In my new essay for Salon, I revisit the master’s work, paying particular attention to the 1871 essay, “Democratic Vistas.” Whitman’s exploration of the struggle of democracy, the beauty and necessity of diversity, equality for women, the gullibility of the populace, and the essentiality of creating a culture of democracy, with the fine arts at the center, applies to America in 2016 with stunning prescience.
My essay includes references to Whitman’s true masterpiece, the epic poem, Leaves of Grass, but most of the focus is on the underrated “Democratic Vistas,” because it is there that Whitman directly confronts all of the triumphs and traumas of the American experiment in self-governance. His wisdom shows no signs of age. My essay begins:
The most wise and visionary analysis of American culture, and the presidential race, in 2016 comes from 1871. In the profound and prescient essay, “Democratic Vistas,” Walt Whitman addressed a nation struggling to unify after civil war, and in the turbulence of its democratic struggle, continuing to fail to extend its promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to all of its people. Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s masterpiece, exercised as inspiration the beauty and brutality of any attempt to turn E Pluribus Unum into reality. The ongoing altercation to amplify what Whitman, in his poetry, called “the password primeval” and “the sign of democracy” has defined the presidential campaign in ways that would surprise even the sharpest of observers. Whitman believed that the sign of democracy included the voices of slaves, prostitutes, deformed persons, the diseased and despairing, and anyone else whose body gives off the human scent – “an aroma finer than prayer.”