Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought, 1620-1920

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Parrington, Vernon Louis. Main Currents in American Thought, 1620-1920

New York: Harcourt Brace and Co. 1927. Vol. III

Parrington’s primary purpose in writing his three- volume work, Main Currents in American Thought, is to relate literary and intellectual movements to corresponding social and economic backgrounds. As a progressive historian, Parrington sees economic, political and social factors as the driving forces behind the evolution of history and thought. This emphasis on economic, social and political conditions heavily influences his historical interpretation of the era following the Civil War and is crucial to his understanding of its leading intellectual figures and literary movements. Parrington correctly identifies a late 19th century society in turbulent transition between an agrarian state and an industrial one, as developments in modern science and machinery fuel the progress of industrialism across the East and into the Western frontier. This transitional age, put a new class at the helm of American progress. The rise of an affluent middle class, coinciding with the development of an urbanized working class, supercedes the old aristocratic leading element in society, just as industry replaces agriculture as America’s great employment. The creation of a new social order, in turn, results in friction between the old aristocratic agrarianism and the new capitalistic industrialism. This clash of cultures eventually subsides into a tiered class society in which materialism prompts a dominant middle class to become plutocratic in order to preserve its privileged state. Parrington traces the growth, during the late 19th century, of a critical realism in American thought, which condemns the evolution of society towards a materialistic plutocracy as directly in conflict with the original democratic ideals of American society.

Some might find reason to argue with Parrington’s distillation of intellectual and literary history into simply a reflection of economic and political conditions. His historical analysis, viewed entirely through the lense of economic motivating forces, often seems too simplistic and inadequate as an explanation by itself. A section devoted to Theodore Woolsey and his work is a prime example of Parrington’s progressive critique. He writes of Woolsey, “In spite of an imposing display of classical learning these two stout volumes [of Woolsey’s] reveal a childlike ignorance of Realpolitik, a naïve inability to grasp the significance of economic groupings that underlie all political alignments.”1 In Parrington’s view, the importance of economic forces in the development of history is foremost. Intellectuals who failed to take those forces into account, or adequately understand their influence on societal evolution, are severely criticized. His critique of other leading political figures, such as Henry C. Carey and Francis Walker, and authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, are all similar, in that Parrington primarily remarks on their failure to address or identify pressing economic and social issues. While these issues are undeniably of import, Parrington’s critique often seems too narrow and therefore fails create a satisfying explanation of these men and their works that a more expansive view might provide.

Another issue one might have with Parrington’s work is his particular canon of American authors, which some have criticized as a reduction of texts to those that would serve his theory. In addition, while he does include many major writers, his theory of American culture is primarily drawn from white male authors and fails to include works by both minorities and women. Yet, Parrington’s work is more comprehensive in scope than many literary histories, and succeeds in identifying “major” and “minor” writers as they have come to be called by most historians. In the third volume alone, although left unfinished, Parrington planned to include Ellen Glasgow, Edith Wharton, Will Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett.

While it could be argued that Parrington’s study is severely flawed in these regards, the importance of his work cannot be denied. As one of the first literary historians to strongly communicate an ideological opinion throughout his work, he stands as a pivotal modern literary critic, whose arguments have formed the basis for a continuing discourse. The fact that his work has become so highly significant in his field and that subsequent authors have either tried to correct or completely disprove his arguments, signals an underlying strength in his thesis; although perhaps flawed, Parrington’s argument, it would seem, contains a grain of truth.

Bronwyn M. Fletchall

1 Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, New York 1927, pg. 122-123.

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