Walt Whitman claims American democracy as an embryo in his 1871 essay. Perhaps it is easy to see this point of view today, as there have been so many developments since he first wrote this, but on the contrary, it could have been quite the statement when it was first written. After all, it had been just short of a century when American democracy truly kicked off, with the declaration of independence in 1776 and the signing of the constitution in 1787. In a world that democracy is not typically used, this would seem to be quite a length of time.
Robert Dahl just might agree with Whitman on the topic. However, not without stopping to explain the history behind democracy as he does in On Democracy. While democracy may not be strongly developed, it has been invented multiple times, and practiced by sizeable groups since 500 B.C.E. Armed with this knowledge, we could make a strong argument for American democracy to be in the condition of a fetus instead of an embryo. The country has had decades to settle into the flow, and the countries limits were tested in the American Civil War.
Whitman is right however. Democracy is extremely young and time is the only thing that can tell where it will go. Will it be a failure? Worst yet, will it be the “most tremendous failure of time,” as Whitman says it might be. But Whitman describes democracy as so much more than just politics. He claimed it as literature and religion, something to be found in every nook and cranny from schools and colleges, into the military. If Whitman truly believed that America as a nation had no literature in 1871, what would he think of America today? We are surrounded by literature, but as he would see it “the said nation, land, strictly speaking, may possess no literature at all”. Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray may be considered literary phenomena’s, but is this the new style he believed the country needed? It certainly is not what Whitman had in mind when comparing the countries already poor literature to the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
Meanwhile, the ways in which literature is received have changed. Whether rich or poor, screens are everywhere and they are completely unavoidable. Be it the TV, a cell phone, laptop or gaming system, the forms of media found throughout would have been shocking to anyone during the Reconstructive Era. Many may argue against the efficiency of this advancement. Social media like Twitter and Facebook have become official sources of news for many individuals throughout the last few decades- particularly among young people. And for many, the most advanced materials consumed are based off of platforms like these.
While the country may be more than an embryo, his claim “that the fruition of democracy, on aught like a grand scale, resides altogether in the future,” does express the newness of the nation. With developing technologies, it is obvious that big change is going to happen. So big in fact that Whitman theorized that the nation’s capital could be moved perhaps up to two thousand miles its current location in Washington D.C. While this did not occur, the nation did continue to expand and create a new world. Although Whitman may not find many reasons to fall in love with American Literature, the advancements of this world would be enough to keep anyone occupied.