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Capitalist Vistas: Walt Whitman and Spontaneous Order

Tags Free MarketsMedia and CultureU.S. History

04/27/2012Thomas G. Peyser

Democratic Vistas is widely and rightly regarded as the greatest of Walt Whitman's prose works, and in it we find extensive evidence of his sympathy with ideas broadly in accord with Hayek's vision of social evolution and the kind of order that evolution produces. Later we will focus on the way the very form of Whitman's poetry suggests his affinity for the idea of the spontaneous order present in modern societies, but it is worth noting that even when writing an essay, Whitman was impelled to create something that mirrors the complex, apparently disorderly character of the world he is analyzing. When we think of the essay as a form, it seems the very model of order that comes from above, that is, from an individual who carefully orchestrates all elements appearing within it: the author is usually at pains to make sure that all contradictions are eliminated, and that everything in the essay is there in order to contribute to a specific goal, to prove the validity of an articulated (or at least articulable) thesis. To be sure, Whitman indeed does have a number of clearly stated points to make, but so constitutionally averse is he to authoritarian ordering that it seems he cannot help but try to liberate the essay from its usual strictures, and to make of it an image of reality itself, refusing to prune away all the mess, noise, and dissonance so evident in the world at large. Preparing his readers for the kind of work that they are about to encounter, Whitman writes,

First premising that, though the passages of it have been written at widely different times (it is, in fact, a collection of memoranda, perhaps for future designers, comprehenders), and though it may be open to the charge of one part contradicting another — for there are opposite sides to the great question of democracy, as to every great question — I feel the parts harmoniously blended in my own realization and convictions, and present them to be read only in such oneness, each page and each claim and assertion modified and temper'd by the others.1

Here Whitman claims to make a virtue of what more traditional essayists would regard as the defects of their enterprise: that (whatever their words on the page may claim) they are not entirely of one mind about the ideas they are promoting, that their thoughts have changed during the course of composition, that not all of their points neatly line up with one another, or that some may flatly contradict others. Rather than attempting to conceal these ambivalences, Whitman embraces them, believing that they somehow cohere in his "realization and convictions"; rather than depend on an abstract logical coherence, Whitman founds his sense that Democratic Vistas is a whole on the fact that all of his words are just that, his, that they emerged from a single human mind, and that, however much some parts contradict others, they issue in conviction and action. There is a refreshing honesty at work here, since it is probably true that if we refrained from having a conviction or acting on one until each and every doubt we have about that belief or act were dispatched, we would never do or believe anything at all. Refusing to offer a simplistic picture of the world or of the mind that faces the world, Whitman reveals his belief that order may exist even where disorder seems to reign, and that that order may not have the smooth lines or polished regularities favored by those who see order only where all parts have been bent to a single purpose.

A certain vagueness, in fact, is called for by the very nature of the topic Whitman takes in hand; his theme is the vistas presented at what he conceives as the very early days of democracy, and like any vistas, they are full of distant obscurities. The dedication that Hayek composed for The Constitution of Liberty2 could serve equally well for Democratic Vistas: "To the unknown civilization that is growing in America." This is no mere coincidence, for both men share an essentially evolutionary view of society, believing that human beings and even the institutions that they create are part of a system far more vast and complicated than anything they could contrive, comprehend, or control. Thus, although reflection can apprehend the trends that have brought civilization to its present state, it cannot with any certainty delineate future states toward which civilization is tending, as these will depend on contingencies it is impossible to predict, changes that will bring about corresponding adjustments in other parts of the system in an ever-evolving dynamism.

Whitman announces his evolutionary view this way: "Law is the unshakable order of the universe forever; and the law over all, the law of laws, is the law of successions; that of the superior law, in time, gradually supplanting and overwhelming the inferior one."3 Averring that "the fruition of democracy, on aught like a grand scale, resides altogether in the future," he describes the future development of society in terms that strikingly parallel the spread of a genotype through the process of natural selection, except, of course, that what is being spread is not genetic information, but new customs, beliefs, and practices that lead to enhanced success among the populations that adopt them. He imagines an epoch, "long ages hence," when

the democratic principle … with imperial power, through amplest time, has dominated mankind — has been the source and test of all the moral, aesthetic, social, political, and religious expressions and institutes of the civilized world … has sway'd the ages with a breadth and rectitude tallying Nature's own — has fashion'd, systematized, and triumphantly finish'd and carried out, in its own interest, and with unparallel'd success, a new earth and a new man.4

Comparing social development to natural processes, Whitman even indulges in a rather odd kind of anthropomorphism, imaging "the democratic principle" as an entity with its own interests, standing above the interests of the human beings who, in seeking their own satisfaction, bring into being a whole system of social organization that they themselves do not aim at. Again comparing the system thus established to natural phenomena, especially on the score of its being able to maintain and reproduce itself without the aid of authoritarian management from above, he writes, "as matters now stand in our civilized world, [democracy] is the only scheme worth working from, as warranting results like those of Nature's laws, reliable, when once established, to carry on themselves."5

