Parrington, Vernon Louis (1871-1929)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 3/10/2007
  • Essay 8105
See Additional Media contributor Junius Rochester presented this speech in May 1986 about Vernon Louis Parrington, University of Washington English professor and renowned author of Main Currents in American Thought (1927).  Rochester presented the speech at a University of Washington Extension course in downtown Seattle, for people to attend during their lunch hour. Hunter Brown transferred it into electronic format.

Vernon Louis Parrington: A Speech by Junius Rochester

Vernon Louis Parrington arrived in Seattle in 1908 at the age of 37. He had visited our verdant city earlier, in 1901, to marry his Oklahoma sweetheart, Julia Williams. Julia was at the time visiting close friends in Seattle, Judge & Mrs. G. A. C. Rochester -- my grandparents.

The majestic natural surroundings of our Pacific Northwest were attractive to Parrington, and his wife's Seattle connections heightened the prospect of living here, but in fact the reason he chose our world was because of a political/religious fracas at his former post, the University of Oklahoma. He was ignominiously fired from the faculty at Oklahoma.

Historian Richard Hofstadter has described that event, which resulted in the dismissal of Parrington and five other faculty members, as "one of the most scandalous episodes in American academic history." Briefly, a Southern Methodist clique, with the cooperation of the Oklahoma governor, wanted to rid the university of "immoral influences." Translation: those faculty members who smoked, danced, may have voted Democrat, and were educated at eastern schools. Parrington was, on all counts, guilty.

Parrington's University of Washington students and colleagues would describe him as physically trim, well-tailored, quiet, aloof but gracious when greeted, handsome, a savant, a dedicated horticulturist. There is also evidence that a strain of family radicalism dated to his grandfather's Yorkshire, England, days, and to his mother's father who had been a Scots-Irish abolitionist. Vernon himself, despite being bookish, was an athlete, an admirer of William Jennings Bryan, and a prairie populist.

As a somewhat retiring professor of English at the University of Washington, Parrington would become the first Pacific Northwesterner to win the Pulitzer prize -- for history. The first two volumes of Main Currents in American Thought, published in 1927 by Harcourt, Brace & Co., set a breathless pace for future historians. It was crammed with tantalizing portraits of our nation's great men and women and flowed with the lyricism and meter of a poet. Bursting upon the national scene from our far corner and beating out the already famous historian Charles A. Beard and Mary Beard's Rise of American civilization, Parrington shared Pulitzer honors in 1928 with Eugene O'Neil's Strange Interlude, for drama; Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Ray; and for poetry, Tristram by Edwin Arlington Robinson. (The next Pacific Northwesterner to take the Pulitzer was poet Theodore Roethke, in 1954.)

To help explain Vernon Louis Parrington, one must hear his words. For example, he wrote that puritan Cotton Mather was "an attractive subject for the psychoanalyst. Intensely emotional, high strung and nervous, he was oversexed and overwrought, subject to ecstatic exaltations and, especially during his celibate years, given to seeing visions." Describing Chief Justice John Marshall: "The blind sides of his mind were many; his intellectual contacts were few ... One might as well look for the sap of idealism in last year's stump."

An admirer of Benjamin Franklin, Parrington noted that our great inventor "was concerned not with property or class interests, but with the common welfare." Tom Paine, a hero of his paternal grandfather, saw the Tories hunting him "in packs." Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin was "richly endowed though ... her work has suffered the fate that pursued those who forget that beauty alone survives after emotion subsides." And when discussing the Gilded Age (Mark Twain's term for the commercially unfettered practices following our civil war), Parrington cynically described it as "the great barbecue."

"Congress had rich gifts to bestow -- in lands, tariffs, subsidies, favors of all sorts; and when influential citizens made their wishes known to the reigning statesmen, the sympathetic politicians were quick to turn the government into the fairy godmother the voters wanted it to be. A huge barbecue was spread to which all presumably were invited. Not quite all, to be sure; inconspicuous persons, those who were at home on the farm or at work in the mills and offices, were overlooked; a good many indeed out of the total number of the American people. But all the important persons, leading bankers and promoters and business men, received invitations. There wasn't room for everybody and these were presumed to represent the whole. It was a splendid feast. If the waiters saw to it that the choicest portions were served to favored guests, they were not unmindful of their numerous homespun constituency and they loudly proclaimed the fine democratic principle that what belongs to the people should be enjoyed by the people..."

Parrington asked: "To a frontier people what was more democratic than a barbecue?" He then gives examples of this metaphorical feast by comparing the Homestead Act, whereby homesteaders got 160 acres at the price of $1.25 an acre, to the union pacific land-grant, which gave the railroad "a vast empire for nothing." Parrington cites the great barbecue as political gourmandizing that saw the end of our frontier; the last days of "vigorous individualism." Such exploitation, he lamented, helped fashion "the America we know today with its standardized life, its machine culture, its mass psychology -- an America to which Jefferson and Jackson and Lincoln would be strangers."

