Selected Criticism

Folsom, Ed
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Democracy" is the organizing concept that unites Whitman's poetics, politics, and metaphysics. Democracy always remained for Whitman an ideal goal, never a realized practice. He saw democracy as an inevitable evolutionary force in human history, and he did all he could to urge the evolution along, but he was under no illusions that a functioning democratic society would come easily or quickly. As part of his democratic effort, he tried to invent a poetry as open, as nondiscriminatory, and as absorptive as he imagined an ideal democracy would be. He tried, in other words, to construct a democratic voice that would serve as a model for his society—a difficult task, since he was well aware that his nation and his world were still filled with antidemocratic sentiments, laws, customs, and institutions, and he knew that no writer could rise above all the biases and blindnesses of his particular historical moment. Whitman believed, however, that the United States in the nineteenth century had the opportunity to become the first culture in human history to experience the beginnings of a true democracy.

In Webster's 1847 American Dictionary of the English Language (the dictionary Whitman depended on), democracy is defined as "a form of government, in which the supreme power is lodged in the hands of the people collectively, or in which the people exercise the powers of legislation," and the definition ends with a single example: "Such was the government of Athens." This dictionary makes no mention of American democracy. Whitman took issue with this definition; when he talks about the evolution of democracy, he virtually ignores Athenian democracy. For Whitman, human history is not so much a back-and-forth struggle between democratic and antidemocratic forces as it is an unbroken evolution away from feudalism toward the natural and rational democratic future. So, when Whitman defines democracy, his definition contains no past examples or models, but instead looks only toward the future, which of course makes the act of definition impossible: "We have frequently printed the word Democracy," he writes in Democratic Vistas. "Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken'd." He goes on to say that it is a "great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted" (Prose Works 2:393). Democracy, in other words, is the most significant word in the American language and yet remains a word for which there is still no definition, because no society has yet lived the history that would illustrate it. Whitman assumed "Democracy to be at present in its embryo condition" (2:392), and he always professed that "the fruition of democracy....resides altogether in the future" (2:390).

Whitman also disagreed with Webster's emphasis on the "form of government" as the essential aspect of a democracy. For Whitman, a democratic literature was the most essential factor, for as long as the imagination of the country remained shackled by feudalistic models of literature, by romances that reinforced power hierarchies and gender discrimination, and by a conception of literary production that put authorship only in the hands of the educated elite, then democracy would never flourish, regardless of the form of government. Whitman was finally more intrigued with the way a democratic self would act than the way a democratic society would function, and the defining of this revolutionary new self, he knew, was a job for the poet. A democracy, then, would require a new kind of imaginative relationship between reader and author, a more equalizing give and take, and so Whitman constructed a poetry that directly addressed his readers and challenged them to act, speak, and respond. He also constructed a poetry that required of the reader acts of imaginative absorption, a breaking down of the barriers of bias and convention, and an enlarging of the self. He argued vehemently that "a new Literature," and especially "a new Poetry, are to be, in my opinion, the only sure and worthy supports and expressions of the American democracy" (Prose Works 2:416). His belief in the power of literature to shape a democracy was so strong that he occasionally expressed doubts about whether Shakespeare, for example, should be taught in American schools, because he represented "incarnated, uncompromising feudalism, in literature," and "there is much in him ever offensive to democracy" (2:522). The greatest duty of the American poet, Whitman believed, was to write the "epic of democracy" (2:458), to go about the business of "making a new history, a history of democracy, making old history a dwarf" (2:423). The poet of democracy would change a nation's reading habits, and in so doing would create the imaginative energy necessary to break down feudalistic assumptions and to construct a new democratic frame of mind.

Whitman was not a naive apologist for democracy. He regularly cast a skeptical eye on American culture, and he was keenly aware of the many shortcomings of the then current state of American democracy as well as of some of the basic contradictions of democratic theory. "A majority or democracy may rule as outrageously and do as great harm as an oligarchy or despotism," he wrote in Specimen Days (Prose Works 1:260). And in his "Notes Left Over," he worried about the "dark significance" of the "total want" of any "mutuality of love, belief, and rapport of interest, between the comparatively few successful rich, and the great masses of the unsuccessful, the poor"—such "a problem and puzzle in our democracy" haunted Whitman as much in the late nineteenth century as it does many Americans today (Prose Works 2:534). While his faith in democracy as the "destin'd conquerer" of history was strong, his awareness that there were "treacherous lip-smiles everywhere" was just as strong, and his poems articulated "the song of the throes of Democracy" every bit as much as its victories ("By Blue Ontario's Shore," section 1).

