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A New Theory of Thorstein Veblen
Veblen’s ideas on the effect of wealth on behavior were penetrating, original and, to the dismay of his contemporaries, highly uninhibited.
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
The nearest thing in the United States to an academic legend—equivalent to that of Scott Fitzgerald in fiction or the Barrymores in the theatre—is the legend of Thorstein Veblen. The nature of such a legend, one assumes, is that the reality is enlarged by imagination and that, eventually, the image has an existence of its own. This is so of Veblen. He was a man of great and fertile mind and a marvelously resourceful exponent of its product. His life, beginning on the frontier of the upper Middle West in 1857 and continuing, mostly at one university or another, until his death in 1929, was not without adventure of a kind. Certainly, by the standards of academic life at the time, it was nonconformist. There was ample material both in his work and in his life on which to build the legend, and the builders have not failed.
There is, in fact, a tradition in American social thought that traces all contemporary comment on and criticism of American institutions to Veblen. As with Marx to a devout Marxist, everything is there. The Marxist, however, is somewhat more likely to know his subject. It is possible, indeed, that nothing more clearly marks an intellectual fraud in our time than a penchant for glib references to Veblen, particularly for assured and lofty reminders, whenever something of seeming interest is said, that Veblen said it better and first.
The legend deriving from Veblen’s life owes even more to imagination. What is believed—about his grim, dark boyhood in a poor immigrant Norwegian family in Minnesota; his reaction to these oppressive surroundings; his harried life in the American academic world of the closing decades of the last century and the first two of this; the fatal way he attracted women and vice versa and its consequences in his tightly corseted surroundings; the indifference of all right-thinking men to his work—has only a limited foundation in fact.
Economics is a dull enough business and sociology is sometimes worse, and so, sometimes, are those who profess these subjects. When, as with Veblen, the man is enlarged by a nimbus, the latter should be brightened, not dissolved. One reason that economics and sociology are dull is the belief that everything associated with human personality should be made as humdrum as possible. That is science. Still, there is a certain case for truth, and in regard to Veblen the truth is also far from tedious. His life was richly interesting; his boyhood, if much less grim than commonly imagined, had a deep and lasting effect on his later writing. Veblen is not a universal source of insight on American society. He did not see what had not yet happened. Also, on some things he was wrong, and faced with a choice between accuracy and a formulation that he felt would fill his audience with outrage, he rarely hesitated. He opted for the outrage. But no man of his time or since has looked with such a cool and penetrating eye, not so much at pecuniary gain as at the way its pursuit makes men and women behave.
This cool and penetrating view is the substance behind the Veblen legend. It is a view that still astonishes the reader with what it reveals. While there may be other deserving candidates, only two books by American economists of the nineteenth century are still read. One of these is Henry George’s Progress and Poverty; the other is Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Neither of these books, it is interesting to note, came from the sophisticated and derivative world of the eastern seaboard. Both were products of the frontier—reactions of frontiersmen, in one case to speculative alienation of land, in the other to the pompous social ordinances of the affluent. But the comparison cannot be carried too far. Henry George was the exponent of a notably compelling idea; his book remains important for that idea—for the notion of the terrible price that society pays for private ownership and the pursuit of profit in land. Veblen’s great work is a wide-ranging and timeless comment on the behavior of people who possess or are in pursuit of wealth and who, looking beyond their wealth, want the eminence that, or so they believe, wealth was meant to buy. No one has really read very much if he hasn’t read The Theory of the Leisure Class at least once. Not many of more than minimal education get through life without referring at some time or another to “conspicuous consumption,” “pecuniary emulation,” or “conspicuous waste” even though they may not be quite certain whence these phrases came.
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.
Carleton was one of the denominational colleges that were established as the frontier moved westward, and unquestionably it was fairly bad. But like so many small liberal-arts colleges of the time, it was the haven for a few learned men and devoted teachers—the saving remnant who seemed always to show up when such a school was established. One of these men in Veblen’s time was John Bates Clark, who later taught at Columbia University, where he was recognized as the dean of American economists of his day. Veblen became a student of Clark’s; Clark thought well of Veblen.
