U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thomas Carlyle, Walt Whitman, and the Foes of Democracy

PortraitIt is particularly inappropriate to be uncharitable to that most charitable American, Walt Whitman, and yet I am going to be uncharitable here and commit a sin of selective quotation.

Recall that before he even truly begins the reflections of his Democratic Vistas (1871), Whitman assures us that he

will not gloss over the appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States. In fact, it is to admit and face these dangers I am writing. To him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices, I mainly write this essay.

But that is far from his last word on the subject, for he again taunts “the People” later on as “ungrammatical, untidy, and their sins gaunt and ill-bred.” “I myself see clearly enough the crude, defective streaks in all the strata of the common people; the specimens and vast collections of the ignorant, the credulous, the unfit and uncouth, the incapable, and the very low and poor,” he proclaims, again in Democratic Vistas.

The problem with quoting Whitman in this fashion is not really that I am quoting him out of context, for what context could mitigate such acerbity? And if I am quoting selectively, would counter-quoting Whitman’s sunniest laudations of the People serve to dispel the cloud that these quotes conjure?

Even there, we might run into trouble, as in this passage, the first half of which seems so promising in its invocation of one of Whitman’s most consistent symbols of the greatness of American democracy and the American people:

few probably are the minds, even in these republican States, that fully comprehend the aptness of that phrase, “THE GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE,” which we inherit from the lips of Abraham Lincoln; a formula whose verbal shape is homely wit, but whose scope includes both the totality and all minutiae of the lesson.

But is this praise or censure? “Few probably are the minds” that understand the principle of their own political supremacy? Whitman continues:

The People! Like our huge earth itself, which, to ordinary scansion, is full of vulgar contradictions and offence, man, viewed in the lump, displeases, and is a constant puzzle and affront to the merely educated classes. The rare, cosmical, artist-mind, lit with the Infinite, alone confronts his manifold and oceanic qualities — but taste, intelligence and culture, (so-called,) have been against the masses, and remain so.

What is the larger context, what is the counter-quote that defuses such sentiments? We can always dodge the question by appeal to Whitman’s own protests—that he contradicts himself, that he contains multitudes—but self-contradiction for him cannot mean that these thoughts are insincere, and containing multitudes does not deny that one part of his variousness and multiplicity is an indelible disdain for “the masses.”

Democratic Vistas is often thought of as a response to Carlyle’s “Shooting Niagara”—in fact, not just as a response but as a rejoinder. Whitman does, in fact, address Carlyle’s noxious little essay directly:

“SHOOTING NIAGARA.” — I was at first roused to much anger and abuse by this essay from Mr. Carlyle, so insulting to the theory of America — but happening to think afterwards how I had more than once been in the like mood, during which his essay was evidently cast, and seen persons and things in the same light, (indeed some might say there are signs of the same feeling in these Vistas) — I have since read it again, not only as a study, expressing as it does certain judgments from the highest feudal point of view, but have read it with respect as coming from an earnest soul, and as contributing certain sharp-cutting metallic grains, which, if not gold or silver, may be good hard, honest iron.

What kind of rejoinder is this? Moreover, in Specimen Days, Whitman again invoked “Shooting Niagara” with much the same sentiment, adding for good measure two of Carlyle’s (other) most virulent works:

his [Carlyle’s very foibles [were] fascinating. Who cares that he wrote about Dr. Francia, and “Shooting Niagara”—and “the Nigger Question,”—and didn’t at all admire our United States? (I doubt if he ever thought or said half as bad words about us as we deserve.) How he splashes like leviathan in the seas of modern literature and politics!

The parenthetical comment is itself worth pausing a moment for, but note also the way that Whitman sets off Carlyle’s most notorious work on abolitionism and slavery within emdashes, allowing for no mistake. Whitman has not carelessly overlooked Carlyle’s public stance on slavery: it is precisely this that he wishes to discount. (The Francia essay was a tribute to the bloody, eccentric Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, about whom the Paraguayan author Augusto Roa Bastos would much later write the novel Yo, El Supremo. My understanding is that there has recently been a sort of recovery of Francia’s reputation, as many of the contemporary accounts came from outside Paraguay and were heavily influenced by Latin American elites who despised Francia’s reforms. If anyone could fill me in on any further information about Francia, I’d be very grateful.)

