Vernon Louis Parrington

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Vernon Louis Parrington
Vern Parrington c. 1909.jpg
Parrington, c. 1909
Born (1871-08-03)August 3, 1871
Aurora, Illinois
Died June 16, 1929(1929-06-16) (aged 57)
Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, England
Nationality American
Subject American politics; American studies
Spouse Julia Rochester Williams (married 1901)

Vernon Louis Parrington (August 3, 1871 – June 16, 1929) was an American literary historian and scholar. His three-volume history of American letters, Main Currents in American Thought, won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1928 and was one of the most influential books for American historians of its time.


Born in Aurora, Illinois, to a Republican family that soon moved to Emporia, Kansas, Parrington attended Emporia College and Harvard College (BA 1893). He did not undertake graduate study. He was appalled by the hardships of Kansas farmers in the 1890s, and began moving left. After teaching English at Emporia College (now Emporia State University) he moved to the University of Oklahoma in 1897, where he taught British literature, organized the department of English, coached the football team, played on the baseball team, edited the campus newspaper, and tried to beautify the campus. He published little and in 1908 he was fired due to pressures from religious groups who wanted all "immoral faculty" fired. From there he went on to a distinguished academic career at the University of Washington.[1]

Intellectual on the left[edit]

Parrington moved to the much friendlier University of Washington in Seattle in 1908. He recalled in 1918, "With every passing year my radicalism draws fresh nourishment from large knowledge of the evils of private capitalism. Hatred of that selfish system is become the chief passion of my life. The change from Oklahoma to Washington marks the shift with me from the older cultural interpretation of life to the later economic."[2]

Founder of American Studies[edit]

Parrington, along with Perry Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, and Robert Spiller were the founders of the American Studies movement in the 1920s and 1930s. The elements that these pioneers considered revolutionary were interdisciplinarity, a holistic culture concept, and a focus on American culture.[3]

Main Currents in American Thought[edit]

Parrington is best remembered as the author of Main Currents in American Thought, a politics-centered three-volume history of American letters from colonial times, postulating a sharp divide between the elitist Hamiltonian current and its populist Jeffersonian opponents, and making clear Parrington's own identification with the latter.

Parrington defended the doctrine of state sovereignty, and sought to disassociate it from the cause of slavery. He wrote that the association of those two causes had proven "disastrous to American democracy," removing the last brake on the growth of corporate power, because in the gilded age the federal government had shielded capitalists from local and state regulation.

Main Currents won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1928,[4] and was for two decades one of the most influential books for American historians. Reising (1989) shows the book dominated literary and cultural criticism from 1927 through the early 1950s. Crowe (1977) argues that it "was the "Summa Theologica of Progressive history." Progressive history was a set of related assumptions and attitudes, which inspired the first great flowering of professional American scholarship in history. These historians saw economic and geographical forces as primary, and saw ideas as merely instruments. They regarded many dominant concepts and interpretations as masks for deeper realities.

Reinitz (1977) stresses Parrington's heavy use of historical irony, which occurs when the consequences of an action emerge contrary to the original intentions of the actors. Parrington represented the Progressive School of historians which stressed the duality of good versus evil in the American past. Yet, in his final volume of Main Currents he concluded that the Jeffersonian farmer, the Progressives' traditional democratic hero, had joined forces with the greedy business community to produce a destructive form of capitalism which culminated in the 1920s.

His progressive interpretation of American history was highly influential in the 1920s and 1930s and helped define modern liberalism in the United States. After receiving overwhelming praise and exerting enormous influence among intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s, Parrington's ideas fell out of fashion around 1950. Richard Hofstadter says "the most striking thing about the reputation of V L Parrington, as we think of it today, is its abrupt decline....during the 1940s Parrington rather quickly cease to have a compelling interest for students of American literature, and in time historians too began to esdert him."[5] Hofstadter shows how Parrington's ideas came under heavy assault in the 1940s and 1950s, naming Lionel Trilling as especially influential in the attack.[6] Yale's Harold Bloom says: "Parrington was, in turn, condemned to obscurity by critics like Lionel Trilling, who sharply criticized his literary nationalism and his insistence that literature should appeal to a popular constituency."[7] Liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his autobiography, says that the progressive histories of the 1920s such as Main Currents, "are little read and their authors largely forgotten." He adds that, "Main Currents impoverished the rich and complex American past. Parrington reduced Jonathan Edwards, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James to marginal figures, practitioners of belles lettres, not illuminators of the American experience."[8]