Clearly Whitman would be happy to do away with the period that intervenes between now and the time when "a new earth and a new man" will be born, but his basic orientation precludes him from believing that an instantaneous transition is possible. Consequently, he casts a skeptical eye on attempts to direct social evolution — at least in a free society — through what would soon be called "progressive" measures and reforms, and this skepticism is particularly marked when one considers the reforming zeal in America at that time, a zeal heightened by the ultimate success of what only a few decades before the Civil War was often regarded as the product of extremist fantasy: abolitionism. Whitman speaks favorably of the kind of top-down reforms advocated by Progressives only in reference to societies whose members do not accept freedom as a fundamental principle. Perhaps obliquely commenting on the need to continue Reconstruction, then in progress, Whitman states that "until the individual or community show due signs, or be so minor and fractional as not to endanger the State, the condition of authoritative tutelage may continue, and self-government must abide its time."6

If Whitman felt that the overarching question of self-rule could be settled only by the passing of time, he also believed that attempts to tinker with institutions in order to produce particular outcomes would fail to reform society as a whole. By the time he died in 1892, Progressivism had entered the mainstream of American political thinking, but although he had withdrawn from active participation in the ideological debates of the day, records of his conversation in his last years, dutifully recorded by his disciple Horace Traubel, suggest that his ideas regarding social evolution did not alter in old age. He disdained special reforms that were presented as panaceas for social ills, arguing instead for what could only be brought about by immense developments beyond human control, reform "for the whole man — the whole corpus — not one member — not a leg, an arm, a belly alone, but the entire corpus." Speaking in particular of Henry George's "Single Tax" on landlords and other "speculators," he said, "I know it is argued for this [reform] that [the Single Tax] will bring about great changes in the social system.… But I don't believe it — don't believe it at all." When reflecting even on abolitionism, a movement whose goals he entirely embraced, Whitman was struck by reformers' inability to comprehend the entirety of the field of relations in which human action occurs: "Is that not the attitude of every special reformer? Look at Wendell Phillips — great and grand as he was.… He was one-eyed, saw nothing, absolutely nothing, but that single blot of slavery. And if Phillips of old, others today."7

In matters of political and social evolution, then, Whitman hewed to an essentially "non-interventionist" position, as indeed one might conclude from his assertion in the very first sentence of Democratic Vistas that "the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom."8 Given this basic orientation, however, it is necessary to address what might seem a paradox in Whitman's vision, namely the vitally important role he assigns to the poet, whose efforts, he claims, are essential to the fruition of democracy. For Democratic Vistas, in addition to surveying contemporary conditions in the United States and the prospects for democratic life, is in many ways fundamentally a literary manifesto, a call for the kind of poetry that Whitman believes has the power to transform civilization and acclimate human beings to the new order. At times, when describing the function of poetry in society, not only does he strain credulity by ascribing to the poet tremendous social influence, but he also seems, at first glance, to make of the poet precisely the kind of godlike lawgiver that democracy has rendered obsolete.

To the ostent of the senses and eyes, I know, the influences which stamp the world's history are wars, uprisings or downfalls of dynasties, changeful movements of trade, important inventions, navigation, military or civil governments, advent of powerful personalities, conquerors, &c. These of course play their part; yet, it may be, a single new thought, imagination, abstract principle, even literary style, fit for the time, put in shape by some great literatus, and projected among mankind, may duly cause changes, growths, removals, greater than the longest and bloodiest war, or the most stupendous merely political, dynastic, or commercial overturn.9

Even here, however, when Whitman makes the most extravagant claims about the socially transforming power of a new literary style, he insists that that style must be "fit for the time," suggesting that the "literatus" does not have it in his power to bend the world in whatever direction he wants. Thus there is no call for castigating authors of the distant past for failing to promote democratic principles whose realization lay far in the future. Even Shakespeare, "luxuriant as the sun," cannot for Whitman truly be a poet for all time; he is, rather, very much of an age, "artist and singer of feudalism in its sunset, with all the gorgeous colors, owner therof, and using them at will."10

It is certainly tempting to dismiss Whitman's pronouncements about poetic power as an example of any person's inclination to understand his or her labor as absolutely essential to civilization. However, by examining the likely provenance of Whitman's views we can come to an enhanced understanding of the place he assigns literature in the much broader context of the evolution of social arrangements. Moreover, even those who are reluctant to accede to Whitman's ideas about the heroic stature of creative writers can find in Whitman the outlines of a theory about the central role of culture and values in the maintenance of any social order. Indeed, if we replace the word "poetry" with the word "culture" in many of Whitman's statements, we arrive at a far more credible picture of the way beliefs — perhaps even beliefs that are hardly ever articulated — cement the highly complex web of relations present in the spontaneous order.

