Posted by: George | June 13, 2010

Walt Whitman

June 12, 2010

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors said, “If it weren’t for Chaucer, the British would not know how to act.” That was over thirty years ago, and I still haven’t quite figured out what he meant. I certainly never mastered Chaucer, and I have only recently spent time in London, a mere twelve hours, a layover on a flight to Portugal. Most of my twelve hours was spent in the Heathrow or a tour bus. (Of course, Chaucer wouldn’t recognize contemporary London. Nor, would my grad school professor.) So, I guess it is understandable that I never figured out what Chaucer meant to British behavior.

I sometimes say equally enigmatic things to my students, such as, “Walt Whitman defined the American character, even though few Americans are able to be the kind of people that Whitman felt we must one day become.” Okay, maybe this is not “equally enigmatic.” Maybe, it is far more enigmatic. But I do believe it.

After a number of trial titles, I have decided to call this blog “Democratic Vistas.” I am taking the title from Whitman’s treatise on democracy, published in 1871. I plan to quote from this work often, as well as from Leaves of Grass, as I drive around the United States, searching for America and the American character.

In Democratic Vistas, Whitman says something that most Americans would find startling: America is not yet a democracy. Before we can have a democracy, he argues, we must have a people who are capable of democratic behavior. Whitman truly believed (and hoped) that we, as a people, would one day be able to develop original ideas and yet respect the ideas of others. Without that respect, we would never be able to enter into a democratic dialogue. We could not have a democracy.

After the ugliness of the health care debate, the rise of bitter partisan politics, and the 24/7 rants of sound-bite pundits, many us might agree with Whitman—we are not yet capable of democratic behavior. If Whitman were still alive, if he traveled across the country, would he say that we are as far from embracing democracy as ever? I’d like to know.



  1. Now you have me singing that Simon and Garfunkel song, “They’ve all come to look for America.” James and I memorized the “Bookends” album back in the day. All the best with this!


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