social views are defined in both writings. The characteristic of Whitman that allows him to write about things without prejudice or predisposition is invaluable. This quality gives the reader an insight into Whitman’s mindset and also the history surrounding him. Whitman, always striving to be the realist, gives modern readers a clearer picture of democracy-- at least from his perspective. Indeed, he appears to be one of democracy’s greatest fans. Yet, his criticism of this ideology only adds to the realism of Whitman’s arguments. Whitman believed that democracy is a natural extension of humanity. Indeed, “he saw humans and their creations as an inextricable component of the natural world” (Sickels 19) Therefore, since humans are complex, contradictory, and flawed, democracy also is inevitably complicated, conflicting, and imperfect.
Primarily, Whitman finds democracy and its byproducts to be both good and evil. This is evidenced in the very manner in which Democratic Vistas is written. Whitman goes back and forth between criticizing the people of America and praising their ingenuity and beauty. In fact, between the ending sentence of one paragraph and the beginning sentence of the next, Whitman vacillates abruptly; “Let no tongue ever speak in disparagement of the American races…Meantime, general humanity…has always, in every department, been full of perverse maleficence, and is so yet.” Whitman sees both the good and the bad in America in this short segment of Vistas. Even more quickly, Whitman praises and attacks democracy in one sentence; “Political democracy, as it exists, and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training school for making first-class men.” Whitman clearly believes that democracy, although beautiful and effective brings with it many risks and problems. The people he so proudly defends are the minds behind many of the vices he criticizes in his writing. He recognizes that democracy is “of the people, by the people, for the people”, and then proceeds to label these people as “ungrammatical, untidy, and their sins gaunt and ill-bred.” This idea of beauty and ugliness in combination in humanity is a crucial point in Whitman’s Vistas, and, indeed, his whole body of writing. Whitman repeatedly mentions “Nature” in capital letters, which suggests personification. Nature, he suggests is the overlying force that humans cannot ignore or fight. One critic describes Whitman’s beliefs, and explains his apparently contradictory attitude; “…not everything in the natural world is attractive; because prostitution and vice exist, they must be considered an inherent condition of humanity” (Sickels 20). Whitman, forever the striving realist, recognizes good and evil in humanity, and since democracy is a human idea, he believes it also suffers the paradox of morality and immorality combined.
Democracy is both glorious and tragic, as Whitman discovers after the Civil War has both devastated and renewed the country and her democratic spirit. This opinion is partially gathered, because Whitman draws his ideas together over a long period of time. The appearance, then, is incongruous, since he initially greets the war with welcome and support, and later finds it to be utterly damaging. He articulates this in his preface to Democratic Vistas, and also suggests the idea that democracy in America could become either “gorgeous” or a “failure”, again emphasizing the realistic paradox of Whitman’s views. He heavily references the democracy of ancient Greece in Vistas, and applauds their long-standing ideologies. He credits their literature for preserving their culture and philosophy. This further supports Whitman’s idea that democracy is glorious and tragic, since Greek literature uses comedy and tragedy as its foundations. Whitman makes a parallel between ancient Greece and America by submitting that America, also, will have to accept both the successes and failures, the comedies and tragedies, in order to grow and progress. He felt that “America’s mission would not always be a romantic quest headed by dashing, heroic figures. It would sometimes be led by Presidents (and others) who failed to be impressive or inspirational” (Brooks 33). Whitman continues to recognize the tragedies of America, which seemingly fly in the face of a country and society rich with opportunity and advantage. These failures are contrasted with victories, their glory not found in paltry or shallow refinement, but in very natural elements, such as life, religion, and science. Here, Whitman again alludes to literature, using it as a metaphor that says humanity has the constant opportunity to rewrite the stories, and fill them with worthwhile glory and tragedy. Democracy, according to Whitman, is the pen mankind uses to write society. One political journalist seems to share Whitman’s idea when he says; “For all its undeniable prosperity, in part precisely because of its undeniable prosperity, there are many things amiss in America today. For each thing that is right, something has gone wrong” (Dreyfuss 11). He goes on in his article to suggest that the solution to the inevitable problems in America can be solved with democracy, echoing this repeated sentiment in the title of his article, “More Democracy! More Revolution!” Whitman, indeed, views the results of the Civil War, a tragic event, as glorious, because they demonstrate how well democracy can work. He sees these ideas not as contrary to each other, but synergistic components in the working system of Nature.
