Democratic Vistas (1871) has long occupied an uncertain place in Walt Whitman studies. Whitman’s two greatest drawbacks are that his poetry sounds too much like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prose and that in the poetry there’s little variety of tone or approach—it takes the same leap at sublime, transcendental individualism every time.
‘Vistas, the only prose article by the poet that gets any attention, sounds uncomfortably like Whitman’s poetry—only worse.
Whitman’s post-Civil War essay is nothing but an embarrassing and dyspeptic slipping of the visionary poet’s mask in a voice that is unfortunately close to the poet’s, and probably should not have been published, since its misanthropy doesn’t play well in Whitman Land.
Vistas makes most sense when seen as a link between turgid Transcendentalism and fervid, misanthropic Modernism, a rant slavish to Emerson and pointing to Pound, as it petulantly rejects “foreign” literature while trumpeting vague and hopeful novelty:
“Thus we presume to write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade, and a blank. But the throes of birth are upon us; and we have something of this advantage in seasons of strong formations, doubts, suspense—for then the afflatus of such themes haply may fall upon us, more or less; and then, hot from surrounding war and revolutions, our speech, though without polish’d coherence, and a failure by the standard called criticism, comes forth, real at least as the lightnings.” —Democratic Vistas
The blather here is not even high grade blather.
Whitman finds popular literature too cheap, ancient literature too old, Romantic literature belonging to “nightingales,” and Shakespeare “poison” on account of his “feudalism.” Whitman wants nothing to do with any “foreign” stuff; he ends up condemning it all. A flood is required, leaving Walt Whitman on a mountaintop in the west, chanting of Kosmos and “perfect Mothers” for New World breeding.
The dilemma facing the author of Vistas is the old one: you promote fresh air against the unhealthy bookworm-ism of fops, but since you are doing so in books, you prove yourself a useless and petulant bookworm at last.
There is no greater example of bookworm-ism than the inanity of DV, with its fop author trumpeting in loud tones a condemnation of fops.
Whitman’s career was picking up steam since “O Captain! My Captain!” He was no longer 37, however; his self-help, fresh-air, vatic utterances were being out-sold by quaint, Victorian, lady authors on every hand; his reputation was rising in 1871, thanks to recognition by the Pre-Raphaelites in England, but his paralytic stroke was only 2 years away. He must have felt, as a real Man of Letters, that he needed a worthy piece of prose to his name, but he just wasn’t up to it; he looks to sound a progressive note, but he can’t escape the pull of those “lady” authors and their “fictions,” and so he looks forward to the misogynist aspects of Modernism, which we see in the following paragraph:
“The idea of the women of America (extricated from this daze, this fossil and unhealthy air which hangs about the word lady) developed, raised to become the robust equals, workers, and it may be, even practical and political deciders with men–greater than man, we may admit, through their divine maternity, always their towering, emblematic attribute—but great, at any rate, as man, in all departments; or, rather capable of being so, soon as they realize it, and can bring themselves to give up toys and fictions, and launch forth as men do, amid real, independent, stormy life.” —Democratic Vistas
Note the cheap radicalism, the broad political formulation of what women, according to Whitman, should be, and amidst all the hyperbolic praise, note that he manages to fully insult the female race at the same time. Women are not part of “stormy life???” Excuse me?
To see how the froth of Emerson becomes the crankiness of Pound, one must wade through the vomit of Democratic Vistas.