The quiet professor who wrote those words arrived in Seattle as a son of the Middle Border. Born on August 3, 1871, in Aurora, Illinois, he spent his childhood in Kansas. Blizzards, 110-degree temperatures, chinch-bugs, and prairie populism were experienced by the young, bright student. His father tried farming, a bit of politics (as a loyal Republican), the practice of law, and later, lived off a small income from farm rentals and a military pension.

Harvard college, after two years at Emporia College, Kansas, seemed to be his mother's choice. Although he stayed in Cambridge two years, as an "outsider," and with limited funds, that academic experience was not altogether pleasant. He later wrote that "Harvard was a rich man's college ... Snobbery was everywhere and in consequence I shrank into my skin." he did, however, haunt the Harvard and Boston libraries, listened to music, tried his hand at writing poetry, and learned, as he put it, "a method of teaching English composition and literature." Judging by his later achievements, these were not insignificant events.

Apparently the Cambridge experience caused him to dip into William Dean Howells and Nathaniel Hawthorne. And during that same formative period he began to question his, to that point, devout religiosity.

With both Harvard and Emporia College B.A.'s, and after sightseeing in Boston, Maine, and at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he took a job teaching English and French at Emporia College.  (William Allen White, the famous editor of the Emporia Gazette, remembered young Parrington as a pitcher with "a mean outcurve on the Emporia browns.") It was a busy life, including playing football and baseball, writing verse, and learning to plan English and foreign language courses.

Norman, home of the university of Oklahoma, was the site of his next job. For $1,000 a year he taught German, French, English, and organized the new English Department. A look at his courses is interesting: he taught Chaucer, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel, English literature from Spenser to Defoe and from Pope to Carlyle, Shakespeare, the French Revolution, English poetry and a study of Browning and Tennyson. He also, according to his son Vernon Parrington Jr. (now deceased, who taught at the Lakeside School for many years), coached baseball and football, setting "the best won-&-lost record in Oklahoma's football history until Bud Wilkinson came along." Between breaths, it seems, he began a series of "seminary lectures" on the poetry and prose of the Bible.

According to Helen Lark Hall, a Parrington scholar, he began to make notes and write pieces that would be woven into the famous Main Currents volumes. And then occurred his acrimonious dismissal from the faculty.

Before coming to Seattle, Parrington made a "grand-tour" of Europe. That trip honed his interest in architecture, gardening, and especially the English poet, painter, and writer, William Morris. Parrington wrote at this time that he drew "nourishment from belles lettres," not from social thought. In other words, he wanted to approach politics, and other societal problems through art or culture. That pattern would be reflected in the unique design of Main Currents.

Although we are today discussing Vernon Parrington in the heart of Seattle, what kind of city was our town in 1908, the year of Parrington's arrival?

In 1895 the university of Washington campus moved from downtown -- approximately one block SE of here -- to the future site of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exposition. The exposition opened in 1909. Exploitation of apparently limitless natural resources, and the Alaska Gold Rush, made Seattle a kind of Mecca -- a last frontier. The population boomed, real estate speculation was rampant, and of interest to Parrington after his tiff with the conservative University of Oklahoma, progressive reform had caught on in the Pacific Northwest.

Several distinguished members of the faculty were aboard, including Thomas Franklin Kane, J. Allen Smith, William Savery, and Edward and Theresa McMahon -- all of whom have had university buildings named in their honor. But it was political scientist J. Allen Smith, trenchant writer, scholar of American government, and critic of the U.S. constitution, who most influenced Parrington.

Vernon Parrington was hired to teach rhetoric -- or the art of prose composition. That subject was not then taught in the English Department. By 1912 rhetoric and oratory courses were merged with English language and literature. As Parrington acquired and developed more English literature courses, his reputation as a brilliant teacher grew. Following the Socratic method, with his legs dangling over the front of a table, he challenged his students to defend their views. Detailed syllabi and reading lists were provided. But his popular classroom technique became the talk of the campus.

In the 1920s a questionnaire was sent out to English Department faculty members asking them to tally the amount of time they spent preparing lectures. Parrington wrote: "Not one minute." He then added that he spent all his time reading. As a result, Parrington's classroom erudition and reading lists became rich. Examples of this diversity -- eagerly shared as assignments by his students -- included articles in current journals such as The Dial, Yale Review, and The New Republic; Taylor's translation of Goethe's Faust, Mark Twain's novels and Albert Bigelow Paine's biography of Twain; novels and essays by William Dean Howells; his favorite -- William Morris; Bellamy's Looking Backward; H.G. Well's A Modern Utopia; and poems by Sidney Lanier and James Whitcomb Riley.

Scholar Helen Lark Hall points out that Parrington and his department chairman Frederick Morgan Padelford were probably at odds. Padelford was characterized as "tall and thin and new Englandish ... A very good teacher but not a warm person." Parrington, although not necessarily outgoing, "had more of a relationship with students than with other faculty members." Another difference was Parrington's independence -- he allegedly once skipped a faculty meeting because he had to plant some peonies. He also disliked administrative detail. Chairman Padelford, a Spenser scholar, became president of the Modern Language Association, Dean of the graduate school, and probably was never late for a meeting.

