Authors: Vernon Louis Parrington

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American scholar

Author Works


Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes, 1927

Main Currents in American Thought, 1927-1930 (3 volumes)


Vernon Louis Parrington, after whom Parrington Hall is named at the University of Washington, was a midwesterner by birth and choice. After studying at the College of Emporia, in Emporia, Kansas, he transferred to Harvard University and graduated in 1893. Returning to Emporia, he was an instructor in English and French from 1893 to 1897; he received the M.A. in 1895.{$I[AN]9810000430}{$I[A]Parrington, Vernon Louis}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Parrington, Vernon Louis}{$I[tim]1871;Parrington, Vernon Louis}

Although he sympathized with the agrarian Populist Party–he unsuccessfully ran for the local school board as a Populist–Parrington was not a political activist. From 1897 to 1908 he was a member of the faculty of the University of Oklahoma. Strongly attracted to the ideas of England’s William Morris and John Ruskin, Parrington spent 1903-1904 on academic leave in Europe, where he did research at the British Museum in London and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. In 1908, after being terminated at the University of Oklahoma for political reasons, he joined the staff of the English department at the University of Washington, where he taught until his death in 1929. He was married in 1901 and had two daughters and a son. His son, Vernon Louis Parrington, Jr., is the author of a highly reputed study of the utopian novel in American literature.

Parrington, a student of history as well as of literature, wrote one of the most influential discussions of American literature ever produced by an individual. His approach to the study of literature, largely unknown before the publication of the three-volume Main Currents in American Thought, influenced an entire generation of scholar-professors in American literature. As a result of Parrington’s book, scholars were led to study literature as a part of cultural history. Although many later scholars and critics have argued that Parrington was too strictly guided by a Jeffersonian or democratic interpretation of American history, there is no doubt that Main Currents in American Thought is one of the great and influential works of American scholarship. The first two volumes, The Colonial Mind and The Romantic Revolution in America, were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. Parrington died suddenly in 1929 before he could complete the third volume of his monumental work. Published posthumously and in incomplete form, Beginnings of Critical Realism discusses American culture during the increasingly urban and industrial society of the late nineteenth century and beyond. In this work he suggests a darker, ironic view of his own time and that immediately preceding it.

Although he spent most of his available time working on Main Currents in American Thought, Parrington also contributed to scholarly journals and to such standard reference works as the Cambridge History of American Literature, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and the Encyclopedia of Social Science.

BibliographyHall, H. Lark. V. L. Parrington: Through the Avenue of Art. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. A reappraisal of Parrington took place in the last decades of the twentieth century, most notably reflected here in the first complete biography.Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. New York: Knopf, 1968. A valuable study, although critical of the subjects.Skotheim, Robert. American Intellectual Histories and Historians. 1966. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Critical of its subjects.Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. Dismissive of Parrington’s literary analysis, and later the “consensus” historians found Parrington’s supposed Jeffersonian bias overly simplistic.
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