This approval may have required imagination and tolerance, for in various class exercises Veblen was already giving ample indication of his later style and method. He prepared a solemn and ostentatiously sincere classification of men according to their noses; one of his exercises in public rhetoric defended the drunkard’s view of his own likely death; another argued the case for cannibalism. Clark, who was presiding when Veblen appeared to favor intoxication, felt obliged to demur. In a denominational college in the Midwest at this time it seems possible that cannibalism had a somewhat higher canonical sanction. Veblen resorted to the defense that he was to employ with the utmost consistency for the rest of his life : no value judgment was involved; he was not being partial to the drunk; his argument was purely scientific.
Veblen finished his last two years at the college in one and graduated brilliantly. His graduation oration was “Mill’s Examination of Hamilton’s Philosophy of the Conditioned.” It was described by contemporaries as a triumph, but it does not survive. While at Carleton Veblen had formed a close friendship with Ellen Rolfe; she was the daughter of a prominent and affluent Midwestern family and, like Veblen, was independent and introspective—very much apart from the crowd—and also highly intelligent. They were not married for another eight years, although this absence of haste did not mean that either had any less reason to regret it in later leisure. The legend has always pictured Veblen as an indifferent and unfaithful husband who was singularly incapable of resisting the advances of the women whom, however improbably, he continued to infatuate. But the Veblen family considered the fault to be at least partly Ellen’s. She had a nervous breakdown following an effort at teaching; in a far from reticent and not necessarily accurate letter Florence Veblen concludes, “There is not the least doubt she is insane.” It was, in any case, an unsuccessful marriage.
After teaching for a year at a local academy following his graduation from Carleton, Veblen departed for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to study philosophy. At this time, 1881, Johns Hopkins was being advertised as the first American university with a specialized graduate school on the European model. The billing, as Veblen was later to point out, was considerably in advance of the fact. Money and hence professors were very scarce; the atmosphere was that of a conservative southern town. Veblen was unhappy, did not complete the term, and began what was to be a lifetime of wandering over the American academic landscape.
His next stop was Yale. It was a time of considerable controversy at Yale—of what scholars with a gift for metaphors from the brewing industry call intellectual ferment. The principal focus of contention was between one Noah Porter, a pretentious divine then believed to be an outstanding philosopher and metaphysician, and William Graham Sumner, the American exponent of the British philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer. The practical thrust of Porter’s effort was to prevent Sumner from assigning Spencer’s Principles of Sociology to his classes. In this he succeeded; Spencer was righteously suppressed. Porter’s success, one imagines, proceeded less from the force of his argument against Spencer’s acceptance of evolution as a social as well as biological axiom than from the fact that he (Porter) was also then the president of the university. In Veblen’s later writing there is a strong suggestion of Spencer. Natural selection is not the foundation of a system for Veblen, but it serves him as an infinitely handy explanation of how some survive and prosper and others do not. In Veblen’s scheme cupidity is more often the basis for such selection than moral worth.
There has been solemn discussion of the effect of this philosophical disputation at Yale, and of his own dissertation on Kant, on Veblen’s later writing. My instinct is to think it was remarkably slight. This is affirmed in a general way by the other Veblens. In later years his brother Andrew (a physicist and mathematician) responded repeatedly and stubbornly to efforts to identify the sources of Thorstein Veblen’s thought. He did not think anyone could be singled out: “I do not believe that anyone much influenced the formation of his views or opinions.” It must be sufficient that after two and a half years at Yale—underwritten by a brother and the Minnesota family and farm—Veblen emerged with a Ph.D. He wanted to teach; he had also, on the whole, rather favorable recommendations. But he could not find a job, and so he went back to the Minnesota homestead. There, endlessly reading and doing occasional writing, he remained for seven years. He professed ill health for a part of this time; Andrew Veblen, later letters show, thought the illness genuine; other members of his family diagnosed his ailment as partly an allergy to manual toil. He married, and Ellen brought with her a little money. From time to time he was asked to apply for teaching positions; tentative offers were righteously withdrawn when it was discovered that he was not a subscribing Christian. In 1891 he resumed his academic wandering: he became a graduate student at Cornell.