Again, to cite Helen Lark Hall, two camps seemed to emerge in the English department of Parrington's time: the "Non-Traditionalists" -- usually younger professors with a pronounced interest in American literature and more experimental approaches to teaching; and the "traditionalists" -- older professors who taught British courses in the old-fashioned way. Vernon Parrington was identified with the former, while Padelford was a leader of the latter.

In 1916 the Everett massacre occurred. The Seattle general strike took place in 1919. Wobblies, red scares, and a militant, fearful establishment reaction to all of this, raised threats to academic freedom on campus. The state legislature seemed to be in a frenzy. Parrington must have noted all of this, continued his teaching, but probably allowed shards of these events to influence his writing.

Although Parrington's reputation as a teacher was firm, it came as a shock to many of his associates when the 1928 Pulitzers were announced, with Seattle's own English and American literature tutor carrying off the esteemed prize for history. No longer would he have to seek a publisher. Accolades came in waves. The academic community anxiously awaited the publication of the third volume of Main Currents. The old building which housed the English department was renamed Parrington Hall.

To escape this unaccustomed hubbub, and to continue work on Main Currents, Parrington took his wife Julia and son Vernon to the quaint village of Winchcomb, England. The village was within easy reach of Parrington's favorite Cotswold hills. He was surrounded by the English countryside and robust gardens he loved. Upon returning to their cottage after a brief absence, Julia found her husband dead of a heart attack on their bed. Parrington, a life-long heavy smoker, was 58. The date was June 16, 1929, less than two years after he had won the Pulitzer.

Professor Vernon Parrington had been offered other teaching posts while at the University of Washington. He turned down those opportunities and their higher salaries to keep his family in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. With several other faculty members he shared membership in a curious organization known as the U.W. outing club at Kingston, Washington. This commune-like setting overlooked Puget sound. Parrington was remembered there working in his garden, taking meals in the common kitchen, and wandering on the tide-flats.

The third posthumously published volume of Main Currents was prepared by a young colleague of Parrington's -- Professor E. H. Eby, who signed over royalties from that popular volume to Parrington's widow, Julia. Besides the famous Main Currents in American Thought, Parrington's published works are meager: U.W. chapbook on Sinclair Lewis; various syllabi; introductions to The Connecticut Wits and his friend and mentor J. Allen smith's book, The Growth and Decadence of Constitutional Government (Parrington, by the way, dedicated the first two volumes of Main Currents to Smith -- "scholar, teacher, democrat, gentleman"); several essays and some literary criticism. Unpublished writings are held by members of the Parrington family, in particular Dr. Stevens Tucker, a grandson, who lives in Pacific Grove, California. Dr. Tucker is assembling those papers for publication, including, we hope, Parrington's Autobiographical Sketch, followed by donation of Parrington materials to the University of Washington archives.

Two years ago through the generosity of Dr. Tucker, I obtained an unpublished article about our state by Vernon Parrington. It ran in The (Seattle) Weekly on June 26, 1984. I quote:

"We Americans are a simple and somewhat primitive people. We desire things eagerly like children; and when we are crossed or thwarted, when we encounter those who dissent from our proposals, we strike out assertively. The state of Washington is characteristically American, with the virtues and shortcomings of the old stock set in sharp relief. In what temper our Economics and politics will dwell together in the immediate future, no wise man will endeavor to forecast."

Historian Henry Steele Commager called Main Currents in American Thought a "magnificent tract." Professor Roger Sale, now teaching at the University of Washington, wrote in his book Seattle: Past to Present, that Main Currents is "still the best book to come out of this city." Robert Skotheim, historian and currently president of Whitman College, described Parrington's tome as "the long historical odyssey of a vigorous and humane intellectual, one of America's great historians of ideas and perhaps, in his literary gifts, the most distinguished."

I invite you to obtain a copy of Main Currents and visit the exciting, rich mind of Vernon Louis Parrington. Learn for yourself that no one, as Professor Eby wrote in the introduction to volume III, "could duplicate his felicity of style."


Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920, Vol. I: 1620-1800, The Colonial Mind, Vol. II: 1800-1860, The Romantic Revolution in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1927); Vol. III: 1860-1920, The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America completed by E. H. Eby (Seattle: University of Washington, 1930); H. Lark Hall, Vernon Louis Parrington: The Genesis and Design of Main Currents in American Thought, Ph.D. diss, Case Western Reserve University (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1979); H. Lark Hall, Vernon L. Parrington: Through the Avenue of Art (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1994); The Connecticut Wits ed. with an Introduction by Vernon Louis Parrington (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1926); Vernon Louis Parrington, Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes ed by Glenn Hughes (Seattle: University of Washington Chapbooks, 1927).

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