In 1867, Scottish writer penned an essay which was published in the New York Tribune titled “Shooting Niagara: And After?” Although it may not seem obvious to modern sensibilities, the controversial essay was a quite sharpened arrow lodged straight into the heart of the American experiment. Carlyle’s essay called into question not just the advantages of the positive contribution to the state of world affairs, but whether, in fact, the great American experiment in democracy was actually capable of bringing civilization to ruin.
A magazine called The Galaxy which was a fervent supporter of Whit Whitman’s poetry contacted the poet with the offer of affording the pages of their publication as the mechanism for transmission of a reply Whitman responded with three separate essays: "Democracy," "Personalism," and "Literature." Only the first two were actually published by the magazine as they decided cancel publishing “Literature” on the basis that subscribes had not exactly been impressed with Whitman’s response up to then.
When the trilogy was finally published as a whole, the result was titled Democratic Vistas. Its publication in 1871 revealed, ironically enough, that “Literature” was the key to making full sense of everything that had come before. As the title indicates, democracy is the subject at hand and defending it is the argumentative tool. But it is important to keep in mind that Walt Whitman is far better known as for pushing an agenda geared toward creating an “American” literature freed from the constraints and history of European literature more than he is as a leading literary lion supporting democratic politics. True, Whitman’s prose offers a wealth of writing on the subject of democracy, but at heart he is a tiger fighting for literary purity.
Democratic Vistas is the work where both passions come together. The underlying argument being made in defense of democracy as a political system geared toward saving civilization from the aristocratic missteps of the past. “Democracy” outlines how European aristocracy resulted in an inevitable degradation of political capital because it was not constructed to meet the needs of the average person and since the average person make up the majority of the population, this failure to launch was destined to crash; it was only a matter of time. “Personalism” extols the value of individualism which is only possible within a democratic system, but which is also forwarded as an inherent component of the American character still palpable as a result of the youth of its existence. “Literature” declares that America cannot step up to take on a leading role in world affairs and thus push democratic ideals around the world without a literary identity. Just as European civilization and political will was constructed upon ancient myths, ethnic folklore and national legends capable of inspiring leadership, so must American first create its own heroic mythos upon which to build hopes and aspirations.
Although Whitman wrote much prose and directed many words toward these concepts before the three essays making up this volume, Democratic Vistas remains his most fully realized vision of optimism about the future of both America and democracy.