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  • "Not the Abstract Question of Democracy":The Social Ground of Whitman's "Lilacs"
  • Tobias Huttner (bio)

Out of the Hundred Years just ending, (1776–1876,) with their genesis of inevitable willful events, and new introductions, and many unprecedented things of war and peace, (to be realized better, perhaps only realized, at the remove of another Century hence)—Out of that stretch of time, and especially out of the immediately preceding Twenty-Five Years, (1850–75,) with all their rapid changes, innovations, and audacious movements—and bearing their own inevitable willful birth-marks—my Poems too have found genesis.

—Walt Whitman

Published at the midpoint of the so-called Long Depression of 1873–79, Whitman's preface to Two Rivulets (1876) registers the poet's growing anxiety over American economic development. As Whitman scholarship has long emphasized, that anxiety corresponded with an increasingly promissory, rather than presentist, discourse of democracy. Indeed, while the 1876 preface is rightly notable for its relative optimism about the post–Civil War Union—"This Union is only now and henceforth … to enter on its full Democratic career"—the closing sentences above articulate nested temporalities that include but do not reduce to a justified national itinerary.1 Whitman marks the centenary of independence with a set of novel social features whose meanings only the future will determine. He characterizes the twenty-five-year span of his own career by referencing several equivocal phenomena [End Page 642] altogether unanchored from a national or statist narrative. The Civil War, meanwhile, seemingly functions as a black hole—unnarratable but warping the years surrounding it. Writing from his vantage within the first truly global capitalist crisis, Whitman's more familiar claims about his poetry's prospective readership shift slightly: if he still cedes his proper audience—now much like democracy itself—to the future, he also squarely brackets his actual poems in an extensive present structured not by democratic universality but by novel forces of social transformation and contestation.

Indeed, if Whitman's historical aspirations grow increasingly elongated in late-in-life formulations such as his centennial-era preface, he notably continues to insist that his poetry parallels a discrete historical interval, albeit one conditioned by the transformations in American social and material life. In the draft of a speech included in Specimen Days (1882), Whitman clarifies those forces further in terms of the prevailing relations of "social and economic organization": "Beneath the whole political world, what presses and perplexes to-day, sending vastest results affecting the future, is not the abstract question of democracy, but of social and economic organization, the treatment of working-people by employers, and all that goes along with it—not only the wages-payment part, but a certain spirit and principle, to vivify anew these relations" (CP, 1064).2 Incited by such moments of demurral from the "abstract question of democracy," this essay joins Whitman in seeing his poetry as immanent to the consolidation of American capitalism, or as concerned with the evolving relations of "social and economic organization" across the nineteenth century's latter half. In particular, I argue that Whitman's elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865) formalizes not an assured national future but an uncertain crisis period pivotal to the reorganization of American social life around the capitalist wage. Taking a cue from Whitman, I argue that "Lilacs" was not merely [End Page 643] occasioned by the Civil War or more narrowly by Lincoln's assassination; the poem also reflects from within on the conditions that produced these events.

The poem does so in decidedly poetic—which is also to say mediated—ways by exploring the resources of a particular trope (vista) and a pair of overlapping genres (elegy and nocturne). Specifically, I hope to show that, in "Lilacs" and Whitman's other postbellum writing, vista works not as absolute aeriality but as a provisional vantage over contemporaneous history's contested terms. In Democratic Vistas (1871) and "Lilacs," that shifting vantage helps reconfigure the affective ends of Judeo-Christian messianism. This poetics of vista is especially important to "Lilacs," where it participates in several distinct poem-wide rhythms—affective, perspectival, and figural—that rewrite elegy's script as...


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