Tocqueville Foretold the Poet, Walt Whitman

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, political philosopher, and accomplished writer. He ventured to the United States for nine months in 1831 to discern how democracy was proceeding since the American Revolution. Tocqueville began by observing how politics was lived in this nascent democracy; he imposed no grand principles or theories from the outside. With thoroughness and a surprising honesty, he wrote two comprehensive volumes detailing and evaluating his experience.

Besides writing a sophisticated depiction of America’s social and political life, he also engaged in certain predictions about her future. He had a willingness to speculate across many disciplinary silos, including the fine arts, as to future developments in the republic. One such prediction was the invention and flourishing of a uniquely American poetry movement; in this, Tocqueville was prescient. He anticipated the lyrical, moving poetry of Longfellow, Emerson, Dickinson, and Frost -- but also, especially, the splendid poetry of Walt Whitman as seen in his celebrated “Song of Myself.”

There were few respected American poets to speak of in 1831, but Tocqueville was undaunted by that fact. He earnestly believed that “in the heart of this incoherent and agitated multitude,” great poets would appear in the decades to come. Americans were, for the time being, focused on politics, religion, journalism, and wealth creation and scarcely had time for literary pursuits. But he expected that such accomplishments would develop. He recognized the writings of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper as indicating a promising future and the existence of a blossoming literary class.

Tocqueville believed that the great extent of equality in the country withered old ideas and traditions; literary conventions, too, would be redefined and rewritten here. Americans would reinvent poetry, making it anew for their egalitarian society. A quite different American poetry would emerge, without European structures or themes as its masters. Poetry would be animated by images of a shared national experience, since Americans, Tocqueville wrote, wished “to be spoken to about themselves.” He also predicted that this poetry would be grounded in reality, without flights of fancy, retreat to antiquity, or ethereal gods and goddesses – just “the confused mixture of conditions, sentiments, and ideas that they [Americans] encounter before their eyes.”

Poets would speak for the nation, about the nation, in a common language that elevated their own experience. The poets, he believed, would be drawn to verse as the ideal of poetic language. Moreover, poetry would be uniquely American in the degree to which it would be instinctive, fluid, spiritual, natural, and emotionally direct. In all of this, Tocqueville was indeed predictive.

It appears, however, as though Tocqueville did not believe all Americans were capable of producing such poetry. He wrote: “one can conceive of nothing … so dull … so antipoetic, as the life of a man in the United States.” Yet he remarked, “one always meets one that is full of poetry, and that one is like the hidden nerve that gives vigor to the rest.” No other image could better describe the arrival, two decades later, of Walt Whitman on the American literary stage when he published his first book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, in 1855. It truly was “the hidden nerve that gives vigor to the rest” – revolutionary, effervescent, a bouncy spring, the pioneering mechanism for developing and advancing poetry in America. He was, as Tocqueville anticipated, an individual who was “full of poetry” and would inspire other poets and invigorate a young nation to think differently and to sing.     

Whitman created poetry with a less formal structure, utilized the language of the common man, celebrated individualism, and was not bound by the past. He was energized by the American move westward and the nation’s flourishing democracy, and was moved by the struggles and journeys of its ordinary citizens.

His poem “Song of Myself” has the fluidity Tocqueville foresaw. After the first line had been crafted in iambic pentameter, Whitman abandoned all semblance of standards, rules, and convention. Gone were rhymes, metrics, and links with past poets; he was, as it were, the master of the open poetic road. He sang his celebratory chant: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable.”

Tocqueville would have been pleased with his prognostication’s accuracy. It was as he had suggested it would be. He called forth, with prophetic words, the prospect of a poetry and poets for America that described in detail its people’s energy, their industry, their decency, their love of creation, their language, and their gift for freedom and democracy. He wanted for America someone who would listen to their voice, what Whitman called his own “barbaric

Within his admirable panegyric to American democracy, then, Tocqueville not only predicted the style and structure of a new American poetry; he also gleaned from the tea leaves, long beforehand, the voice of one of its most beloved and original poets, Walt Whitman. In appreciating Whitman’s gift, we appreciate Tocqueville’s genius as well.