Democratic Vistas of the Future

Within our group exhibition on Walt Whitman, I wanted to focus on his democratic sensibilities and his embodiment of the American liberal tradition. In order to accomplish this task, I decided to approach the project from two angles and show how Whitman projected this image and then how it was supported and proliferated by his critics.

1.) For my first item, I decided to start with a visual image because I knew it would speak most immediately to Whitman’s democratic sensibilities. In order to capture his quintessential image, I chose the frontispiece portrait found in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, where Whitman strikes his iconic carpenter’s pose adorned in a large rimmed hat and workman’s clothing.

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Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1856: Brooklyn, NY). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

2.) For my second item, I chose the preface from the first edition of Leaves of Grass written by Whitman. Right away, Whitman opens up his book with the mention of “America,” suggesting that it will remain central to the entire text. Furthermore, Whitman goes on to say that “America does not repel the past,” which immediately evokes a fearless confrontation with the past along with a strong inclination toward the future. This preface, in conjunction with image one, demonstrates that Whitman chose a very specific image to convey to the public, and that he eventually tailored his career around ensuring the continuation and survival of the American spirit.

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Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn:1855). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

3.) For my third item, I opted to abandon Whitman’s portrayal of himself and move onto critical receptions. The review pictured below within the magazine Modern Thought suggests that Walt Whitman functions as one of the leaders of modern thought, made notable by his democratic leanings and emphasis on equality. I think this item complements item one and two well because it demonstrates that the public not only equated Whitman to America, but also to democracy, liberalism and general progressive thought.

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Camden’s compliment to Walt Whitman (Traubel, Horace, 1858-1919). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

4.) For the fourth item, I am including another criticism found within the same book of collected critical writings owned by the Johns Hopkins Special Collections. Unlike item three, this article speaks more specifically to Whitman’s democratic sensibilities – with its title “The Poetry of Democracy: Walt Whitman.” I found this piece compelling because it underscores the democratic qualities present within his poetry and not just his prose, more specifically “Democratic Vistas.

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Camden’s compliment to Walt Whitman (Traubel, Horace, 1858-1919). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

5.) And lastly, for my fifth item, I narrowed my sources down even further and decided on the article “A Study of Walt Whitman, The Poet of Modern Democracy.” This criticism combines elements of both the third item and the fourth item, insofar as it calls Whitman both democratic and modern. As a result, this piece can be see as the ultimate accumulation of Whitman’s influence, made possible through the contributions of critics and Whitman himself.

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Camden’s compliment to Walt Whitman (Traubel, Horace, 1858-1919). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.
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