Bearers of Bad Tidings: Writers and the American Dream

Thomas Jefferson never applied the word democrat to himself, nor does the word democracy appear in the Declaration of Independence. In that time the word was, in fact, almost synonymous with riot and anarchy. But Jefferson did envisage a society in which free men—of independent self—would exercise their franchise in the light of reason.

The dream of Jefferson, the aristocrat, the scion of the Enlightenment, was to assume, some eighty years after he had penned his Declaration, a new formulation at the hands of a plebeian son of Romanticism, who was a homosexual mystic. Jefferson might have recognized certain ideas in Whitman’s formulation as continuators of his own, but he, as a social man, in the eighteenth-century sense, would probably have been befuddled by the tone of the opening lines of “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing my- self,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

And Jefferson would have been equally befuddled when Whitman, in “Long, Too Long America,” demanded of America:

For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?

But well before Whitman’s first hymning of himself and of America as somehow forming a mystic unity, the political system of the Founding Fathers had been democratized, with universal manhood suffrage (“universal” meaning white, of course), and with the “tumultuous populace of large cities,” which Washington had declared is always to be “dreaded,” now multiplied many fold. The Jeffersonian dream had assumed the shape of what, to many Americans, was the Jacksonian nightmare. The most famous report of the nightmare shape may be the following quotation from Emerson:

Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence…. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them…. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only…and no shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking million stockingers or lazzaroni at all…. Away with this hurrah of masses, and let us have the considered vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience.

But Emerson and Whitman, for all the differences between them, are still Jeffersonians. If Emerson berated his fellow citizens for accepting a democracy of shovel-handed, gin-drinking lazzaroni, what he wanted was to have the “considered vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience.” In other words, Emerson did have some hope for a democracy of responsible individuals, or selves, to be drawn from the masses—even if he, bemused in his neo-Platonism and rapt—to borrow the phrase which Keats applied to Wordsworth—in the “egotistical sublime,” was sometimes not quite sure of the reality of the objective world.

There were, however, certain other democrats who had views different from those of Emerson and Whitman. James Fenimore Cooper, who declared himself a democrat, was one, we may say …

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