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?