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Whitman, Death, and Democracy

Jack Turner, “Whitman, Death, and Democracy,” in A Political Companion to Walt Whitman, ed. John Seery (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), 272-295.

Walt Whitman revealed affinities between coolness in the face of death and the character dispositions and sensibilities most conducive to democracy. Whitman articulated three visions of death in his antebellum work: the first and second sought to allay readers’ mortal anxiety by intimating the self’s material immortality; the third sought to encourage affirmation of death, even in the absence of spiritual or material immortality. All three were intended to promote affirmation of the self and the world as they are, and therefore rejection of the idea that the self and the world are fallen and need supernatural redemption. Affirmation of the self and the world as they are both signals and compounds the generosity of perception and spirit necessary for democratic culture, a culture wherein every individual regards every other individual as beautiful and sublime. While George Kateb, Morton Schoolman, and Jason Frank have helpfully elaborated this idea of democratic culture in Whitman, none has analyzed Whitman’s tripartite poetics of death and explained their crucial role in Whitman’s quest to inspire democratic culture. This essay takes up this task, in the hopes it can enhance our appreciation of the radicalism of Whitman’s democratic theory, a theory which not only acknowledges but also celebrates human finitude.

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