Whitman regularly noted the failings and sad ironies of his nation's often faltering attempts to build a democratic culture, and he believed that there could be "no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy" (Prose Works 2:529). While he could use "the words America and democracy as convertible terms," he at the same time worried that the "United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time" (2:363). So he became a severe critic of America's shortcomings even while he also looked beyond the failings to future possibilities. During the Civil War, for instance, Whitman castigated the U.S. military for its feudalistic and antidemocratic organization, and yet he also argued that two of the great "proofs" of democracy in America were the voluntary arming of troops in the Civil War and the peaceful disbanding of the armies after the war was over (Prose Works 1:25). The military thus at once offered distressing and hopeful signs, as it, like much of American society, struggled to discover the implications of democratic reformation.

Whitman chose to view democracy as a force of nature, an antidiscriminatory law manifested in the fullness of the natural world: "Democracy most of all affiliates with the open air, is sunny and hardy and sane only with Nature" (Prose Works 1:294). The word "democracy," he said, is the "younger brother of another great and often-used word, Nature..." (Prose Works 2:393). So the new democratic poet would take his lessons from nature, as he made clear in his 1855 Preface: "He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing" (2:437). "Not til the sun excludes you do I exclude you," he wrote in "To a Common Prostitute." Whitman thus developed a new edge to the word "discrimination," a word that was undergoing important changes in connotation in the second half of the nineteenth century, shifting from meaning simply "the making of a distinction" to suggesting something significantly more sinister in a democratic society, where the very act of making distinctions in respect to quality, of setting up hierarchies of value, came to be perceived as an antidemocratic process that "discriminated against" those who did not share decision-making authority. Whitman was inventing the definition of the word that we are most familiar with today as he explored ways that the act of discriminating produced victims—those who were discriminated against. "The earth," he wrote in "A Song of the Rolling Earth" (section 1), "makes no discriminations." This nature-based, non-discriminating democracy, then, becomes the poet's "pass-word primeval" (as he calls it in "Song of Myself," section 24): "I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy, / By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms." Whitman's development of his long-lined free verse and his absorptive catalogues that melded presidents and prostitutes in the same line were all part of his attempt to break out of the discriminating poetry of the past and open literature to a democratic sensibility.

By the time he wrote Democratic Vistas, his most extended analysis of democracy, Whitman was less sanguine than he had been about democracy's inevitable success. He begins the essay by alternately agreeing with and disputing Thomas Carlyle's famous attacks on democracy. As Whitman builds a case for the continuing evolution of American democracy and the need for a more spiritual phase of democracy to replace the material phase that the country seemed mired in after the Civil War, he wrestles with the thorny problems of democratic theory, especially the irresolvable tension between the many and the one, between the social cohesion necessary to make a democracy work and the equally important necessity of individual freedom. For Whitman, the issue was always the negotiation of the "democratic individual" with "democratic nationality" (Prose Works 2:463). He came to name his provisional solution to this problem "Personalism," a blending of the one and the many, a balancing of individuality with camaraderie, what he had earlier identified (in his 1855 Preface) as the oscillating relationship between sympathy and pride: the love for one's democratic and equal others in all their diversity balanced against the pride in one's own identity. In order to "counterbalance and offset" the "materialistic and vulgar American democracy," Whitman looked to "the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship, (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love...)" (2:414n). Democracy, in other words, would require new forms of affection, a fervid friendship that would bind citizens to each other in ways previously unimaginable.

The key for Whitman was always to enlarge the self, to work toward a democratic conception of selfhood as absorptive, nondiscriminating, receptive, and loving. For Whitman, a democratic self was one that came to recognize vast multitudes of possibility within its own identity, one that could imagine how one's own identity, given altered circumstances, might incorporate the identity of anyone in the culture, from the most marginalized and despised to the most exalted and powerful. To experience democratic selfhood, then, meant a radical act of imagining how one could share an identity with every member of the society, a radical act of learning to love difference by recognizing the possibility of that difference within a multitudinous self, a self that had been enlarged by nondiscriminatory practice and by love that crossed conventional boundaries.

While many early commentators viewed Whitman's ideas about democracy as either vague or naive or both, recent critics have found Whitman's thinking about the issue to be complex, serious, and illuminating. In 1990, for example, major political theorists debated Whitman's concepts of democracy in the pages of the journal Political Theory, where George Kateb called him "perhaps the greatest philosopher of the culture of democracy" (545).


Kateb, George. "Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy." Political Theory 18 (1990): 545–571. [With commentaries on Kateb's essay by David Bromwich, Nancy L. Rosenblum, Michael Mosher, and Leo Marx; 572–599.]

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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