The American historian Vernon Louis Parrington (1871-1929) is known for his three-volume intellectual history of America, Main Currents in American Thought.
Born at Aurora, Ill., on Aug. 3, 1871, Vernon Parrington was of Scotch and Irish descent. His father was a school principal in New York and Illinois, served in the Union Army, and became a judge of probate in Kansas. While growing up near Pumpkin Ridge, Kans., Vernon early became acquainted with the sources of agrarian discontent, and he later recalled his bitter feelings at seeing a year's corn crop used for fuel. Searching for answers, he found inspiration in the writings of William Morris, who "laid bare the evils of industrialism … and convinced me. … that the businessman's society, symbolized by the cash register and existing solely for profit, must be destroyed to make way for another and better ideal."
After 2 years at the College of Emporia, a Presbyterian institution, Parrington entered Harvard as a junior and graduated in 1893. His Harvard experience was not happy, and he afterward referred acidly to his eastern alma mater. Returning to the College of Emporia, he taught English and French while obtaining his master of arts degree. He also ran unsuccessfully for the school board on a "Citizen's" ticket. In 1897 he was appointed instructor in English and modern languages at the University of Oklahoma, where he stayed for 11 years. Meanwhile he married Julia Rochester Williams in 1901 (they had two daughters and a son), did research in London and Paris (1903-1904), wrote some poetry, and took an interest in archeology. Fired from his job in 1908 because of a "political cyclone, " Parrington accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Washington in Seattle.
There Parrington formed a close friendship with J. Allen Smith, a political scientist whose book The Spirit of American Government (1907) claimed to expose the antagonism between the Declaration of Independence, with its romantic egalitarian spirit, and the Constitution, a "reactionary document" drafted by representatives of "wealth and culture" to prevent effective popular rule. Smith saw a strong Federal government as the weapon of the propertied classes, and he opposed any extension or centralization of national power. His ideas profoundly affected Parrington, who later dedicated his book to Smith. Until 1927 Parrington wrote little: a chapter in the Cambridge History of American Literature, a few encyclopedia articles, an anthology, and some reviews. In 1927 the first two volumes of his Main Currents in American Thought, entitled The Colonial Mind and The Romantic Revolution in America, were published and received the Pulitzer Prize for history. The third volume, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, was incomplete when Parrington died on June 16, 1929, but was afterward published together with the earlier volumes in a one-volume edition.
Meaning of Main Currents
Though Parrington used the subtitle "An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920, " he denied writing "a history of American literature." His true subject was the history of American liberalism, seen as a long struggle between freedom and individualism on the one hand and privilege and authoritarianism on the other. The roots of the struggle were always in economic relations, and literary productions were strategic elements in the fight. For Parrington, writers embodied or exemplified some interest of an age, and each was considered in relation to his battle position. Mark Twain was a great frontier republican; Walt Whitman, a great democrat; and William Cullen Bryant, a fighter for free labor. Parrington deliberately slighted the "narrowly belletristic." He had little understanding or appreciation for writers who would not or could not carry a spear in the war.
As Parrington unfolded the story, from the days of the Pilgrims to his own time "idealists" had contended with "realists, " humanitarians with crass materialists, agrarians with capitalists, Jeffersonians with Hamiltonians, and decentralizers with centralizers who sought to control the power of the state in order to dominate and exploit the majority. In generation after generation, between these opposing hosts, mighty battles had been fought, and historic defeats had been imposed on the democratic forces. The Constitution itself was an early monument to a victory of financiers and capitalists over agrarians, who held to the romantic idealism of the Declaration of Independence. A half century afterward, the democratic army of Jacksonian Democracy had gone down before the cunning Whig propaganda of business and industrial interests. Once again, in 1896, the old Jeffersonian cause, led now by William Jennings Bryan, had failed to throw off the yoke of eastern capital. Thereafter the trend in government was toward increasing centralization with consequent loss of individual freedom. The future looked bleak, as a new cynicism was corroding the Jeffersonian faith in human nature and education.
During the 1930s Main Currents had enormous prestige in the academic world. The liberals embraced it as the "usable new history" that James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard had been calling for, and to them it was a "realistic" guidebook to the American past. In 1952 over 100 American historians rated Main Currents the most important work published in the field during the period 1920-1935. Yet its influence was relatively short-lived. Parrington's judgments were in many instances revealed to be simply mistaken, and his conflict thesis began to be recognized as artificial and overly simplistic. Especially in the 1950s, with the rise of a "consensus history" that stressed elements of basic agreement in the American tradition, Main Currents lost scholarly respect. Even with a renewed emphasis upon the place of social struggle in American history, it is unlikely that Parrington's interpretation will ever again appear plausible. But if its Jeffersonian partisanship is out of fashion, Main Currents continues to be read for the distinction of its literary style, perhaps the most brilliant since Francis Parkman's. Many of Parrington's individual portraits remain unsurpassed, and his description of the post-Civil War national orgy of venality and vulgarity as the "Great Barbecue" has become classic.
Further Reading on Vernon Louis Parrington
The most extensive study of Parrington, together with an excellent annotated bibliography, is in Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians (1968). Parrington is examined in the context of American historiography in Robert Allen Skotheim, American Intellectual Histories and Historians (1966). Important analyses are in Alfred Kazin, On Native Ground (1942; abridged with a new postscript, 1956), and Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (1950).
Additional Biography Sources
Hall, H. Lark, V.L. Parrington: through the avenue of art, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994.
Hofstadter, Richard, The progressive historians—Turner, Beard, Parrington, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, 1968.