In the English tradition, the locus classicus of the claim that poets create order not only in their poems but also in the world at large is found in Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Defense of Poetry" (1821):

The most unfailing herald, companion and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is Poetry. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.… Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.11

This kind of thinking is very much in evidence in earlier essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose works were one of the main conduits through which the currents of European Romanticism reached Whitman as he was preparing to launch himself on his poetic career. In "The American Scholar" (1837), Emerson wrote:

It is a mischievous notion that we are come late into nature; that the world was finished a long time ago. As the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it. To ignorance and sin, it is flint. They adapt themselves to it as they may; but in proportion as a man has any thing in him divine, the firmament flows before him and takes his signet and form.12

Although not focusing specifically on the poet, Emerson here suggests an authoritarian, rather than evolutionary, idea of transformation. Novelty in the world is not the result of a complex dynamic far beyond the power of particular individuals to direct, but rather it comes from those whose divine qualities allow them to impose themselves upon the order that confronts them and to alter it through sheer, overmastering spiritual might. The potentially chilling aspects of this view, with its elevation of the exceptional man over the masses who are incapable of anything save bowing to superior power, crops up from time to time in Emerson's essays, as it seems to do in the closing words of "Experience" (1844), words that might stiffen the resolve of a would-be despot: "the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power."13

In the last years of his active writing career, however, Emerson seems to prune away such authoritarian attitudes, and comes much closer to the ideas that suffuse Whitman's poetry and writings about the function of exceptional innovators — especially poets — in the evolutionary processes that elude orchestration by any individual or institution, entities which, far from standing above events and directing them, gain what efficacy they have from their submission to and alignment with impersonal powers greater than they. Indeed, in his great late essay "Fate" (1860), whose title quite clearly points to limitations on the power of human beings to mold their destiny as they will, Emerson reverses his notion of what makes exceptional people great. No longer are they those who can make the world take their "signet and form." Rather, they are the ones who are most powerfully stamped by their times.

Certain ideas are in the air. We are all impressionable, for we are made of them; all impressionable, but some more than others, and these first express them.… The truth is in the air, and the most impressionable brain will announce it first, but all will announce it a few minutes later.… So the great man, that is, the man most imbued with the spirit of the time, is the impressionable man, — of a fibre irritable and delicate, like iodine to light. He feels the infinitesimal attractions. His mind is righter than others, because he yields to a current so feeble as can be felt only by a needle delicately poised.14

Whitman voices very similar views in Democratic Vistas, where he adjures leaders not to impose their own ideas, but to align themselves with the times: "The master sees greatness and health in being part of the mass; nothing will do as well as common ground. Would you have in yourself the divine, vast, general law? Then merge yourself with it."15 In Song of Myself, Whitman repeatedly disavows the idea that he is a lawgiver standing above the mass, insisting,

It is you talking just as much as myself — I act as the tongue of you;
Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen'd.16

And, in a departure from the claims of originality one often expects in Romantic poets, he maintains that his thoughts

are not original with me;
If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing, or next to nothing17

He even demands that his thoughts be discarded, as if any attempt to freeze a way of thinking into permanent law were a threat to freedom. "I teach straying from me," he writes, remarking, "He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher."18

It is worth noting that these views take their place in "Fate" within the late Emerson's somewhat Hegelian vision of the course of social evolution, a vision in which democracy is not so much an expedient solution to human problems that, had lawgivers happened to favor different arrangements, could have been solved some other way; democracy, rather, is a necessary, and possibly final, adjustment to the unalterable forces created when large numbers of human beings are brought together in a polity. After noting that inventors like Fulton and Watt had developed the steam engine by accommodating their machines to a force previously regarded only with dread, Emerson casts his eye on the very long term evolution of political forms.

It has not fared much otherwise with higher kinds of steam. The opinion of the million was the terror of the world, and it was attempted, either to dissipate it, by amusing nations, or to pile it over with strata of society, — a layer of soldiers; over that, a layer of lords; and a king on the top; with clamps and hoops of castles, garrisons, and police.… The Fultons and Watts of politics, believing in unity, saw that it was a power, and, by satisfying it, (as justice satisfies everybody,) through a different disposition of society, — grouping it on a level, instead of piling it into a mountain, — they have contrived to make of this terror the most harmless and energetic form of a State.19

