A New Theory of Thorstein Veblen


From Missouri Veblen’s wanderings were again resumed. He went to Washington during World War I—as one of the less likely participants in the wartime administration. From Washington he went to New York to experiment with life as an editor and then to teach at The New School for Social Research. His writings continued; as with the early ones, they are sardonic, laconic, and filled with brilliant insights. Nearly all of his nine subsequent books on economics and related subjects develop points of which there is a hint—or, in the case of The Higher Learning in America , a chapter—in The Leisure Class. None of these books achieved the eminence of his first one. But the men of established reputation continued to be appalled. In a review of The Higher Learning in America in the New York Times Review of Books in 1919, Brander Matthews said of Veblen, “His vocabulary is limited and he indulges in a fatiguing repetition of a dozen or a score of adjectives. His grammar is woefully defective. …” The book is, in fact, one of Veblen’s most effective and compelling tracts. Other critics were wiser. Gradually, step by step, it came to be known that Veblen was a genius, the most penetrating, original, and uninhibited—indeed the greatest—source of social thought in the time.

This did not mean that he was much honored or rewarded. The honors and rewards were reserved, as all good practice requires, for the reputable as distinct from the intelligent. Veblen’s students had frequently to come to his support. Work became harder to find than ever. In the mid twenties, aging, impecunious, and tired, he returned reluctantly to California, and there in 1929 he died.

The Nation, following his death, spoke of Veblen’s “mordant wit, his extraordinary gift of discovering wholly new meanings in old facts,” saying in a sentence what I have said here in many. Wesley C. Mitchell wrote an obituary note in the Economic Journal, an organ of the Royal Economic Society, then pre-eminently the most prestigious economic publication in the world. Saying sadly that “we shall have no more of these investigations with their curious erudition, their irony, their dazzling phrases, their bewildering reversals of problems and values,” he also observed that the E.J., as economists have long called it, had reviewed but one of Veblen’s books. In 1925 it took notice of the ninth reprinting of The Theory of the Leisure Class, twenty-six years after its original publication.