Walt Whitman's Vision of America
As an immigrant and later naturalized citizen of the United States, I have always been attracted by what America stands for -- democracy, justice, equality, and hope -- since I was a college student in China forty years ago. Today as a professor of American literature who helps students to appreciate the greatness of America and its glorious literary creativity, I return again and again to my favorite author Walt Whitman and his unparalleled patriotism and hope for America, as is expounded in his The Leaves of Grass,
My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Similar faith in and optimism for America are also embodied in his monumental prose work, Democratic Vistas, published in 1871 to respond to Thomas Carlyle's 1867 essay “Shooting Niagara: And After?” that questions the American democracy and enfranchisement. One hundred fifty years later, as our country again faces unprecedented challenges, it is crucial to recommit ourselves to the vision of an upbeat America that Whitman proposes in Democratic Vistas in hope to find inspiration and new strength for America in 2022.
It helps to notice the context when Democratic Vistas was written. The Civil War had just ended; America had experienced fast growth in industry; the territory had expanded exponentially. Materially speaking, the United States was becoming richer and stronger, but Whitman also saw serious problems like rampant consumerism, money-mindedness, corruption, threatened unity of the country, and moral and religious lack of the people. He wrote this piece as a “moral microscope” to diagnose, as he said, “Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States.” Even so, he was optimistic and confident, celebrating its greatness and uniqueness in making wealth and democracy available to all people. He felt it was his responsibility to warn it of its problems and steer it to the path laid out by the Founding Fathers.
To defend the political system, as Whitman lays out in the Vistas, the United States must depend on its people, who must possess the following characteristics: Democratic, self-reliant, courageous, optimistic, and morally and religiously principled; they must have strong individuality but are also committed to a larger community. They must spring from the American soil and become “a new breed” of people called Americans or “the first-class men” who match the expanse and optimism of the country: “In youth, fresh, ardent, emotional, aspiring, full of adventure; at maturity, brave, perceptive, under control, neither too talkative nor too reticent, neither flippant nor somber; of the bodily figure, the movements easy, the complexion showing the best blood, somewhat flushed, breast expanded, an erect attitude, a voice whose sound outvies music, eyes of calm and steady gaze, yet capable also of flashing -- and a general presence that holds its own in the company of the highest.”
He especially zeroes in on the moral and religious firmness in the American character, deeming it more crucial than the political institutions to sustain the democratic country. He proposes a cosmic religion, not the traditional practices or sermons related with church or priests, but a much broader practice that integrates the cosmos, God, and the individual. He points out that solitariness, meditation, and conscientious self-examination are the means to achieve it.
Whitman makes a special distinction between politicians and ordinary people. He says bad presidents and politicians are elected and often fail their responsibilities, but if America has first-class people who have strong character, cool temperament, and independent judgement, the country would still tread on the right path. This strong faith in the ordinary American is the hallmark of Whitman. In his universally celebrated work The Leaves of Grass he salutes carpenters, mechanics, masons, woodcutters, boatmen, shoemakers, slaves, Indians, soldiers, nurses, maids, drivers, travelers, students, policemen, criminals, babies, homosexuals, and many more.
Last but not least, Whitman considers closely the role literature plays in shaping the country and its people. He says, “Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.” He believes that literature has more effective power than the political means to unite the country and people because it goes deeper and has a firm and warm hold on people’s hearts and emotions, and that this literature must also originate in the expansive and unique American landscape and should as its ultimate goal celebrate, enlighten and inspire a courageous and distinctive people. It must be distinct from the European or other literatures and attend to the modern, reverence in God, hope, the future, the cosmos and general humanity.
As Whitman was disbursing his vision for his country, he was also clearheaded about the problem it was confronting. With his literary genius, he compared America to a blessed land given by the Almighty with “charts of imperial destinies, dazzling as the sun, yet with many a deep intestine difficulty, and human aggregate of cankerous imperfection.” However, he trusted that America would overcome such challenges because the Americans were "the peaceablest and most good-natured race in the world, and the most personally independent and intelligent." He considered America a great experiment whose power resided in its newness and readiness for change, “The work of the New World is not ended, but only fairly begun."
Today the United States is facing a new set of challenges like reckless consumerism, partisan politics, racial hatred, incompetent administration, lack of religious and moral compass, disrespect for law and order, and most seriously the questioning and even tearing down of the system. When many of our leaders and quite a few of our people do not feel proud and confident of our political system, when the liberals, the media pundits, the radicals, and passionate crowd constantly call the United States a racist country, when we engage in self-doubt, self-destruction, and pessimism about its future, the fate of the United States is at stake, much more so than the America when Whitman penned this essay.
To change the situation, we as citizens must hold accountable our administrators. From the highest to the lowest levels, they have failed their responsibilities miserably. The recent debacles in Afghanistan and the current pandemic mismanagement have made the United States, the most powerful and resourceful country in the world, the laughingstock of all nations. We should also re-enlighten our citizens to the visions that Whitman makes clear in the treatise. Instead of indulging ourselves in reckless spending and short-term gratification, we must have the high religious and moral integrity to separate right from wrong, to have the courage to take clear positions, to confront wickedness and evil in whatever form it takes whether it is racial discrimination, political correctness, the woke culture or any radical and self-destructive Marxist ideas about absolute equality and class conflict.
How about our literature, including all the various forms of social media? Do they serve, as Whitman advocates, as a loud clarion for our country and our people, especially at this divisive and uncertain moment? Do they celebrate, enlighten, and inspire our people? Clearly not. Most of the social media companies are run as money-making businesses rather than powerful platforms for the common good. What they cover is more opinion, bias, distortion, and manipulation than hard facts and sound reasoning. To make democracy work in our country, we must restore the media’s roles so that they can inform the citizens, shape public opinion, and influence social change.
Whitman was a journeyman printer, newspaper editor, teacher, poet, and most importantly an ordinary and proud American citizen. It is more critical than at any other time that America rereads his Democratic Vistas, a timeless and consequential political treatise. Americans need to return to it again and again to refresh the visions the Founding Fathers and towering figures like Whitman mapped out for this young, energetic, and hopeful nation; we need the Whitmanian and Emersonian bards of the 21st century to defend our political system and our way of life; further, we Americans must recommit ourselves and do our part to make sure that our democracy grows strong and serves as a beacon of light not only for Americans but people in the world.
Year of 2022 is a good time to discard all that toxic politics of division and pessimism and embark on a new journey of hope and optimism.
Larry S. Su is a professor of English at the City Colleges of Chicago.
Image: Public Domain