Returning to Carlyle and Whitman, one of the points that Whitman insists upon is that Carlyle’s critiques of democracy had an integrity to them even if, as he allows on a couple of occasions, they were misinformed or even the products of willful blindness.

under no circumstances, and no matter how completely time and events disprove his lurid vaticinations, should the English-speaking world forget this man, nor fail to hold in honor his unsurpass’d conscience, his unique method, and his honest fame. Never were convictions more earnest and genuine.

Earnestness—or sincerity—itself was one of the great virtues in Carlyle’s ledger of heroic traits, but Whitman is not just judging Carlyle by his own measure. Whitman believed that Carlyle’s hostility to democracy was, in some sense, salutary: “Never had political progressivism a foe it could more heartily respect,” he said, and, more generally, “I can conceive of 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.” Democrats, in other words, would do well to think more like Carlyle, to look—at least occasionally—through his jaundiced eyes.

This call to criticism comes up again in a brief 1887 essay on Tennyson, specifically on Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After.” Quoting lines that are particularly harsh in their denunciation of democracy, Whitman assures us that

The course of progressive politics (democracy) is so certain and resistless, not only in America but in Europe, that we can well afford the warning calls, threats, checks, neutralizings, in imaginative literature, or any department, of such deep-sounding and high-soaring voices as Carlyle’s and Tennyson’s. Nay, the blindness, excesses, of the prevalent tendency—the dangers of the urgent trends of our times—in my opinion, need such voices almost more than any. I should, too, call it a signal instance of democratic humanity’s luck that it has such enemies to contend with—so candid, so fervid, so heroic. But why do I say enemies? Upon the whole is not Tennyson—and was not Carlyle (like an honest and stern physician)—the true friend of our age?

It is in fact this idea—not so much Whitman’s periodic effusions of scorn for the masses or the people—that perplexes me. What precisely did Whitman think Carlyle and Tennyson contributed to the “course of progressive politics?” And why should we re-categorize Carlyle and Tennyson as friends when they judged themselves to be enemies of democracy: their anti-democratic fulminations were not in the least intended to strengthen democracy but to put an end to it, or at least to check it before it carried any further.

In 1887 white male citizens of the United States still had no direct electoral control over the upper chamber of the national legislature, and would not obtain it for another 26 years; women would not gain the franchise for 33 more years, and Jim Crow’s stranglehold on the ballot box had another 78 years to run. The United Kingdom was still 31 years off from universal male suffrage, and 41 from universal suffrage. Without the pressures of World War I, these achievements may very well have taken longer to come to fruition, and indeed when one looks at the history of the extension of the franchise, it is almost always the requirements of conscription and the fear of domestic unrest that prompt new bestowals of access to the ballot box, up to and including the lowering of the voting age to 18 in the United States during the Vietnam War.

Whitman may have looked out at the transatlantic landscape of suffrage in 1887 and seen a “certain and resistless” march of the franchise’s extension, and if he did we should merely count him as naïve. But in the light of all these other sentiments about democracy, these other warm regards for Carlyle and Tennyson, I am not so sure that—even if I have quoted selectively—we should be so generous as to grant him the excuse of wishful thinking. How truly did Whitman believe in universal democracy? Democracy, yes! Democracy for the many, yes! But democracy for all?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a lovely post, not just for Whitman’s writing — any selection a pleasure — but for yours.

    Perhaps — and this might be a bit Carlylean, I don’t know — perhaps Whitman considered Carlyle a true friend to democracy because he was a strong, spirited antagonist. Sometimes it takes being confronted by pure, sneering disdain in order to call forth a strong, spirited response. Carlyle as a burr under the saddle, so to speak.

  2. Thanks, L.D.! In fact, in Democratic Vistas, Whitman says something quite close to the explanation you’ve given–it’s not about Carlyle especially, but it could certainly apply to him: “a nation like ours, in a sort of geological formation state, trying continually new experiments, choosing new delegations, is not served by the best men only, but sometimes more by those that provoke it — by the combats they arouse.”
    Yet my feeling is that Whitman does (also) believe that Carlyle is one of England’s “best men,” and would qualify for the same status were he a citizen of the U.S. On the one hand, he seems not to take Carlyle seriously as a threat (for which I think he was naïve), but on the other, he truly seems to take him seriously as a thinker. I find this to be a sort of aporia: if Whitman does think there is some merit in Carlyle’s critique, then how can he be so certain that democracy will overcome the deficiencies Carlyle points out?