The senior professor of economics at Cornell at the time was J. Laurence Laughlin, a stalwart exponent of the English classical school who, until then, had declined to become a member of the American Economic Association in the belief that it was socialistically inclined. Joseph Dorfman of Columbia University, the eminent student of American economic thought and the pre-eminent authority on Veblen, tells Laughlin’s story of his meeting with Veblen in his massive and important Thorstem Veblen and His America (Viking, 1934), a book to which everyone who speaks or writes on Veblen is indebted. Laughlin “was sitting in his study in Ithaca when an anemic-looking person, wearing a coonskin cap and corduroy trousers, entered and in the mildest possible tone announced: ‘I am Thorstein Veblen.’ He told Laughlin of his academic history, his enforced idleness and his desire to go on with his studies. The fellowships had all been filled, but Laughlin was so impressed with the quality of the man that he went to the president and other powers of the university and secured a special grant.”
Apart from the impression of Veblen’s manner and dress so conveyed, the account is important for another reason. Always in Veblen’s life there were individuals—a minute but vital few—who sensed and were captured by his genius. Often, as in the case of Laughlin, they were conservatives—men who in ideas and habits were a world apart from Veblen. And repeatedly these men rescued their prodigious and highly inconvenient friend.
Veblen was at Cornell rather less than two years—although long enough to begin advancing his career with uncharacteristic orthodoxy by getting articles into the scholarly journals. Then Laughlin was invited to be head of the department of economics at the new University of Chicago. He took Veblen with him; Veblen was awarded a fellowship of $520 a year, for which he was to prepare a course on the history of socialism and assist in editing the newly founded Journal of Political Economy. He was now thirty-five years old. In the next several years he advanced to the rank of tutor and instructor, continued to teach and to edit the Journal, wrote a great many reviews and numerous articles—among others, pieces on the theory of women’s dress, on the barbarian status of women, and on the instinct of workmanship and the irksomeness of labor—all work that foreshadowed later books. In these years he also developed his teaching style, if such it could be called. He sat at a table and spoke in a low monotone to the handful of students who were interested and could get close enough to hear. He also discovered, if he had not previously learned, that something—mind, manner, dress, his sardonic and challenging indifference to approval or disapproval—made him extremely attractive to women. His wife found that she had more and more competition for his attention. This competition was something to which neither she nor the academic communities in which Veblen resided ever reconciled themselves. In 1899, while still at Chicago and while Laughlin was still having trouble getting him small increases in pay or even, on occasion, getting his appointment renewed, he published his first and greatest book. It was The Theory of the Leisure Class.
There is little that anyone can be told about The Theory of the Leisure Class that he cannot learn better by reading the book himself. It is a marvelous book; it is also, in its particular way, a masterpiece of English prose. But the qualification is important. Veblen’s writing cannot be read like that of any other author. Wesley C. Mitchell—regarded, though not with entire accuracy, as Veblen’s leading intellectual legatee—once said that “one must be highly sophisticated to enjoy his [Veblen’s] books.” All who cherish Veblen would wish to believe this. The truth is simpler than that. One needs only to realize that if Veblen is to be enjoyed, he must be read very carefully and slowly. He enlightens, amuses, and delights but only if he is given a good deal of time.
It is hard to divorce Veblen’s language from the ideas it conveys. The ideas are pungent, incisive, and insulting. But the writing itself is also a weapon. Mitchell noted that Veblen normally wrote “with one eye on the scientific merits of his analysis, and his other eye fixed on the squirming reader.” Veblen also startles his reader with an exceedingly perverse use of words. Their meaning rarely varies from that sanctioned by the most precise and demanding usage. But in the context they are often, to say the least, unexpected. This Veblen attributes to scientific necessity. Thus, in his immortal discussion of conspicuous consumption, he notes that expenditure, if it is to contribute efficiently to the individual’s “good fame,” must generally be on “superfluities.” “In order to be reputable it [the expenditure] must be wasteful.” All of this is quite exact. The rich do want fame; reputable expenditure is what adds to their fame; the dress, housing, equipage that serve this purpose and are not essential for existence are superfluous. Nonessential expenditure is wasteful. But only Veblen would have used the words “fame,” “superfluity,” “reputable,” and “waste” in such a way. In the case of “waste” he does decide that a word of explanation is necessary. This is characteristically both airy and matter-of-fact. In everyday speech, he says, “the word carries an undertone of deprecation. It is here used for want of a better term … and it is not to be taken in an odious sense. …”
And so he continues. The wives of the rich forswear useful employment because “abstention from labor is not only an honorific or meritorious act, but it presently becomes a requisite of decency.” “Honor,” “merit,” and “decency” are all used with exactness, although these words are not often associated with idleness. A robber baron, Veblen says, has a better chance of escaping the law than a small crook because “a well-bred expenditure of his booty especially appeals … to persons of a cultivated sense of the proprieties, and goes far to mitigate the sense of moral turpitude with which his dereliction is viewed by them.” One does not ordinarily associate the disposal of ill-gotten wealth with good breeding.
