Study Guide

Main Currents in American Thought

by Vernon Louis Parrington

Main Currents in American Thought Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Vernon Louis Parrington’s three-volume Main Currents in American Thought is generally considered monumental for two reasons. First, the detailed tables of contents show an awesome knowledge of literary and political history and the ability to place the major and minor American writers from 1620 to 1900; second, the guide to this imposition of order is a passionate belief in Jeffersonian democracy as the essential philosophy of the United States. Parrington’s work had the revolutionary effect of giving American writers a social dimension never seen in histories of English literature or English thought. This dimension made meaningful and, in turn, greatly accelerated the study of American literature in schools and colleges, as did the work of Frederick Jackson Turner stimulate the study of American history in terms of the United States.

For Parrington, two currents affected the American mind, Romanticism and realism, with the division between the two coming at 1860. His first problem, however, was to establish the growth and actual existence of the American mind itself; this task is accomplished in the historical survey of the first volume, The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800, where colonial conditions formed a certain way of thinking, a way of thinking that changed during the Revolutionary War into the American mind. Parrington then studies the national temper in the two succeeding volumes, dealing with Romanticism and realism.

The first volume contains three books. The first book, “Liberalism and Puritanism,” covers the first century of American history, 1620-1720, in which conflict appears between Carolinian liberalism and Puritanism; the new environment comes into play and strengthens the latter so that the first part of this book records the triumph of theocratic oligarchy in Massachusetts up to 1660. The ground for this triumph is prepared for in the growing rigidity of Puritan thought and practice as a result of transplanting European ideas, but Parrington’s sympathy is with the independents, especially Roger Williams, who excites some of his loftiest prose. That triumph led to the twilight of the oligarchy after 1660; Increase Mather is attacked as intolerant and dictatorial, and Cotton Mather is analyzed pitilessly; the fall of Massachusetts is symbolized in the witch trials of Salem and caused by increasing rigidity of thought in the face of growing economic pressure for changes in the social system.

The second book, “The Colonial Mind,” is also divided into two parts: the making of the colonial mind and the awakening of the American mind, with the division at 1763. The colonial mind, having lost the Puritan systemization, is at first at the greater mercy of the environment: The eighteenth century influx of Scotch-Irish and Germans—the latter settling mostly in Pennsylvania—develops a consciousness of the hinterland that veers between adulation, in Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecur, and contempt, in Mme Knight, with William Byrd in between. Jonathan Edwards is pushed offstage along with the Great Awakening, and the spotlight given to Benjamin Franklin, the heir to French Physiocratic views and the first American with a truly American mind. The second part is largely political, outlining the mind of the American Tory, Thomas Hutchinson; the American Whig, John Dickinson; and the American Democrat, Samuel Adams. At the conclusion of this part, American literature makes its first appearance as “literary echoes” in the form of Whig and Tory satires.

Literature is better represented in the third part of book 3, “Liberalism and the Constitution,” which covers the last seventeen years of the eighteenth century and introduces at its close the first novelist, Hugh...

(The entire section is 1532 words.)

Main Currents in American Thought Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Cowley, Malcolm, and Bernard Smith, eds. Books That Changed Our Minds. 1939. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. Claims Parrington’s history was well received by conservatives as well as liberals; maintains that the influence exerted by this work places Parrington on par with Oswald Spengler, Alfred North Whitehead, and Vladimir Ilich Lenin.

Gabriel, Ralph W. “Vernon Louis Parrington.” In Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians, edited by Marcus Cunliffe and Robin W. Winks. 1969. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. Discusses the publication history of Main Currents in American Thought and examines the personal quality of Parrington’s approach to history. Reviews the contemporaneous reception of the work and surveys its influence on later historians.

Hall, H. Lark. V. L. Parrington: Through the Avenue of Art. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. Comprehensive biography tracing Parrington’s intellectual development. Hall argues that Parrington was in search of a personal myth, and Main Currents in American Thought marked the culmination of that search.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. 1968. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. Links Parrington with other historians who engaged in their profession as a means of influencing contemporary politics. Asserts that Main Currents in American Thought helps explain the nature of the American liberal mind.

Noble, David Watson. Historians Against History: The Frontier Thesis and the National Covenant in American Historical Writing Since 1830. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965. Describes Main Currents in American Thought as “the single most important book written by a historian of the frontier tradition,” synthesizing work by earlier historians and paying tribute to a way of life that disappeared in the decades that followed its publication.

Skotheim, Robert Allen. American Intellectual Histories and Historians. 1966. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Claims that Main Currents in American Thought is the first work to offer a systematic view of American intellectual history. Highlights the contrast of progress and reaction that characterizes Parrington’s methodology.