Coaching career[edit]

Parrington was the second head coach of the University of Oklahoma football team, where he was the first OU faculty member to officially hold the position. He is credited with bringing a Harvard style of play and better organization to the OU football program. During his four-year stretch from 1897 to 1900 Parrington's teams played only twelve games, with 9 wins, 2 losses and 1 tie. Parrington's span as head football coach was the longest of any of Oklahoma's first 5 coaches.

The Parrington Oval at the University of Oklahoma and Parrington Hall at the University of Washington are named for Vernon Louis Parrington.

Head coaching record[edit]

Year Team Overall Conference Standing Bowl/playoffs
Oklahoma Sooners (Independent) (1897–1900)
1897 Oklahoma 2–0
1898 Oklahoma 2–0
1899 Oklahoma 2–1
1900 Oklahoma 3–1–1
Oklahoma: 9–3–1
Total: 9–3–1


Hall finds that in the 1940s and 1950s English professors dropped Parrington's approach in favor of the "New Criticism" and focused on the texts themselves rather than the social, economic, and political contexts that intrigued Parrington. Meanwhile historians shifted to a consensus model of the past that considered Parrington's dialectical polarity between liberal and conservative to be naive.[9]

Books by Parrington[edit]


  1. ^ Hall 1994
  2. ^ quoted in Levy (1995) p 666
  3. ^ Verheul (1999)
  4. ^ Brennan, Elizabeth A.; Elizabeth C. Clarage (1999). Who's Who of Pulitzer Prize Winners. Oryx Press. p. 283. ISBN 1-57356-111-8. 
  5. ^ Hofstadter, Progressive Historians pp 349, 352
  6. ^ Richard Hofstadter (2012) [1968]. Progressive Historians. Knopf Doubleday. pp. 490–94 in 1968 edition). 
  7. ^ Harold Bloom (2008). Langston Hughes. Infobase Publishing. p. 158. 
  8. ^ Arthur Meier Schlesinger (2002). 160 A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 158. 
  9. ^ H. Lark Hall (2011). V. L. Parrington: Through the Avenue of Art. Transaction Publishers. p. 10. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Crowe, Charles (1966). "The Emergence of Progressive History". Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1): 109–124. JSTOR 2708311. 
  • Hall, Lark (1981). "V. L. Parrington's Oklahoma Years, 1897-1908: 'Few High Lights and Much Monotone'". Pacific Northwest Quarterly 72 (1): 20–28. ISSN 0030-8803. 
  • Hall, H. Lark (1994). V. L. Parrington: Through the Avenue of Art.  The standard scholarly biography
  • Hofstadter, Richard (1968). The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. 
  • Hofstadter, Richard (1941). "Parrington and the Jeffersonian Tradition". Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (4): 391–400. JSTOR 2707018. 
  • Houghton, Donald E. (1970). "Vernon Louis Parrington's Unacknowledged Debt to Moses Coit Tyler". New England Quarterly 43 (1): 124–130. JSTOR 363700. 
  • Levy, David W. (1995). "'I Become More Radical With Every Year': The Intellectual Odyssey of Vernon Louis Parrington". Reviews in American History 23 (4): 663–668. doi:10.1353/rah.1997.0106. 
  • Reinitz, Richard (1977). "Vernon Louis Parrington as Historical Ironist". Pacific Northwest Quarterly 68 (3): 113–119. ISSN 0030-8803. 
  • Reising, Russell J. (1989). "Reconstructing Parrington". American Quarterly 41 (1): 155–164. JSTOR 2713202. 
  • Skotheim, Robert A.; Vanderbilt, Kermit (1962). "Vernon Louis Parrington". Pacific Northwest Quarterly 53 (3): 100–113. ISSN 0030-8803.  Summary of his ideas
  • Verheul, Jaap (1999). "The Ideological Origins of American Studies". European Contributions to American Studies 40: 91–103. ISSN 1387-9332.