Whitman Unit 10
Discuss Whitman’s view on the role of poetry in a democracy as found in his prose, primarily Democratic Vistas. In terms of tone, would you say that Whitman’s views on the future of America, optimistic versus pessimistic, differ in his prose and his poetry. Does Whitman take the role of a biblical prophet in Democratic Vistas, that is, does he take the role of warning fellow Americans of his own and of our own times against certain dangers? What are the dangers Whitman sees?
In The Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman and in on-line sources, you will find reference to Whitman’s “socialism” and the “hot” or “red little prophets,” that is, his literary and political followers and disciples. What are Whitman’s views on slavery? What do you think Whitman’s views on segregation, Affirmative Action, and race relationships would have been? On women’s rights, where would Whitman have positioned himself? On the wars of our own time, what would Whitman have had to say? In what sense was Whitman a socialist? Why were Americans among the first open socialists in the world—and why was socialism so popular with Americans in the 19tyh century? How does Whitman fit into this group. Who were Edward Bellamy and Charlotte Perkins Gilman?
Whitman definitely found that poetry could speak for the common man as well as any aristocrat. This is obvious by his laboring intensity about the working man, Whitman himself coming from a working family. The tone is intensely optimistic, as Whitman says he reaches for “the lofty aim, surely the proudest and the purest, in whose service the future literatus, of whatever field, may gladly labor.” He thinks that these heights are inevitable when later in the passage he says, “The climax of this loftiest range of civilization, rising above all the gorgeous shows and results of wealth, intellect, power, and art, as such—above even theology and religious fervor—is to be its development, from the eternal bases, and the fit expression, of absolute Conscience, moral soundness, Justice.” He does warn against dangers, but these dangers are really against oppression: “The great word Solidarity has arisen. Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn—they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account. Much quackery teems, of course, even on democracy’s side, yet does not really affect the orbic quality of the matter.”
Whitman does want to share the wealth, and there are underpinnings of a socialist thought. He wants the important farmer to keep farming, and he realizes that some Americans search for wealth. The farmer won’t get that wealth by keeping the rich man’s food on the table. Should not, then, the wealth be shared?
Edward Bellamy wrote the Utopian novel called Looking Backward. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an American writer and feminist best known for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I can see how a Utopian (or dystopian) novel of the future and a feminist and supporter of the women’s right to vote ties in with these ways of thinking. I could pick out passages that I read that would support this, especially the women’s rights. “The idea of the women of America, (extricated from this daze, this fossil and unhealthy air which hangs about the word lady,) develop’d, raised to become the robust equals, workers, and, it may be, even practical and political deciders with the men.”