Discuss Whitman’s views on the role of poetry in a democracy, his vision of America’s future (listing in what ways we have followed his advice and heeded his warnings), and his place as an American thinker. Supply your own estimate on the applicability of his views to today’s world.
Democracy was not just a dream to Whitman but a necessary course of action. When we express thoughts and revelations to each other, opening up, we share each other. Democracy to Whitman was the normal way the human race would evolve. “…the great question of democracy, as to every great question—I feel the parts harmoniously blended in my own realization and convictions, and present them to be read only in such oneness, each page and each claim and assertion modified and temper’d by the others. Bear in mind, too, that they are not the result of studying up in political economy, but of the ordinary sense, observing, wandering among men” (Democratic Vistas).
Early in his career, this vision was what humans in a democracy would do naturally. Love and admire one another, respecting the golden rule. It seemed to change as he got older, realizing that democracy would have to be worked at. Some people would have to be forced into it, especially as he watched Reconstruction fail and the body of President Lincoln travel by him. He says in the later part of Democratic Vistas, “America needs, and the world needs, a class of bards who will, now and ever, so link and tally the rational physical being of man, with the ensembles of time and space, and with this vast and multiform show, Nature, surrounding him, ever tantalizing him, equally a part, and yet not a part of him, as to essentially harmonize, satisfy, and put at rest. Faith, very old, now scared away by science, must be restored, brought back by the same power that caused her departure—restored with new sway, deeper, wider, higher than ever.”
Whitman held himself to this higher ideal. It is no wonder that he would stand between the master and the slave. It is no wonder that he would think the woman the equal of man (and maybe even a little greater for bearing child). It is no wonder that he felt a sexual revolution was in order.
This I think is the most trying aspect of Whitman that has not yet come to pass. Whitman wrote to combat these prejudices in our heads. The one danger and warning that has not yet come to pass is the understanding of homosexual relations. With his understanding of the immense closeness that sexual relations brings, he finds that this sharing of the self with someone of the same sex, which can bring no possible biological function like child bearing, is extreme closeness. The gay rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s touted almost unknown Whitman passages for these suggestions between adhesive and amative love. Could the greatest American poet have said these things?
Whitman believed in one simple thing, I have found. In order to truly be democratic, the country must allow all sorts of individual freedoms. Abolition happened. Women’s suffrage happened. To what degree can be argued. Gay rights will happen. Whitman’s pen talks us through understanding that “the work of the New World is not ended, but only fairly begun” (Democratic Vistas).