Thus the way The Theory of the Leisure Class —or anything by Veblen—must be read. If one goes rapidly, words will be given their ordinary contextual meaning—not the precise and perverse sense that Veblen intended. Waste will be wicked and not a source of esteem; the association of idleness with merit, honor, and decency will somehow be missed as well as that between the crook and his expenditure. The book yields its meaning, and therewith its full enjoyment, only to those who too have leisure.
When Veblen had finished the manuscript of The Leisure Class, he sent it to the publisher, Macmillan, and it came back several times for revision. Eventually, it is believed, Veblen was required to put up a guarantee before Macmillan would agree to publish the book. It is tempting to speculate as to the reason for this reluctance. The book could not have been badly written in any technical or grammatical sense. Veblen, after all, was by then an experienced editor. Nor was he any novice as a writer. One imagines that the perverse and startling use of words, combined no doubt with the irony and the attack on the icons, was more than any publisher could readily manage. But someone must also have seen how much was there.
The thesis of The Theory of the Leisure Class can be quickly given. It is a tract, the most comprehensive ever written, on snobbery and social pretense. Some of it has application to American society at the end of the last century—at the height of the gilded age of American capitalism—but more is wonderfully relevant to modern affluence.
The rich have often been attacked by the less rich for enjoying a superior social position that is based on assets and not moral or intellectual worth, for using their wealth and position to sustain a profligate consumption of resources of which others are in greater need, and for defending the social structure that accords them their privileged position. And they have been attacked for the base and wicked behavior that wealth sustains and that their social position sanctions. In all this the attackers, in effect, concede the rich their superior power and position; they deny them their right to that position or to behave as they do therein. Usually the denial involves a good deal of righteous anger or indignation. The rich have been thought worth the anger and indignation.
Here is Veblen’s supreme literary and polemical achievement. He concedes the rich and the well-to-do nothing, and he would not dream of suggesting that his personal attitudes or passions are in any way involved. The rich are merely anthropological specimens whose behavior the possession of money and property has made more interesting and more visibly ridiculous. The effort to establish precedence for oneself and the yearning for the resulting esteem and applause are the most nearly universal of human tendencies. Nothing in this respect differentiates a Whitney, Vanderbilt, or Ast or from a Papuan chieftain or what one encounters in “for instance, the tribes of the Andamans.” The dress, festivals, or rituals and artifacts of the Vanderbilts and Whitneys are more complex; that does not mean their motivation is in any way different from that of their barbarian counterparts.
Indeed, it is inconceivable that the affluent should be viewed with indignation. The scientist does not become angry with the primitive tribesman because of the extravagance of his sexual orgies or the sophistication of his self-mutilation. Similarly with the social observances of the American rich. Their banquets are equated in commonplace fashion with the orgies; the self-mutilation of the savage is of a piece with the painfully constricting dress in which (at that time) the well-to-do bound up their women or their women corseted themselves.
