Walt Whitman on Falsehood and Democracy


Walt Whitman, writing in 1871, in Democratic Vistas 

“..I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a
physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy  throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the  most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion.Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk’d much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national,state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepidamours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time.  In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician’s serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field. The best class we show, is but a mob of fashionably dress’d speculators and vulgarians. True, indeed, behind this fantastic farce, enacted on the visible stage of society, solid things and stupendous labors are to be discover’d, existing crudely and going on in the background, to advance and tell themselves in time. Yet the truths are none the less terrible. I say that our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results.

A mere eleven years earlier, before the outbreak of the Civil War, he had written this  enthusiastic paean to solidarity

yin

For You, O Democracy

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble.
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades
With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America and along
the shores of the great lakes and all over the prairies,
I will make inseperable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades
By the manly love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy , to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs

Even earlier, there had been this: Poem of Remembrance for a Girl or a Boy of These States  (1856)
You just maturing youth! You make or female!
Remember the organic compact of These States,
Remember the pledge of the Old Thirteen thenceforward to the rights, life, liberty, equality of man,
Remember what was promulgated by the founders, ratified by The States, signed in black and white by the Commissioners, and read by Washington at the head of the army,
Remember the copious humanity streaming from every direction toward America;
Remember the hospitality that belongs to nations and men (Cursed be nation, woman, man, without hospitality!)
Remember, government is to subserve individuals,
Not any, not the President, is to have one jot more than you or me,
Nor any habitant of America is to have one jot less than yuo or me.

Anticipate when the thirty or fifty millions, are to become the hundred or two hundred millions, or equal freemen and free women, amicably joined.

Recall ages – One age is but a part- ages are but a part;
Recall the angers, bickerings, delusions, superstitions, of the idea of caste,
Recall the bloody cruelties and crimes

Anticipate the best women
I say an unnumbered new race of hardy and well-defined women are to spread through all These States,
I say a girl fit for These States must be free, capable, dauntless, just the same as a boy.

Anticipate your own life – Retract with merciless power,
Shirk nothing – retract in time – Do you see those errors, diseases, weaknesses, lies, thefts?
Do you see that lost character? – Do you see decay, consumption, rum-drinking, dropsy, fever, mortal cancer or inflammation?
Do you see death, and the approach of death?

Again, from  Democratic Vistas

“As the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom, the same present the greatest lessons also in New World politics and progress..”

citing John Stuart Mill on Liberty, he writes, (there should be) “two main constituents, or sub-strata, for a truly grand nationality – first, a large variety of character – and second, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions – (seems to be for general humanity much like the influences that make up, in their limitless field, that perennial health-action of the air we call the weather – an infinite number of currents and forces, and contributions, and temperatures, and cross purposes, whose ceaseless play of counterpart upon counterpart brings constant restoration and vitality.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *