I’ve been reading some intellectual and cultural history lately, James H. Billington’s The Icon and the Axe and part of Vernon Louis Parrington’s The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America 1860-1920.
I’m an American who knows very little about Russia. That might be one reason I thought the Billington book on Russia was really excellent while the Parrington book on America was fairly useless. I don’t think so though, since there are real differences between the two. In many ways they have a great deal in common. Both authors are intelligent and well-read in the history they portray, and they both have a broad vision that enables them to present a comprehensive thematic overview of their field. Both write clearly, Parrington perhaps more stylishly. The difference is that Billington believes the history and figures he describes are greater than he is and therefore tries to present them fairly and generally sympathetically. Parrington in contrast seems to think all the answers are perfectly clear and so is partisan to the point of crankishness.
I have no objection to pointing out economic influences on thought, but reducing thought to economic interests to the extent Parrington does makes it a bore. Ditto for writing history that emphasizes good guys, bad guys, and stereotyped virtues and vices as much as his does. Repetitive use of terms like “democracy” and “liberal” as general god words, without explaining just what they are, what’s so great about them, and why (apart from corruption and stupidity) some people might prefer something else, suggests a lack of imagination, perspective and analytical ability. Nonetheless, Wikipedia’s article on Parrington says that Main Currents in American Thought, the larger work of which the Critical Realism book is part, “was for many years one of the most influential books for American historians” and “dominated literary and cultural criticism from 1927 through the early 1950s.” Apparently, to be perhaps a bit partisan myself, the rot has been around for quite some time.