Vernon Louis Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought

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From the introduction to Main Currents in American Thought:

I have undertaken to give some account of the genesis and development in American letters of certain germinal ideas that have come to be reckoned traditionally American--how they came into being here, how they were opposed, and what influence they have exerted in determining the form and scope of our characteristic ideals and institutions. In pursuing such a task, I have chosen to follow the broad path of our political, economic, and social development, rather than the narrower belletristic...

--Vernon Louis Parrington

In the spring of 1928, the literary community eagerly awaited the announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes for literature. Many were expecting playwright Eugene O'Neill to win an award for "Strange Interlude." They anticipated Thornton Wilder would win for his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. They guessed, correctly, that Edward Arlington Robinson would win the poetry award.

And in the category of historical writing, most expected that Charles Beard would win for his Rise of American Civilization. So it came as a surprise that on May 8, 1928, UW English professor Vernon Louis Parrington received an official telegram from the Pulitzer Prize Committee announcing that he had won the historical writing award for his two-volume work, Main Currents in American Thought. Not only that, but he also had been awarded the largest literature prize: $2,000, or twice the amount the other winners received.footnote 2

Two volumes of Main Currents had been published in 1927. The first volume, The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800, treated such figures as Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. The second volume, The Romantic Revolution in America, 1800-1860, traced the "optimistic and restless mood of the country eager for land and new opportunities, epitomized by Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln."footnote 3 A third volume, later published posthumously and entitled The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, covered the period from 1860 to 1920.

The volumes comprise about a hundred intellectual portraits linked by explanatory material that analyzes the evolution of ideas of the period. The portraits are noted for their flair and imagery. The work chronicles three phases of American intellectual history: Calvinistic pessimism, romantic optimism, and mechanistic pessimism. "Through these periods Parrington traces the fortunes of democratic idealism, the 'main current,' impeded but never turned back by 'reefs, barriers and barnacled craft.'"footnote 3

He had come out of relative obscurity to win the prestigious Pulitzer. Leading figures in the field of American letters had "lined up to bestow enthusiastic praise and congratulations," writes David W. Levy, historian and well-known coeditor of the Letters of Louis D. Brandeis, in a foreword to the 1987 edition issued by the University of Oklahoma Press. And there was, in this case, "an unusually large gap between the prestige of the critics who welcomed these volumes and the obscurity of the author who had produced them."

Parrington was born in 1871 in Aurora, Illinois. The family settled in Kansas when he was six, where the harsh life and a never-ending series of natural disasters had hardened the prairie farmers against the capitalist establishment. Of that time, Parrington wrote: "I have never been able to escape, nor have I wished to escape. To it and to the spirit of agrarian revolt that grew out of it, I owe much of my understanding of American history and much of my political philosophy."

Those early life experiences set the tone of Parrington's entire scholarly career. "The vigor of his hostility toward the moneyed oppressors and the depth of his sympathy for the humble, hard-working farmer-democrats, who battled against them in the uneven contest, are obvious on every page of his work," notes Levy.

Parrington was a liberal who regarded the field of American letters as "a battleground between 18th century French humanism and the economics of contemporary capitalism."footnote 3 Parrington himself admits his point of view is "liberal rather than conservative, Jeffersonian rather than Federalistic."

"...Main Currents in American Thought is, by any fair standard, one of the great monuments in the history of American learning. It stands as a once-familiar and imposing landmark along the trail of our scholarship.

"...[F]or its unexcelled verve, its wide-sweeping boldness, for the consistent and passionate vision of democratic sympathy that it maintains from start to finish, Main Currents in American Thought will stand as a model for venturesome scholars for years to come."

--David W. Levy, historianfootnote 1

Parrington graduated from Harvard in 1893, and taught at the College of Emporia for four years. He became professor of English at the University of Oklahoma in 1898, where he worked for eleven years until, caught up in a religious and political controversy, he was fired. Parrington joined the faculty of the UW in 1908.

Parrington's closest friend and colleague at the UW was J. Allen Smith, a professor of government and economics. Smith's political philosophy, expressed in his 1907 book, The Spirit of American Government, exerted a profound influence on Parrington. Smith believed that the framers of the Constitution had created a system that actually hindered true democracy; in order for democracy to work, it must shun the corrupt and centralized industrialism and return to local self-rule.

Campus life for Parrington was quiet, unassuming; he spent his days teaching and reading, and gardening at his University District home. His evenings after dinner were spent reading, writing, and revising his work. Although it took some time for Parrington's classes to gain popularity on campus, he came to be regarded by his students as "a brilliant and provocative teacher." Employing the Socratic teaching method, "he would fire a volley of sharp questions at the class, his purpose not clear until the end of the hour when he would characterize an author or an age in a phrase or an image that was impossible to forget."footnote 3

Parrington did not live to enjoy his new-found fame for very long. He died suddenly while on a tour of the Cotswolds in England in June of 1929. During the 1950s and 60s, Main Currents suffered a decline in popularity, but enjoyed a revival during the 1970s. Concludes Levy:

Readers and scholars of the rising generation may not follow Parrington's particular judgments or point of view, but it is hard to believe that they will not still be attracted, captivated, and inspired by his sparkle, his breadth, his daring, the ardor of his political commitment.footnote 1

  1. Foreword by David W. Levy in Main Currents in American Thought, Volume I: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1987.
  2. "Dr. Parrington's Pulitzer Prize," Don Duncan's Driftwood Diary, The Seattle Times, April 8, 1973.
  3. "Vernon Louis Parrington: American Litterateur," MD, August 1971.

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