Vernon L. Parrington

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Vernon Louis Parrington (1871–1929) was an American liberal historian and literary critic, and a leader of the Progressive movement in historiography as expressed in Main Currents in American Thought (1928). He was a founder of the American Studies movement and was known for his emphasis on material factors in history. His great book Main Currents in American Thought (1928) was a liberal interpretation of American literature and culture from colonial days to 1900. It significantly shaped liberal through in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, but was then ignored.

Early career

Parrington graduated from Harvard College in 1893 and in 1897 was hired as instructor of English and modern languages at the University of Oklahoma. During the following eleven years he performed a host of duties, ranging from organizing an English Department to coaching football. His hard work earned few plaudits, and in 1908 he was unfairly 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]

Founder of American Studies

Parrington, 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.[2]

Main Currents in American Thought

Parrington's great achievement was Main Currents in American Thought (1928), 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, and was for many years 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 "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, 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.

As coach

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.

Books by Parrington

Secondary sources

  • Crowe, Charles. "The Emergence of Progressive History." Journal of the History of Ideas 1966 27(1): 109-124. Issn: 0022-5037 Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Hall, Lark. "V. L. Parrington's Oklahoma Years, 1897-1908: 'Few High Lights and Much Monotone.'" Pacific Northwest Quarterly 1981 72(1): 20-28. Issn: 0030-8803
  • Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1969), the major reinterpretation
  • Reinitz, Richard. "Vernon Louis Parrington as Historical Ironist." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 1977 68(3): 113-119. Issn: 0030-8803
  • Reising, Russell J. "Reconstructing Parrington." American Quarterly 1989 41(1): 155-164. Issn: 0003-0678 Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Skotheim, Robert A. "Environmental Interpretations of Ideas by Beard, Parrington, and Curti," The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb., 1964), pp. 35–44 online at JSTOR
  • Skotheim, Robert A. and Kermit Vanderbilt. "Vernon Louis Parrington." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 1962 53(3): 100-113. Issn: 0030-8803 summary of his ideas
  • Verheul, Jaap. "The Ideological Origins of American Studies." European Contributions to American Studies 1999 40: 91-103. Issn: 1387-9332
  • Wish, Harvey. The American Historian: A Social-intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past. 1960, ch. 15. online edition


  1. Hall 1981
  2. Verheul (1999)