V.L. Parrington — He 'changed the way Americans looked at themselves'

Robert Cotner

Author’s note: For this series, I have chosen four American writers of the 1920s to represent what I consider the dominant literary motifs emerging from American culture in that decade. Each arose from a distinct intellectual vantage point; each carried forth into later generations, and all are with us, in some form, to this day. Presented at the Bluestem Festival of Arts and Humanities, Lake Forest, IL, June 8, 2001.


hile Robert Frost felt he needed “an armory of defense against the world, ”Vernon Louis Parrington, scholar, historian, and Pulitzer prize winner, changed the way Americans looked at themselves.

Born in Aurora, IL in 1871, VLP moved with his family to a homestead near Americus, KS in 1878. He was educated in the public schools there and at the College of Emporia. Recognizing in him unusual gifts, his family sent him to Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1893. Richard Hofstadter called his years at Harvard a “provocative disaster” for him emotionally.1 He found unpleasant biases in nearly every activity. (He was a semi-pro baseball player in Kansas before going East, but he could not make the Harvard baseball team — and he assumed his failure related more to his origins on the frontier than to his baseball abilities.)

Educated as an English professor, he returned to Kansas and taught at the College of Emporia. In 1897, he was offered a pioneering work at the founding of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, a bleak, barren setting for a university campus, which would consist of one red brick building. VLP’s success at Oklahoma was broad and deep. He found a wife there, and they began their family. He designed and built his own home in Norman. He is credited with founding the university’s English department — and he taught French, as well. A natural and gifted athlete, he became the first paid faculty coach of the university’s football team and achieved the best record at the school until the Bud Wilkinson era.

He taught the first architectural courses at the university. The Board of Regents asked him to develop a 50-year plan for the architectural and landscape design of the university, a plan that has, generally, been followed. Today, the main entrance to the campus, a lovely, landscaped avenue from Main Street of Norman, is named “Parrington Oval,” a tribute to his pioneering work.

His 11 years (1897-1908) in Norman were fulfilling for him, personally and professionally, judging from his diaries and letters. While at Oklahoma, he began his monumental work, which would make him for more than three decades, the most influential and studied scholar in American intellectual history. He left Oklahoma in 1908, for a position at the University of Washington, where he completed his magnum opus in 1926. The two-volume study, called Main Currents in American Thought, published in 1927, stands as the first intellectual history of America. VLP took the whole written production of American letters from 1620 forward, tracing the natural, ideological flow from writer to writer, from era to era. In his introduction, VLP explained his purpose: “I have undertaken to give some account to the genesis and development in American letters of certain germinal ideas that have come to be recognized traditionally American.”2

His great gift to the ‘20s was discovery of this fact: people don’t rise to conservatism — they settle into it — but people do rise to liberalism. The great events of American history — events that best define the nation — occurred when the people rose to resist a single church across the land; when they rose to resist the Crown and aristocracy in the American Revolution; and when they rose to overthrow slavery in the American Civil War. Unique for his times, VLP had come to understand that the intellectual forces driving the democratic enterprise are economic, and that they were being severely altered by the rising power of capitalism. A product of Midwestern populism, both in Illinois and Kansas, VLP knew first-hand the necessity of the individual’s rising above established social, religious, and political thought patterns to achieve important, new directions in fulfillment of the democratic promise. VLP’s gift from the 1920s forward is this principle: when there is an important cause, a compelling need, in American society, the American people will rise above their natural conservatism to meet it, whether in war or in peace.

In 1928, VLP received the Pulitzer Prize in history for Main Currents in American Thought. In 1939, Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith listed Main Currents... as one of the ”Books that Changed Our Minds.”3 In 1986, Kermit Vanderbilt said of VLP: he “seems inevitably the foremost single architect of a total American literary history [that] our country has seen.”4 And in 1994, Lark Hall, in her splendid biography of VLP, wrote — and I call upon this sentence as a fitting conclusive theme for the 1920s: “Isolation also informed Parrington’s perspective on the experience of alienated artists and detached intellectuals, a perspective that creates the central, tragic theme of Main Currents.”5

The four American writers I have discussed — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, and Vernon Louis Parrington — lived as alienated intellectuals in a raucous, confused, and undirected society. Each, in his own unique way, rose above solitude and isolation, sorrow and despair, to release on wings of words the hopes that his gift, his vision, his voice would be caught and appreciated beyond his time.

This remembrance, in a very special way, helps fulfill those dreams of eight decades ago by these writers whose legacies we honor. In so doing, it seems to me, we illustrate that there was more hope than despair in the “Roaring Twenties.”

End Notes

1 Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, and Parrington, University of Chicago Press, 1968, p.363.

2 Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought — Vol. 1, The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1927, p. iii.

3 Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith, Books That Changed Our Minds, New York: The Kelmscott Editions, 1939, p. 179.

4 Kermit Vanderbilt, American Literature and the Academy, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986, p. 330.

5 Helen Lark Hall, V. L. Parrington — Through the Avenue of Art, Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1994, p. 302.

Vernon Louis Parrington on Mt. Ranier

Vernon Louis Parrington on Mt. Ranier in the mid-20s. Photo from the Parrington family archives in Pacific Grove, CA, through whose courtesy it is used.

Vernon Louis Parrington Denny Hall office

VLP in his Denny Hall office, University of Washington, June 1926. Photo from the Parrington family archives in Pacific Grove, CA, through whose courtesy it is used.

See chronology of Parrington's works

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