August 10, 2020 | Brian Chappell

Democratic Vistas

“Song of Myself” brought forth Whitman’s vision of variety. Not only does he depict multiple ways of life and of making a living, but he also offers insight into the fabric of reality on an almost subatomic level. This is the crux of his poetry.

How to theorize about such variety? This is the stated aim of Democratic Vistas, presented in its opening. Making reference to John Stuart Mill, Whitman outlines two conditions for true liberty:

1st, a large variety of character — and 2d, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions — (seems to be for general humanity much like the influences that make up, in their limitless field, that perennial health-action of the air we call the weather — an infinite number of currents and forces, and contributions, and temperatures, and cross purposes, whose ceaseless play of counterpart upon counterpart brings constant restoration and vitality.)

From here Whitman begins his exploration, in lyrical prose, of the manifestations of such variety in American history, with an eye in particular, most especially, towards possibility: “For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.”

In this context Whitman’s “New World” connotes far more than the newly discovered land of explorers. Rather it connotes a world that is continually under construction, whose status as being under construction is a constitutive feature of its makeup: the work of building America is never finished, precisely because of the endless variety that its commitment to liberty allows (or should allow). In other words, the world of America is one that is closely aligned to Whitman’s (correct) vision of cosmic reality: everything participating in inter-relation with everything else, with creation perpetually ongoing. 

But there are counter-forces, as Whitman and, to our lament, we well know. If we are able to perceive reality as an endless “full play for human nature to expand itself,” what other realities are being presented? Realities in which conformity, alignment, rigidity, and control dominate our affairs. Even modalities that pass for “liberty” nonetheless require a certain degree of control as an entry point (e.g., participation in the market economy as a non-negotiable requirement for your very survival). 

In my kitchen hangs a copy of an old flier from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, featuring a young John Lewis kneeling in prayer. The headline reads: “Come, let us build a new world together.” Perhaps that world can be predicated upon precisely the “democratic vista” that Whitman countenances, a vista that evinces that endless variety of human life, which can not be controlled.