Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy
By Stephen John Mack
In this surprisingly timely book, Stephen Mack examines Whitman’s particular and fascinating brand of patriotism: his far-reaching vision of democracy. For Whitman, loyalty to America was loyalty to democracy. Since the idea that democracy is not just a political process but a social and cultural process as well is associated with American pragmatism, Mack relies on the pragmatic tradition of Emerson, James, Dewey, Mead, and Rorty to demonstrate the ways in which Whitman resides in this tradition.
Mack analyzes Whitman’s democratic vision both in its parts and as a whole; he also describes the ways in which Whitman’s vision evolved throughout his career. He argues that Whitman initially viewed democratic values such as individual liberty and democratic processes such as collective decision-making as fundamental, organic principles, free and unregulated. But throughout the 1860s and 1870s Whitman came to realize that democracy entailed processes of human agency that are more deliberate and less natural—that human destiny is largely the product of human effort, and a truly humane society can be shaped only by intelligent human efforts to govern the forces that would otherwise govern us.
Mack describes the foundation of Whitman’s democracy as found in the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass, examines the ways in which Whitman’s 1859 sexual crisis and the Civil War transformed his democratic poetics in “Sea-Drift,” “Calamus,” Drum-Taps,and Sequel to Drum-Taps, and explores Whitman’s mature vision in Democratic Vistas, concluding with observations on its moral and political implications today. Throughout, he illuminates Whitman’s great achievement—learning that a full appreciation for the complexities of human life meant understanding that liberty can take many different and conflicting forms—and allows us to contemplate the relevance of that achievement at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
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