  3. I am becoming truly enamored of this series of reflections! Such great work, Andy. I must say that I was initially taken aback by the quotes presented here; needless to say, these are not the passages from _Democratic Vistas_ that most of us tend to remember. You have put your finger on a really important problem in Whitman’s text and in his thinking about democracy. I’m not sure I can fully defend him from the charge of logical or rhetorical incoherence, but perhaps I can defend the coherence of his motives.

    DV is a text that is bound up with justifying democracy to the ways of men, while also acknowledging some of the legitimate reservations of its critics. As you have quoted, the text is addressed “to him or her within whose thought rages the battle . . . between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness.” The text is about the discrepancy between the beauty of democracy in theory and the ugliness of democracy in practice. As you also point out, the essay was motivated, at least in part, by the example of Carlyle. Far from a clear-throated proclamation of the virtues of democracy, I take it that DV is a record of Whitman’s growing ambivalence about the unalloyed virtues of democracy—an ideal on which he staked his entire poetic career—in light of Carlyle’s attack in “Shooting Niagara” and the shattering effect on his psyche of the Civil War. While tending to soldiers in the bloody hospitals near D.C. (I think), Whitman saw an image of “the people” that did not bring him comfort.

    You pose a crucial question: “What precisely did Whitman think Carlyle and Tennyson contributed to the “course of progressive politics”? I think the answer to this question is related to his shifting sense of audience over time, and his increased appreciation for Hegel. Earlier in his career, Whitman’s addressed himself to those who were unpersuaded by democracy: the first publication of _Leaves of Grass_ in 1855 was meant to jolt the complacent out of their stupor, to wake people up to the power of equality as a legitimate political and moral ideal. By 1871, Whitman seems less interested in exclusively defending egalitarianism itself as a worthy calling, as he has become convinced that “the course of progressive politics (democracy) is so certain and resistless, not only in America but in Europe, that we can well afford the warning calls.” Carlyle and Tennyson are those warning calls. His audience now trusts democracy to prevail in the end; it can afford to spend some time pondering its deficiencies and weaknesses because it knows the outcome is secure. [A prelude of his teleological biases in the years to come; see “A Passage to India”].

    Why would Whitman be willing to quote democracy’s “enemies” as, paradoxically, a type of “friend”? Because after 1865, he trusts to the “dialectic” of history to overcome self-division. He includes a deeply Hegelian poem called “Chanting the Square Deific” in the 1867 edition of _Leaves_: http://www.bartleby.com/236/121.html. And he explicitly counter-poses Hegel to Carlyle in the section called “Carlyle from American points of view in _Specimen Days_ (1881): http://www.bartleby.com/229/1223.html .(Terry Mulcaire’s encyclopedia entry is very helpful on this point):

    So, after 1865, there’s a changed sense of audience, and a deeper faith in the power of the democratic (capital S) Spirit to overcome internal contradiction.

    Was Whitman alone in this approach? Not at all. His strategy in _DV_ reminds me of William Blake’s in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “Without Contraries is No Progression.” Or Emerson in “Self-Reliance”: A great soul simply has no attachment to consistency. You may as well worry about your shadow on the wall. Speak your mind now in no uncertain terms, and tomorrow speak tomorrow’s thoughts just as forcefully, even if it contradicts everything you said today.” In polemical writings, J.S. Mills paid a famous tribute in 1840 to S.T. Coleridge as a valuable opposition—a counter-balancing force—to his allegiance to the principles of Jeremy Benthem. And later, in the 20th century, Lionel Trilling’s entire approach to the “liberal imagination” was premised on the idea that the liberalism was too dry, utilitarian formalist, and bloodless; he explicitly recommended reading “conservative” or “reactionary” writers like T.S. Eliot, Kafka, Yeats, Proust, etc. in order to have a more passionate, more “imaginative” form of liberalism. Whitman’s thinking seems to me to be working in a similar groove.

    We need not, of course, accept this as an effective rhetorical strategy. I’m not entirely sure that exposing his doubts about the people in _Democratic Vistas_ furthers his _political_ cause; it seems more clearly bound up with Whitman’s own private psychodrama with Carlyle. But some kind of Hegelian faith in the spiritual power of democracy to overcome itself seems to me to be the primary motive behind the passages you quote.

    Sorry for the length—like Whitman, sometimes I get carried away!

  4. Patrick,
    Thank you–for the wonderful sources you quote and the very clear thinking that makes so much more sense of this difficult text.

    I had an idea that some sort of trust in the dialectic was at the back of Whitman’s fearlessness in quoting Carlyle and Tennyson as friends of democracy. What held me back from saying so were two considerations, however:
    First, Whitman openly betrays a degree of not just sympathy but at least occasional harmony or concurrence with Carlyle and Tennyson, especially in regards to the question of the quality of the people who are supposed to be making democracy advance “resistlessly.” I have trouble understanding how those qualms, even if they are only occasional, can be enfolded into the onward-and-upward trajectory of democracy. The ruse of reason or cunning of history may clean up the messes created by the forces of reaction–their opposition may in fact spur on the cause of democracy or create the conditions for more decisive victories–but external or opposing forces are not at all where Whitman locates democracy’s weaknesses. It’s the human material of democracy that he seems to doubt, and to me that has to, in some measure, derail the dialectic.

    The second consideration may be a kind of answer to the first, but it is still disconcerting as far as Whitman’s democratic commitments go. One way out of the problem I think I see in Whitman’s partial distrust of the human material of democracy is to assume that his vision of democracy is deliberately limited in some way, so that the internal weaknesses are mitigated or are contained. I’m not so certain that, from 1871 or 1887, universal suffrage in Europe or in the United States looked so inevitable, and that suggests to me that we ought to reexamine if universal suffrage (as a minimal achievement of true democracy) was really part of Whitman’s vision of the democratic future at all.

    I’m not sure what this means, to be perfectly honest. I am certainly not trying to measure Whitman by present-day standards here, but I think that he is often given credit for a much more robust and universal vision of a democracy-to-come than the one he may actually have imagined. I don’t know–does that seem to tally?

  5. I’m not sure I can offer a defense of Whitman’s politics that will satisfy you, Andy (or myself for that matter). Suffice it to say that I have a number of problems with Whitman’s account of culture, democracy, the people, form, etc. I’m not a Whitman expert, but the best account I know of Whitman’s limitations as a democratic thinker is by the historian Kenneth Cmiel—the essay “Whitman the Democrat” is in _A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman_, ed. David S. Reynolds. He shows quite clearly, as you suggest, that Whitman was sometimes tentative about universal suffrage, contradictory in his attitudes towards race and socialism, etc. You are absolutely right that Whitman gets more credit as a “radical democrat” than he perhaps deserves. To speak anachronistically, he was far “ahead” of his time in many ways, but he was most definitely NOT our contemporary.

    You have put your finger on a really strange issue in Whitman’s thinking—how and why would a democrat cast doubts upon the human material by which democracies are composed? To put the matter this way, though, is to overlook that Whitman was a poet as well as a (kind of) political theorist. Maybe we can rephrase this question this way: why would a democratic poet want to acknowledge the vices and corruptions of the people he’s supposed to sing and praise?

    Perhaps Whitman is able to appreciate (and even affirm) Carlyle and Tennyson’s critique of democracy—their desire to lay bare the vulgarity and crudeness of the masses—because, paradoxically, this is precisely what his own poetry seeks to accomplish, too (at least some of the time). “Song of Myself” is premised on the idea that portraying “the people” in all their flawed morality—it shows us thieves, hookers, murderers, slaveowners, etc.—and bodily humanity—blood, spit, tears, armpits, sperm, dung, etc.—would ultimately render them visible and human, and thus worthy of being counted as valid subjects by the modern state. His poetic “realism” aims to serve democratic ends. In the opening paragraphs of DV, he explicitly compares poetry to sociology—bizarre, I know. Though it seems strange to us today, Whitman thought that poetry had greater powers of realism than other media like painting, drama, or the novel. He heaps scorn on contemporary drama and the novel in DV. He categorizes poetry as the most “modern” genre, the one best able to limn a “democratic ethnology of the future.” Again and again in DV he tells us that democracy is about manners and sentiments as much as institutions and elections; poetry, he thinks, can reveal these manners and feelings better than other media.

