A New Theory of Thorstein Veblen


At first glance the Veblen origins are the American cliché. His parents, Thomas Anderson and Kari Bunde Veblen, emigrated from Norway to a farm in rural Wisconsin in 1847, ten years before Thorstein’s birth. There were the usual problems in raising the money for the passage, the inevitable and quite terrible hardships on the voyage. In all, the Veblens had twelve children, of whom Thorstein was the sixth. The first farm in Wisconsin was barren or, more likely, seen as inferior to what, on the basis of better intelligence, was known to be available farther west. They moved, and in 1865 they moved a second time. The new and final holding was on the prairie and now about an hour’s drive south from Minneapolis. It is to this farm that the legend of Veblen’s dark and deprived boyhood belongs. No one who visits this countryside will believe it. There can be no farming country anywhere in the world with a more generous aspect of opulence. The soil is black and deep, the barns are huge, the silos numerous as also the special bins for sealing surplus corn, and the houses big, square, comfortable, if without architectural pretense. A picture of the Veblen house survives- an ample, pleasant white frame structure bespeaking not merely comfort but affluence. Since this countryside was originally open, well-vegetated prairie, it must have looked rewarding a hundred years ago. Thomas Veblen acquired 290 acres of this wealth; it is hard to imagine that he, his wife, or any of the children could have thought of themselves as deprived. Not a thousand, perhaps not even a hundred, farm proprietors—families working their own land—were so handsomely endowed in the Norway they had left. Nor, in fact, did the Veblens think themselves poor. Thorstein’s brothers and sisters were later to comment, sometimes with amusement, on occasion with disgust, on the myth of their early poverty.

There were other things that separated the family from the general run of Scandinavian immigrants and made Thorstein less of an accident. Thomas Veblen, who had been a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker, soon proved himself a much more than normally intelligent and progressive farmer. And it seems certain that however he viewed the farm for himself, he regarded it as a steppingstone for his children. Even more exceptional perhaps was Kari, his wife. She was a notably alert, imaginative, selfconfident, and intelligent woman who identified, protected, and encouraged the family genius from an early age. In later years, in a family and community where more hands were always needed and virtue was associated, accordingly, with efficient toil—effectiveness as a worker was what distinguished a good boy or girl from the rest—Thorstein Veblen seems to have been treated with some tolerance. Under the cover of a weak constitution he was given leisure that he used for reading. This released time could only have been provided by remarkably perceptive parents. One of Veblen’s brothers later wrote that it was from his mother that “Thorstein got his personality and his brains,” although others thought them his own decidedly original property.

Thorstein, like his brothers and sisters, went to the local schools, and on finishing with these he was dispatched to Carleton College (then styled Carleton College Academy) in the nearby town of Northfield, Minnesota. His sister Emily was in attendance at the same time; other members of the family went also to Carleton. In an engaging and characteristic exercise of imagination, their father acted to keep down college expenses. He bought a plot of land on the edge of town for the nominal amount charged for such real estate in that time and put up a house to shelter his offspring while they were being educated. The legend has always held or implied that the winning of an education involved for Thorstein Veblen a major and even heroic hardship. This should be laid finally to rest. A letter in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society from Andrew Veblen, Thorstein’s brother, notes that “Father gave him strictly necessary assistance through his schooling. Thorstein, like the rest of the family, kept his expenses down to the minimum … all in line with the close economy that the whole family practiced.” A sister-in-law, Florence (Mrs. Orson) Veblen, wrote more indignantly, “There is not the slightest reason for depriving my father-in-law of the credit of having paid for the education of his children —all of them—he was well able to do so; he had two good farms in the richest farming district in America.”

It was, nevertheless, an exception to the general community practice that the Veblen children should be sent to college rather than put to useful work, as Norwegian farmers would then have called it, on the farm. They were also sent to a Congregational college—Carleton—rather than to one of the Lutheran institutions that responded to the language, culture, and religion of the Scandinavians. The Veblen myth (as the Veblen family has also insisted) has exaggerated the alienation of the Norwegians in general and the Veblens in particular. It is part of the legend that Veblen’s father spoke no English and that his son had difficulty with the language. This is nonsense. Still, in the local class structure, the Anglo-Saxons were the dominant town and merchant class; the Scandinavians were the hard-working peasantry. But the Veblen children were not educated to remain peasants.