"I Become More Radical With Every Year": The Intellectual Odyssey of Vernon Louis Parrington
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“I Become More Radical with Every Year”:
The Intellectual Odyssey of Vernon Louis Parrington
H. Lark Hall. V. L. Parrington: Through the Avenue of Art. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. xvii 360 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $39.00.

Among that select handful of American historians who have enjoyed the widest scholarly and popular admiration in the twentieth century, Vernon Louis Parrington is unique in several respects. In the first place, his fame rests entirely on a single work. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the first two volumes of Main Currents in American Thought, published in 1927 when he was fifty-five years old. The third volume appeared in fragmentary form in 1930, a year after his untimely death at fifty-seven. His other scholarly output — two or three short pieces on aspects of American literature and about three dozen book reviews — would scarcely be sufficient to earn him tenure at any self-respecting modern university. Parrington is also something of an oddity because his formal academic training had been extremely meager and never in the field of history. His highest degree was the Master of Arts awarded “in course” by Emporia College where he had been an undergraduate and then a young professor. He once described himself as “a literary refugee among the drilled hosts of the historians” (p. 197) and was attached to Departments of English throughout his career. Finally, it is difficult to think of any other figure who occupied so prominent a place in the scholarly life of this century about whom — until now — we knew so little.

The longest published treatment of Vernon Parrington before this full-length biography by H. Lark Hall was, of course, the stimulating and eloquent eighty-five-page discussion in Richard Hofstadter’s The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968). Beyond that, those who were curious about Parrington resorted to the chapter in Robert Skotheim’s American Intellectual Histories and Historians (1968), and to perhaps a half dozen short articles of varying value that have appeared since 1960, the most generally useful of them being, no doubt, Skotheim and Kermit Vanderbilt’s “Vernon Louis Parrington: The Mind and Art of a Historian of Ideas,” in the [End Page 663] Pacific Northwest Quarterly (1962). However helpful these earlier works may have been in interpreting Parrington’s great book, they were entirely inadequate as biography of the great book’s author. Conjectures about his life tended to rest on reminiscences of his friends and on what Hofstadter called “a number of passages with autobiographical resonances in Main Currents (in Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington, 1968, p. 488). The reason for this paucity of biographical information is simple. Parrington’s personal papers have remained in the family since his death and, with a few exceptions, have not been available to scholars. Hofstadter worked in them for four days in 1967, but as is now evident, that was not nearly enough time.

Hall’s book, based on her 1979 dissertation at Case Western Reserve, was made possible by gaining access to the Parrington papers, materials that “tightly fill a four-drawer filing cabinet” (p. viii). While she found only a limited amount of personal correspondence, the collection did include copious teaching materials, a considerable quantity of unpublished poetry, an unpublished autobiographical novel, an autobiographical fragment from 1918, revealing diaries (until they become merely records of his gardening after 1905), and typescript precursors of Main Currents in American Thought. Hall deserves enormous credit for her meticulous and imaginative exploitation of these papers and particularly for her skill in integrating the diverse sources to illuminate the private and mental history of her subject. She deftly probes changes in Parrington’s classroom syllabi, for example, in order to chart changes in the direction of his own reading and thinking. She painstakingly compares his treatment of particular historic figures, from one draft version to the next, noting his changing judgments and speculating intelligently on what they reveal about the trend of his own thought. She integrates comments in his diary with his early poetry and scrutinizes the handwritten pages of his novel with a detective’s eye.

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