    So, in this sense, Carlyle and Tennyson’s negative portrayals of the masses can be conscripted to serve a positive purpose in Whitman’s poetic agenda. These Englishmen have correctly described the grubby and materialistic civilians of America, Whitman concedes, but they’ve failed to evaluate the democratic significance of attending to these lowly types at all. By showing us the people in all their virtue and vice, Whitman hopes to demonstrate the “latent” potential of the people. A quote from DV:

    “Literature, strictly consider’d, has never recognized the People, and, whatever may be said, does not to-day. Speaking generally, the tendencies of literature, as hitherto pursued, have been to make mostly critical and querulous men. It seems as if, so far, there were some natural repugnance between a literary and a professional life, and the rude rank spirit of the democracies. There is, in later literature, a treatment of benevolence, a charity business, rife enough it is true; but I know nothing more rare, even in this country, than a fit scientific estimate and reverent appreciation of the People—of their measureless wealth of latent power and capacity, their vast, artistic contrasts of light and shades . .”

    That’s about as far as I can take this line of thought. Though obviously I’m keen on situating Whitman within intellectual history, I think we also want to keep in mind that Carlyle and Tennyson weren’t merely rival political theorists, and that _Democratic Vistas_ isn’t only concerned with democratic political theory. These men were also Whitman’s literary rivals (during his lifetime, Whitman was admired more widely in England than in America), and DV is also a work of literary theory.

    A year after he published DV, he wrote an essay called “Poetry To-Day in America—Shakespeare—The Future” (1872-3), in which he makes this long and contemptuous remark about the uppity formalism of Tennyson’s style:

    “The odor of the English social life in its highest range—a melancholy, affectionate, very manly, but dainty breed—pervading the pages like an invisible scent; the idleness, the traditions, the mannerisms, the stately ennui; the yearning of love, like a spinal marrow, inside of all; the costumes, brocade and satin; the old houses and furniture—solid oak, no mere veneering—the moldy secrets everywhere; the verdure the ivy on the walls, the moat, the English landscape outside, the buzzing fly in the sun out side the window pane. Never one democratic page; nay, not a line, not a word; never free and naïve poetry, but involv’d, labor’d, quite sophisticated—even when the theme is ever so simple or rustic, (a shell, a bit of sedge, the commonest love-passage between a lad and lass,) the handling of the rhyme all showing the scholar and conventional gentlemen; showing the laureate, too. . . . “

    Throughout his career, Whitman attempted to derive an author’s politics from their literary style; here, he accuses Tennyson’s poetry (which always rhymes and uses high, Latinate diction) of being unfree: “never one democratic page.”

    Whitman, by contrast, saw his poetry as standing on the side of the rustic, the homely, the free, the rough and manly style of the masses; it is also on the side of the “modern” and of “science.” Whitman is so committed to the idea that democracy revolutionizes the style in which poetry can be written that he is tempted to avoid the word “culture” altogether in DV. Unlike Matthew Arnold’s use of the word in _Culture and Anarchy_, Whitman insists that culture is not for a “single class alone, or for the parlors or lecture-rooms, but with an eye to practical life.” [Alan Trachtenberg has an essay that compares Whitman to Arnold, seeing in the former the origins of modern “cultural studies”].

    So, to sum up these diffuse thoughts: Carlyle and Tennyson’s hostility to democracy—their objection to the people’s “crudeness, vices, caprices”—can actually be turned into a useful strategy for the democratic poet. He says to Carlyle and Tennyson: “you’ve called the people dirty, foolish, dangerous—I agree! So let me shove your nose into their filth—and thereby discover our common humanity.” From “Song of Myself”:

    Through me many long dumb voices,
    Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
    Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
    Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
    And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
    And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
    Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
    Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

    Through me forbidden voices,
    Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,
    Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.

    Perhaps this is where the conceptual liberty of the poet is greater than the liberty of the political theorist. He has the privilege of conducting a performative utterance—he can enact democracy in his language and images, not just in his arguments. It is a strategy that has served modern poets well—T.S. Eliot would undertake a similarly paradoxical effort in trying to diagnose and redeem modern culture by writing an epic of fragments. Whitman wanted to redeem the promise of democracy by pointing us to its weakest, most vulnerable members and proclaiming “here, too, are men and women like ourselves.”

Comments are closed.