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Vernon Louis Parrington
On Great Figures From
American Letters

THE BACKBONE of Vernon Louis Parrington's Main Currents of American Thought is comprised of more than 100 biographical and critical portraits of memorable men and women in American letters, Here is a sampling of Parrington's comments and critical analyses:
  • on Cotton Mather: "...an attractive subject for the psychoanalyst. intensely emotional, high strung and nervous, he was oversexed and over wrought, subject to ecstatic exaltations and, especially during his celibate years, given to seeing visions."
  • on Roger Williams: "...the most provocative figure thrown upon the Massachusetts shores by upheaval in England, the one original thinker amongst a number of capable social architects."
  • on Increase Mather: "To call such a book [Mather's An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences] 'a scientific and historical recording of phenomena observed in New England,' as one biographer has done, is to gall the back of a thesis with hard riding. In one chapter only does Mather suggest the spirit of scientific inquiry; four out of the twelve deal with witchcraft and kindred topics; and the rest are made up of such instances of divine providence as great fish jumping out of the sea into boats of starving sailors adrift, and of God's punishments on the wicked Quakers."
  • on Benjamin Franklin: "What was best in that century he made his own. In his modesty, his willingness to compromise, his open-mindedness, his clear and luminous understanding, his charity -- above all his desire to subdue the ugly facts of society to some more rationale scheme of things -- he proved himself a great and useful man, one of the greatest and most useful whom America has produced."
  • on Davy Crockett: "Davy was but one of thousands who were wasting the resources of the Inland Empire, destroying forests, skinning the land, slaughtering the deer and bear, the swarms of pigeon and turkey, the vast buffalo herds. Davy the politician is a huge western joke, but Davy the wastrel was a hard, unloving fact."
  • on Margaret Fuller: "Transcendendental radical and critic, like Emerson and Thoreau and Parker, she was a feminist also; and to the difficult business of freeing her mind from the Cambridge orthodoxies, she added the greater difficulty of freeing her sex."
  • on Jefferson Davis: "[He] was cut from the same tough oak that fashioned John C. Calhoun. Hard and unyielding, tenacious of opinion, dictatorial, somewhat inclined to arrogance, he might break but he would not bend. Utterly lacking in humor and easy-going good nature, he offended by his very virtues."
  • on Brooks Adams: "His lot had been cast, unfortunately, in the age of capitalism, when the acquisitive mind was triumphing over the imaginative, but he could see no reason in heaven or earth to brag about the fact, and he would have held himself a fool to apply the term progress to the spread of greed that was crowning the usurer master of men. A thorough skeptic, he was in worse plight than Henry Adams, for he had no golden twelfth century as a refuge against the present."
  • on Theodore Dreiser: "the most detached and keenly observant of our writers, a huge figure of ungainly proportions -- a heavy footed peasant with unslacked curiosity and a boundless pity, who is determined to examine critically `this animal called man' and portraying him truthfully."
  • on Stephen Crane: "...the genius of his generation."

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