A New Theory of Thorstein Veblen


In writing the book I found it agreeable to recapture the mood of my youth—of my parents, neighbors, the more prestigious members of the other clans. We felt ourselves superior to the storekeepers, implement dealers, poolroom operators, grain dealers, and other entrepreneurs of the adjacent towns. We worked harder, spent less, but usually had more. The more prestigious clans and clansmen took education seriously and, as a matter of course, monopolized the political life of the community. Yet the people of the towns were invariably under the impression that social prestige resided with them. They were English not Scotch, Anglicans not Presbyterians, and identified, however vicariously, with the old ruling class. Their work, if such it could be called, did not soil the hands. We were taught to think that claims to social prestige based on such vacuous criteria were silly. We regarded the people of the towns not with envy but amiable contempt. On the whole we enjoyed letting them know.

When I published the book, by far the largest number of letters I received were from people who had grown up in German and Scandinavian communities in the Midwest, who told me that it was really the mood of their childhood that I had described: “That was how we felt. You could have been writing about our community.” I am sure it was Veblen’s mood. The Veblens regarded themselves, not without reason, as the representatives of a superior culture. The posturing of the local Anglo-Saxon elite they also regarded with contempt. The Theory of the Leisure Class is this contempt extended to a class structure with class distinctions that were an enlargement of the posturing Veblen observed as a youth.

The reception of The Theory of the Leisure Class divided the men of reputable and orthodox position from those who were capable of thought. On the whole, however, it could not have disappointed Veblen. One Establishment reviewer said that it was such books by dilettantes that brought sociology into disrepute among “careful and scientific thinkers,” science being here used in the still customary sense as a cover and defense for orthodoxy. With wonderful solemnity he advised that it was illegitimate to classify within the leisure class such unrelated groups as the barbarians and the modern rich. Another equally predictable scholar avowed that the rich were rich because they earned the money—the gargantuan reward of the captain of industry and the miserly one of the man with a spade were the valuation of their contribution to society as measured by their economic efficiency. But other and more imaginative men were delighted, a point on which again I am indebted to Dorfman. Lester Ward, the first American sociologist of major repute, said that “the book abounds in terse expressions, sharp antithesis, and quaint, but happy phrases. Some of these have been interpreted as irony and satire, but… the language is plain and unmistakable … the style is farthest removed possible from either advocacy or vituperation.” Ward was admiring but a bit too trusting. William Dean Howells, also at the time at the peak of his reputation, was enthusiastic as well. He was also taken in by Veblen. “In the passionless calm with which the author pursues his investigation, there is apparently no animus for or against a leisure class. It is his affair to find out how and why and what it is.” The sales of The Leisure Class were modest, although few could have guessed how durably they would continue. Veblen was promoted in 1900 to the rank of assistant professor. His pay remained negligible.

Veblen’s writing continued and so, in 1906, did his academic peregrinations. Although still ill-paid and in subordinate rank, he was, in a manner of speaking, famous. His married life had become tenuous; he did little to resist the aggression of other women. His classes were small, and orthodox scholars and those of his victims who could understand his argument were either adverse or outraged. But he had become a possible academic adornment. Harvard, urged by Frank W. Taussig, considered inviting him to join its department of economics but quickly had second thoughts. David Starr Jordan, then creating a new university south of San Francisco, could not afford to be so cautious and invited Veblen to Leland Stanford as an associate professor. Veblen survived there for three years. But his domestic arrangements—sometimes Ellen, sometimes others—were by now, for the time and community, an open scandal. Once he responded wearily to a complaint with a query : “What is one to do if the woman moves in on you?” What, indeed? Jordan concluded that there were adornments that Stanford could not afford. Veblen was invited to move on. By the students, at least, he was not greatly missed. Dozens were attracted by his reputation to his classes; only a handful- once only three—survived to the end of the term.

After leaving Stanford he had difficulty getting another post, but again an established scholar with an instinct for the dissenter came to his rescue. H. J. Davenport, then one of the major figures in the American economic pantheon, took him to the University of Missouri. There he encountered some of the students on whom he had the most lasting effect, including Isador Lubin, who was later to be a close aide of F.D.R. and Harry Hopkins and a protector of Veblen in the latter’s many moments of need. Veblen divorced Ellen and in 1914 married Anne Fessenden Bradley, a gentle, admiring woman who, however, survived only a few years. (In 1918 she suffered severe mental illness, and in 1920 she died.)