• Situates the composition of Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas—from manuscript notes, source material, and pilot essays to its publication as an 84-page pamphlet—within the intellectual tendencies of the Reconstruction-era American social science movement to reveal Whitman’s text as an important case study in the nascent discipline. In his program to cultivate a population of self-reliant, creative readers, Whitman examines the national histories of literary institutions; he meditates on the social reproduction of “taste” and its connections to political and economic power; and he conceives of a democratic reception theory based on a new ethics of reading, entering debates about the “best books” with the country’s newly professionalized class of librarians. This essay argues that in linking the transmission, reception, and circulation of “culture” to the nation’s social evolution, Whitman laid the groundwork for that concept’s adoption by future sociologists, anthropologists, and activists at the turn of the twentieth century.