Posted by: George | November 11, 2016

Alternative History

waltwhitman

On election day, in the morning, I wrote a blog post. I assumed, as many did, that Clinton would be elected the country’s first woman president. Then, the results started coming in. Just yesterday, I told a friend about this, how I had written a blog post that would never be read, and he suggested that I post it anyway. You can view it as a kind of alternative history. Or, it might be that we are now beginning to live alternative history, something along the lines of MacKinley Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. The post argued that Walt Whitman had predicted the outcome of this election. Maybe the post still has some relevance. Even in the darkest times, Whitman was optimistic about this American experiment.

 Walt Whitman Predicted It

In Democratic Vistas (the work that provided the title for this blog), first published in 1870, Walt Whitman claimed American had not yet achieved democracy. The first time I read this, I was shocked. I am sure that most of his contemporaries were shocked, as well.

As I once believe, as most Americans believe, we had a democracy since about 1776, or shortly after that, but Whitman said no, even a hundred years later, we have not yet embraced democracy.

We had not yet developed, he explained, the kind of American who could support a democracy, and we had not yet extended suffrage. We needed to develop the kind of men and women who could become active citizens.

Democratic Vistas is an essay that argues for diversity, a “large variety of character.” Whitman felt that human nature needed to expand itself in “numberless and even conflicting directions,” which included developing women, through education and literature, so that they could become citizens.

In one of my favorite sections of the essay, Whitman presents portraits of American women, including his mother, “a resplendent person,” to break down stereotypes, the mold of women we had inherited from the old world. He wanted to say that women, American women, could stand on par with men, American men. Then, he wrote:

The forgoing portraits, I admit, are frightening out of line from these imported models of womanly personality—the stock feminine characters of the current novelists, or of the foreign court poems (Ophelias, Enids, princesses, or ladies of one thing or another), which fill the envying dreams of so many poor girls, and are accepted by our men, too, as supreme ideals of feminine excellence to be sought after. But I present mine just for a change.

Then, there are mutterings (we will not now stop to heed them here, but they must be heeded), of something more revolutionary. The day is coming when the deep questions of women’s entrance amid the arenas of practical life, politics, the suffrage, etc., will not only be argued all around us, but may be put to decision, and real experiment.

The decision is here. The experiment has been run. Later, in the same essay, Whitman announced “a native expression-spirit” would emerge with a “Religious Democracy sternly taking command, dissolving the old, sloughing off surfaces, and from its own interior and vital principles, reconstructing, democratizing society.”

I don’t know that Whitman, if he were still with us, would say that we have achieved the ideal of democracy with the election of the first African-American president and now the first woman president. He might still lament the ways that some are limiting democracy by suppressing votes, but I think he would be saying, “This is what I was announcing. This is what I hoped would happen. We are closer now to democracy that we were yesterday.”

I don’t know that Whitman, if he were still with us, would say that we have achieved the ideal of democracy with the election of the first African-American president and now the first woman president. He might still lament the ways that some are limiting democracy by suppressing votes, but I think he would be saying, “This is what I was announcing. This is what I hoped would happen. We are closer now to democracy that we were yesterday.”

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