Main Currents in American Thought

by Vernon Louis Parrington

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1532

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.

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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.

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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 Henry Brackenridge, and the poets Philip Freneau and Joel Barlow, whom Parrington approves of for their republicanism. He does not think much of the Hartford Wits, whom he labels with his worst stigma, “arch conservatives.” The literature in these stirring years takes second place to politics, in which the clash is between the transplanted English ideas of laissez faire and the agrarianism that is, for Parrington, the soundest basis for his cherished liberalism. Agrarianism was defeated in the years between 1783 and 1787, according to Parrington, in spite of Thomas Jefferson, the towering figure who dominates all of Parrington’s work and brings the first two centuries of American thought to a fitting close. Jefferson was able to rethink transplanted ideas into an American context and thus establish the American mind as an independent and vital entity.

In the next two volumes, Parrington sets out to trace the fortunes of currents of this mind through the nineteenth century up to 1920. He traces an even break between them at 1860.

New England comes into its own again in the second volume, The Romantic Revolution in America, 1800-1860. This preeminence is not surprising, for the period covered is the first half of the nineteenth century, the decades of the Transcendentalists. Three “minds” are established as well, those of the American Middle East, the South, and New England. The first is treated comparatively briefly under three headings in book 2 of this volume: writers of Philadelphia, such as Charles Brockden Brown; those of New York, the new literary capital; and those who came to New York from New England, William Cullen Bryant, Horace Greeley, and Herman Melville; the treatment of Melville is simply headed “Pessimist” and shows at its worst Parrington’s inability to analyze literature that does not contain his ideas. Much more sympathetic is his study of James Fenimore Cooper, largely because of the social criticism Parrington discerned in his work. In the New Yorker school, Parrington subdivided Washington Irving and James Kirke Paulding as Knickerbocker Romantics, and preferred the latter on equally bad grounds, labeling Irving an idle man-about-town.

The strength of the second volume is its three parts devoted to “The Mind of the South,” with which the volume opens. Howard Mumford Jones has testified, in The Theory of American Literature (1948), to the astonishment of young scholars at Parrington’s recovery of writers who had gradually been forgotten under the New England ascendancy of the post-American Civil War years. The best example is the fourth chapter of part 2, devoted chiefly to the achievements of Charleston as a literary center, best represented by William Gilmore Simms. Perhaps equally surprising is the title of part 1: “The Virginia Renaissance.” Although this section begins with the tradition of agrarianism, it passes on to literary matters in the eleven pages devoted to John Pendleton Kennedy and concludes with three on Edgar Allan Poe; literary radicalism (and perhaps insensitivity) could scarcely go further.

Parrington is at his best, however, in his scrupulously fair analysis of the Southern defense of slavery, but it must have been with some relief that he concluded the first book with a summary of the positions of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln as symbols of the West. Parrington also concludes with a summary of the first example of Western literature, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes (1835 and 1840). He prefers the realism of the former to the myth of Davy Crockett—“a wastrel.”

The third book of the second volume is divided into four parts on the New England mind. The first two parts have remained valuable as summaries of the political and social thought of New England. These two parts include sections on Brook Farm, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, which are largely economic or environmental studies. Literature occupies the third and fourth parts and is somewhat loosely organized as the Transcendental and “other” aspects of the New England mind, the latter including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, with a brief mention of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The “other” writers suffer the stigma of being “genteel,” which is interpreted as “unrealistic.” This idea allows Parrington to demonstrate the necessary decline in the Romantic movement with which the whole volume is supposed to be concerned, but which is largely evidenced in Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Discussion of the decline closes the volume and prepares the way for the celebration of realism in the third.

The third volume, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920, was published after Parrington’s death. Of the three books to this volume, the first is almost complete and the second is almost half complete. Book 1 takes the story of United States’ thought through two decades after the Civil War, but the press of economic and political analysis is so great that the writers tend to be sandwiched into the second chapter of part 1—Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and the local colorists—and the concluding chapter of part 2—Henry James and William Dean Howells. The social and mental background is still Parrington’s forte, and the information in book 1 and the first half of book 2 is valuable, but it is regrettable that Parrington was unable to complement his accompanying studies of Hamlin Garland and Edward Bellamy with those of other naturalists, such as Frank Norris and Stephen Crane, and the frontier writers. All that remains of the third volume are the addenda of scattered notes on writers, the plan, and an unfinished introduction. Perhaps death preserved Parrington from the increasing difficulties of applying his method and purpose to a much greater volume of literature, but one would like to have seen the attempt to fit writers such as Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald into his grand design.

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