Whitman titles his prosaic writing Democratic Vistas, which is fascinating, since, according to Microsoft Word’s dictionary, “vista” is a word that means; “a scenic or panoramic view” or “view seen through narrow opening”. This would seem to indicate that Whitman is aware of the fact that he is viewing democracy and humanity through a narrow scope, thus perhaps painting a picture that is a little inaccurate. Ironically, Whitman does not treat his view as limited or inexact, but instead proceeds to make predictions about democracy. He even creates a temporal paradox out of democracy, defining its existence as present and future. This idea is not atypical of Whitman. He presents this view of time in his poem “To Think of Time”, where he speaks of time as being a law that cannot be eluded. In fact, one commentator submits that Whitman, himself, “is infinite; he is of the past and of the present and future, of the old and of the young; his personality admits no barriers; he sees through good and evil, through space and time” (Myers 244). In Vistas, Whitman suggests that mankind is standing, living and moving in a sort of spiritual flow. Time surrounds and moves humanity constantly. Therefore, it logically follows that democracy, a creation of mankind, is not a temporal force in itself, but also moves through and lives in the river of time. This makes it easy for Whitman to make predictions regarding democracy and its creator, man. He does this readily. Whereas Whitman paints the democracy of the day as both good and bad, his opinion of the future democracy considers only the good qualities it will bring. He celebrates, among other things, the absence of the devil, hell, and natural depravity. Even while he suggests that these good, and rather impractical, things will occur, he admits it is only a dream. David Brooks, a political critic, suggests; “No other essay communicates quite so well what it is like to live constantly in the shadow of the future, trusting that tomorrow’s world will be better and redeem the incompleteness of the present” (33). He admits that democracy cannot come to this state of triumph, or live up to the ideals it is meant to, without the movement of time and Nature. Thus, Whitman creates a circular sort of logic-- interesting, considering his fascination with the Greeks and their philosophy. He acknowledges the goodness of democracy in its present state, even while displaying longing for the future of that great institution. Whitman does not feel that the world is a static, determined force full of random chaos, but that there is an order to the world, to which humanity can only react. “The poet, he repeatedly wrote, was the affirmer of equilibrium, the joiner and reconciler, the one who puts everything in its proper place” (Reynolds 32). Again, the reader can see how Whitman, believing as he does in the natural order of the world, feels the need for extreme realism in his writing in order to present everything as it naturally is. Naturally, therefore, there is contradiction. There is now, and there is later. There is here, and there is there. Whitman portrays these complex ideas as though they are perfectly natural. He does not shirk at the idea of infinite time, but embraces it saying; “Time is ample.”
Whitman is an auditory writer. He is always listening, absorbing, and drawing his own conclusions. This characteristic makes him, possibly, the perfect person to comment on the human race and democracy. Since democracy requires the voice of every person to work most effectively, listening is key. Whitman listens to the voices of all the people with ears that do not select what they hear. In fact, as one author states, we are all capable of such listening; “We cannot choose to open or close them [our ears], and the sounds of the earth come to us, entering our bodies and touching the ear’s attuned bones and hairs” (Hirshfield 48). It is through his intent observation that Whitman comes to view people as what they are, and their creation, democracy, as what it is. He sees it for the good and for the evil-- what it can be and what it is. Like in his innovative poetry, Whitman embraces people for whom and what they are: the saints and the sinners alike. He also appreciates the fact that people are not clearly defined as saints or sinners, but are a combination of both. Democratic Vistas extends this belief into the ideology of democracy by suggesting that it unavoidably contains both good and evil. Whitman also embraces both the glory and tragedy of democracy in the United States, just as he does in regards to the Civil War in his poetry and prose writings. He regards ancient Greek culture with a sense of awe, and considers its literature responsible for bringing their ideas forward to modern times. Whitman equates this with the United States, and extends a metaphor of literature onto democracy of his time. He claims that democracy is the only way to bring about glorious things in America. Whitman recognizes that humanity and democracy are victims to the whims of Nature and time. He does not hesitate to make his statements apply to the present and to the future. He says that democracy is a wonderful institution, but that it can only reach its true potential with time-- and more democracy.
Whitman is the poet of paradoxes. He loves himself more than others and others even more. He thinks war is necessary and good, but he despises what it brings. Whitman uses this contrary personality to his advantage when he writes Democratic Vistas. The casual reader might be confused by his use of apparent indecisiveness. However, on further study, it would seem that, like Whitman’s own personality, his writing is not contradictory. His writing is like Whitman, himself, who is “the poet of the body as well as of the soul…the poet of death as well as life…the poet of evil as well as good” (Myers 246-247). Thus, he might say there are paradoxes everywhere. Good and evil exist together. Glory and tragedy stand side by side. The present and the future are dependent on one another. Walt Whitman knowingly submits pros and cons, because they belong together. Walt Whitman, the people’s representative, the poor man’s spokesman, the ultimate democrat; “…democracy…is the old, yet ever modern dream of earth, out of her eldest and her youngest, her fond philosophers and poets.” Let his words speak for themselves. Let the leaves of his writing be like grass, and live forever in the natural cycle of this world.
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