Keeping this Emersonian context in mind, we can better understand just what Whitman feels the "literatus" must accomplish, for Whitman, in spite of his manifest enthusiasm for democratic political institutions, believes that the basic outlook of the American people has not yet really caught up with their free political and economic institutions. He detects a kind of spiritual time lag in America, and asserts that, in cultural matters, the people have not yet successfully disentangled themselves from long entrenched European traditions. He claims that "feudalism, caste, the ecclesiastic traditions, though palpably retreating from political institutions, still hold essentially, by their spirit, even in this country, entire possession of the more important fields, indeed the very subsoil, of education, and of social standards and literature."20 Consequently, Democratic Vistas at times reads like a jeremiad, as Whitman simultaneously celebrates key elements of spontaneous order — especially free political and economic institutions — while castigating the people for clinging to prejudices based on class and religious affiliation ("caste" and "ecclesiastic traditions"). "For my part," he writes,

I would alarm and caution even the political and business reader, and to the utmost extent, against the prevailing delusion that the establishment of free political institutions, and plentiful intellectual smartness, with general good order, physical plenty, industry, etc.… do, of themselves, determine and yield to our experiment of democracy the fruitage of success.21

Insisting that "society, in these States, is canker'd, crude, superstitious and rotten,"22 Whitman repeatedly embraces the tumult, the creative destruction, evident in the United States, while lamenting the people's reluctance to abandon a concept of humanity in which race, religion, and status play central roles: "I hail with joy the oceanic, variegated, intense practical energy, the demand for facts, even the business materialism of the current age, our States. But woe to the age and land in which these things, movements, stopping at themselves, do not tend to ideas."23

Perhaps because of the frequently noted hostility to capitalism prevailing in the academy, critics have tended to misapprehend Whitman's basic orientation, especially in economic matters. Therefore, instead of seeing Whitman as someone who wants, as it were, to outfit his readers with the spiritual equipment that accords with free institutions, critics have used Whitman's dissatisfaction with America as evidence of his fundamental dislike of capitalism, although people making such claims need to argue away a good deal of countervailing evidence. A representative example is Richard Pascal's essay on "Whitman and the Pursuit of Wealth."

Even though Democratic Vistas is notably lacking in passages concerning the disparity of incomes evident in free societies, or the plight of the poor, Pascal sees a calculating disingenuousness behind Whitman's professions of enthusiasm for the general material prosperity promoted by capitalism. He acknowledges that, "for all their spiritual shortcomings, Whitman admits, America's myriad worldly interests do function effectively as a complex network and hence serve a unifying purpose. Into the ‘Vistas' creeps, from time to time, a modicum of admiration for the 'complicated business genius.'"

According to Pascal, however, "such comments have something of the tone of an agnostic paying lip service to the official deities of the state," and Whitman includes them "[r]ealizing, perhaps, that many of the readers he wishes to influence would not respond happily to suggestions that the values exalted by the world of business and industry are less than progressive."24 To be sure, in Whitman's view, people who think that getting rich is the final, or only, goal of human life are spiritually stunted, but that in itself is not enough to mark Whitman as a closet adversary of market forces.

  • 1. Whitman, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, pp. 455–56.
  • 2. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. iv.
  • 3. Whitman, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, p. 469.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 475, emphasis added.
  • 5. Ibid., pp. 464–65. Whitman's recourse to evolutionary thinking should not lead us to conclude that he makes common cause with Herbert Spencer and others who advanced "social Darwinism" as a guide to public policy. According to social Darwinists, especially those who rather crassly popularized Spencer's theories, nothing should be done to prevent the weak in society from failing, as their destruction will result in a strengthened polity. This view is more conservative than Whitman's, as it fails to inquire whether individual failures might be caused by structural contradictions in the status quo. By contrast, Whitman argues that a gradual, evolutionary adjustment of the general rules by which society functions will result in a general amelioration of the whole, including those who are disadvantaged by the persistence of ideas or institutions that have not yet adjusted to the emergent triumph of the democratic principle.
  • 6. Ibid., p. 469.
  • 7. Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964), vol. 5, p. 275.
  • 8. Whitman, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, p. 455.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 458.
  • 10. Ibid., p. 487.
  • 11. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's Poetry and Prose, Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, eds. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), p. 508.
  • 12. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stephen E. Whicher, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 75.
  • 13. Ibid., p. 274.
  • 14. Ibid., p. 350.
  • 15. Whitman, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, p. 469.
  • 16. Ibid., p. 65.
  • 17. Ibid., p. 17.
  • 18. Ibid., p. 65.
  • 19. Emerson, Selections, p. 345.
  • 20. Whitman, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, pp. 456–57.
  • 21. Ibid., p. 460.
  • 22. Ibid., p. 461.
  • 23. Ibid., p. 496.
  • 24. Richard Pascal, "'Dimes on the Eyes': Walt Whitman and the Pursuit of Wealth in America," Nineteenth-Century Literature 44 (1989): 168.

Contact Thomas G. Peyser

Thomas Peyser is an English professor at Randolph-Macon College and a film critic for Style Weekly. He is the author of Utopia and Cosmopolis: Globalization in the Era of American Literary Realism (Duke University Press, 1998). See his faculty page.