The Idea of Culture

“We find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy. This word Culture, or what it has come to represent, involves, by contrast, our whole theme, and has been, indeed, the spur, urging us to engagement”

—Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”

“My utmost pretension is probably but to offset that old claim of the exclusively curative power of first-class individual men, as leaders and rulers, by the claims and general movement and result of ideas. Something of the latter kind seems to me to be the distinctive theory of America, of democracy, and of the modern—or rather, I should say, it is democracy, and is the modern.”

—Walt Whitman, “Carlyle from American Points of View” (1881)

In On Democracy Robert A. Dahl makes a distinction between the ideal and the actuality of democracy. He explains that his book addresses the form of actual democracy that took shape in the twentieth century. In the first two parts of his book he explores a series of questions. What is democracy? What does democracy mean? Put another way, what standards should we use to determine whether, and to what extent, a government is democratic?

These questions are useful, if not necessary, for a productive consideration of the questions we are thinking through with Emerson and Whitman. What is democratic culture? What would a democratic culture look like? This is why I am asking you to read Part One and Part Two (1-80) of Dahl’s book as a background for our continued study of the emergence of the idea of a democratic culture in nineteenth-century America.

Your work this coming week is to read, think, and write about Whitman’s 1871 essay “Democratic Vistas.” To prepare for your discussions of this text you need to do three things:

  • Read the essay: You might want to not read the essay in one sitting. Your reading should begin with the assumption Whitman himself calls for late in the essay, that “the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does”
  • Annotate the essay: you will be working as a part of the “Open Space of Democracy” group in hypothes.is. Read the blog post on annotation so that your commentary is resourceful and useful and not merely “marginal” notes
  • Write a blog post: Due Tuesday at 10. Your essay on Whitman’s essay will features quotes from the essay that together account for Whitman’s emergent thinking about democratic culture. Consider the essay as a report on the discovery of something significant and worth knowing about Whitman’s thinking, what he calls a “programme or theory.” Writing is in an important way an act of rereading the essay. I encourage you to read through the annotations of your classmates as you prepare for our class on Tuesday dedicated to thinking together about “Democratic Vistas”

You can read the essay that in part incited Whitman to compose his response, Thomas Carlyle’s “Shooting Niagara—And After?” (1867). I have also provided relevant excerpts on the term and idea of culture from Emerson and Whitman’s writing on the Ephemera page of this blog

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