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Death and the Scholar

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America. (Main Currents in American Thought, Volume III.) By Vernon Loui9 Parrington. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $4.00.

More than a generation ago, Daniel Chester French created his famous relief-work, “Death and the Sculptor,” for the tomb of Martin Mil-more, in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston. Now, with the appearance of Vernon Louis Parrington’s “The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920, Completed to 1900 Only”—one seems to see the basic conception of that moving work strikingly exemplified in terms of another art and another medium.

Professor Parrington Was an accomplished interpreter of American literature at the University of Washington long before 1927, but it was not until that year that the American reading public discovered him. Then, upon the publication of the first two volumes of his “Main Currents in American Thought,” fame came to him overnight. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history„ and colleges and universities interested in the study of our native literature began to look towards Seattle with eyes of yearning. In 1929 he secured a leave of absence to go to England where he might give his undivided attention to the completion of his final volume. He had been there only a short time when suddenly, one Sunday morning, he died in a moment.

Volume III has been printed now just as he left it, with his own outline of its complete development added and an appendix of nearly a hundred pages of notes and articles which do much to indicate how Mr. Parrington would have treated the remaining years if he had lived. The preparation of the volume has been in the hands of Professor E. H. Eby, who has performed a difficult task with fine, self-effacing zeal, and who contributes an introduction which, taken together with Professor Joseph B. Harrison’s “Vernon Louis Parrington: American Scholar,” published last year in the “University of Washington Chapbooks” series, will give the reader of “Main Currents” an adequate understanding both of Parrington’s aims and of his personality.

Recognition came late to Parrington, and this was his own fault, or to put it in another way, it was the inevitable consequence of his method of work. He did not write widely or voluminously, choosing to stake all on a single, monumental effort, rather than to divide his energies between a number of shorter books and articles. On first glance, it might seem as if, in this case, the method failed to justify itself. Death won. Yet I am inclined myself very seriously to doubt whether Death ever wins when it is a hero with whom he has to deal. Mr. Shaw to the contrary notwithstanding, it is doubtful whether going back to Methuselah, even were we able actually to achieve it, could lead us very far towards the conquest of our ancient enemy. The hero’s method is rather to dedicate himself and his powers to a task of such magnitude that he knows it can never really be carried out in its entirety. Parrington made such a self-dedication, and he was at his post when the end came. “Death, thou too shalt die.”

Now there are many different ways of studying literature. I imagine no one who ever had a course at the University of Chicago under Professor Robert Morss Lovett will ever forget the way in which he always maps out three distinct avenues of approach: the personal; the historical; the aesthetic. Parrington’s was, of course, the second method. His special preoccupation was with ideas. He used to call some of his courses studies in civilization rather than studies in literature. It is a means of approach which, under the influence of the scientific naturalism of our day, has been much in vogue of late, and being much in vogue, it has also been often attacked. Professor Norman Foerster attacked it from the humanist standpoint in his recent illuminating study of “The American Scholar,” and Professor Edith Rickert, some years ago, went at the problem from another angle in her “New Methods for the Study of Literature,” an amazingly original book which never reached half its potential public for the simple reason that not one reviewer in ten was ever able to figure out what it was all about. In his introduction to the present volume, Mr. Eby, consciously or unconsciously, puts his finger on the weakness of the Parrington method when he writes of Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and their fellows: “Perhaps these novelists were too seriously engaged in social criticism and reform propaganda to become great craftsmen, yet they were to Parrington important writers, because they were in touch with deep currents of American thought.”

Yet it should at once be added that neither Mr. Foerster nor Miss Rickert objects to the historical approach to literature per se, but simply to its being regarded as the alpha and omega of literary study. Personally, I do not believe that the study of literature is, or can ever be made, an exact science. I object to the growing tendency to estimate books by reference to their propaganda value. I dislike courses in literature in which one is asked to study everything except literature. In America, during recent years, we have seen one of our very finest novelists, Mary Johnston, pushed more and more into the background, while third- and fourth-raters with less than one-half her intelligence or one-tenth of her skill occupy the centre of the stage simply because she is an original creative writer who chooses to develop in her own orbit rather than to make herself the mouthpiece of Freudianism or behaviorism or some other catastrophe euphemistically denominated one of the “thought-currents” of our age. But the fact that a method is often misused by the half-educated and the incompetent is no indictment of its legitimate employment. It seems to me that Parrington avoids the pitfalls of the historical interpretation of literature as well as they have ever been avoided. He was himself a man of keen, aesthetic sensitiveness—his style alone shows that—and he knew the difference between good writing and bad. Then, too, he had a thesis: he was writing the history of American liberalism. May it not be that we have here, ready to our hand, a superb example of that “critical research” for which Mr. Foerster has been asking?


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