Vernon Louis Parrington Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Parrington’s three-volume Main Currents in American Thought (1927-1930) was a landmark work that not only helped shape how the generation coming to maturity in the 1930’s viewed the United States’ past but also did much to stimulate interest in American intellectual history as a field of study.

Early Life

Vernon Louis Parrington was born August 3, 1871, in Aurora, Illinois, the son of John William and Louise (McClellan) Parrington. A graduate of Waterville (modern Colby) College in his native Maine, Parrington’s father had moved to Illinois and, after a stint as a school principal, began the practice of law. He served as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, and then, after moving to Kansas in 1877, he farmed and was elected judge of the local probate court. Vernon attended the preparatory department of the College of Emporia and then its collegiate division before transferring to Harvard as a junior. Given his upbringing on the Western plains, he had an unhappy two years at Harvard—an experience that did much to shape his hostility to the upper-class Eastern establishment. After he was graduated from Harvard in 1893, Vernon returned to the College of Emporia as an instructor in English and French and there received an M.A. in 1895. In 1897, he began work at the University of Oklahoma as an instructor in English and modern languages. The following year, he was promoted to professor of English. In 1908, however, Parrington lost his job when the newly elected Democratic governor fired the president and fourteen faculty members—including Parrington—who were deemed insufficiently politically sound or religiously orthodox by Southern Methodist standards.

Parrington managed to find a position as assistant professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1912, he was promoted to full professor. He was a highly popular teacher whose courses on American literature and thought drew impressive enrollments. He appears to have begun work in 1913 on what would become Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920 (1927-1930). A related article, “The Puritan Divines, 1620-1720,” appeared in the first volume of The Cambridge History of American Literature (1917). He edited and wrote the introduction to The Connecticut Wits, published in 1926. Apart from Main Currents in American Thought, Parrington’s other publications did not amount to much: an occasional review, a few encyclopedia articles, a brief appreciation of the novelist Sinclair Lewis, and an essay, “The Development of Realism,” in The Reinterpretation of American Literature (1928). Parrington married Julia Rochester Williams on July 31, 1901; the couple had two daughters and a son.

Life’s Work

As a student at the College of Emporia, Parrington had accepted without question his father’s allegiance to the Republican Party, the school’s Presbyterian religious orthodoxy, and belief in the inevitability of progress. At Harvard, exposure to Darwinian ideas eroded his religious faith. During his first years of teaching, his interests were primarily literary and aesthetic. Parrington dabbled at writing poetry, and he was strongly impressed by English Utopian Socialist William Morris’ attacks upon the shoddiness and commercialism of the machine age and extolling of the work of the Middle Ages, which Morris romanticized as the time when craftsmanship reigned supreme. By the late 1890’s, however, under the impact of the agrarian revolt that swept over Kansas, the major focus of Parrington’s interest had shifted to reform politics. “I become,” he confessed in 1918, “more radical with each year, and more impatient with the smug Tory culture. . . . ” His Populist sympathies shaped his approach in Main Currents in American Thought. “The point of view from which I have endeavored to evaluate the materials,” he admitted, “is liberal rather than conservative, Jeffersonian rather than Federalistic. . . . ”

The first volume, dealing with the period from settlement to 1800, was turned down by the first two publishers to whom Parrington submitted the manuscript, because of doubts about its sales potential. He was so discouraged that he abandoned work on the projected second volume. The literary critic and historian Van Wyck Brooks, however, who had read and liked the manuscript, interested Alfred Harcourt of Harcourt, Brace and Company. Harcourt agreed to publish the work if Parrington would finish the second volume carrying the story to 1860. The two volumes appeared in 1927, with the first bearing the subtitle “The Colonial Mind: 1620-1800” and the second “The Romantic Revolution in America: 1800-1860.” The work was an immediate success; Charles Beard spoke for most of the reviewers when he hailed Parrington for writing “a truly significant book . . . that promises to be epoch-making, sending exhilarating gusts through the deadly miasma of academic criticism.” Main Currents in American Thought was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1928. When liberal or left-wing intellectuals were polled in the late 1930’s about the authors who had most influenced their thinking, Parrington’s name was prominent among those listed. As late as 1952, when a sample of American historians were asked to name their “most preferred” American histories published between 1920 and 1935, Main Currents in American Thought received more votes than any other.

Main Currents in American Thought had the subtitle “An Interpretation of American Literature,” and the larger part of the text was devoted to literary figures. Yet Parrington had scant interest in literature as literature. “With aesthetic judgments,” he confessed in the foreword to volume 2, “I have not been greatly concerned. I have not wished to evaluate reputations or weigh literary merits. . . . ” When dealing with the work of literary figures, he focused primarily upon their political and social views. Writers who had been uninvolved with such issues were summarily dismissed. Thus, he devoted less than three pages to Edgar Allan Poe and still less to Henry...

(The entire section is 2571 words.)