It is well to remember that Veblen wrote in the last years of the last century—before the established order suffered the disintegrating onslaught of World War I, Lenin, and the levelling oratory of modern democratic politics. It was a time when gentlemen still believed they were gentlemen and—in the United States at least—that it was wealth that made the difference. And, by and large, the rest of the population still agreed. Veblen calmly identified the manners and behavior of these so-called gentlemen with the manners and behavior of the people of the bush. Speaking of the utility of different observances for the purpose of affirming or enhancing the individual’s repute, Veblen notes that “presents and feasts had probably another origin than that of naive ostentation, but they acquired their utility for this purpose very early, and they have retained that character to the present. … Costly entertainments, such as the potlatch or the ball, are peculiarly adapted to serve this end.” The italics equating the potlatch and the ball are mine; Veblen would never have dreamed of emphasizing so obvious a point.
The book is a truly devastating put-down, as would now be said. But much more was involved. The Theory of the Leisure Class brilliantly and truthfully illuminates the effect of wealth on behavior. No one who has read this book ever again sees the consumption of goods in the same light. Above a certain level of affluence the enjoyment of goods—of dress, houses, automobiles, entertainment—can never again be thought intrinsic, as in a naive way established or neoclassical economics still holds it to be. Possession and consumption are the banner that advertises achievement—that proclaims, by the accepted standards of the community, that the possessor is a success. In this sense—in revealing what had not hitherto been seen— The Leisure Class is a major scientific achievement.
It is also true, alas, that much of the process by which this truth is revealed—by which Veblen’s insights are vouchsafed—is scientifically something of a contrivance. There is no doubt that before writing The Leisure Class he had read widely on anthropology. He has a great many primitive communities and customs at his fingertips, and he refers to them with an insouciance that suggests—and was probably meant to suggest—he had much more knowledge in reserve. But the book is wholly devoid of sources; no footnote or reference tells on what Veblen relied for information. On an early page he explains that the book is based on everyday observation and not pedantically on the scholarship of others. This is adequate as far as Fifth Avenue and Newport are concerned. Accurate secondhand knowledge can be assumed. But Veblen had no similar opportunity for knowing about the Papuans.
In fact, Veblen’s anthropology and sociology are weapon and armor rather than science. He uses them to illuminate (and to make ridiculous) the behavior of the most powerful class—the all-powerful class—of his time. And since he does it in the name of science and with the weapons of science—and since no overt trace of animus or anger is allowed to appear—he does it with nearly perfect safety. The butterfly does not attack the zoologist for saying that it is more decorative than useful. That Marx was an enemy whose venom was to be returned in kind, capitalists did not doubt. But Veblen’s venom went undetected. The American rich never quite understood what he was about—or what he was doing to them. The scientific pretense, the irony, and the careful explanations that the most pejorative words were being used in a strictly nonpejorative sense put him beyond their comprehension.
This protection was necessary at the time. And there is a wealth of evidence that Veblen was fully conscious of it. During the years when he was working on The Leisure Class, liberal professors at the University of Chicago were under frequent attack from the adjacent plutocracy. The latter expected economics and the other social sciences to provide the doctrine that graced its privileges. In the mid nineties Chauncey Depew, the notable political windbag, told the Chicago students that “this institution, which owes its existence to the beneficence of Rockefeller, is in itself a monument of the proper use of wealth accumulated by a man of genius. So is Cornell, so is Vanderbilt, and so are the older colleges, as they have received the benefactions of generous, appreciative and patriotic wealth.” In 1895 one Edward W. Bemis, an associate professor of political economy in the extension, i.e., outpatient, department of the university, attacked the traction monopoly in Chicago, which, assisted by wholesale bribery, had fastened itself on the backs of Chicago streetcar patrons. His appointment was not renewed. The university authorities, like many godly men, especially in universities, believed that they had a special license to lie. So they compounded their crime in dismissing Bemis by denying that their action was an overture to the traction monopoly or reflected the slightest abridgment of academic freedom. The local press was not misled; it saw this as a concession to sound business interest and applauded. In a fine sentence on scholarly responsibility, the Chicago Journal said: “The duty of a professor who accepts the money of a university for his work is to teach the established truth, not to engage in the ‘pursuit of truth.’” A forthright sentiment.
The last chapter of The Leisure Class is “The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.” It anticipates a later, much longer, and much more pungent disquisition by Veblen on the influence of the pecuniary civilization on the university (The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Businessmen, published in 1918). In this chapter Veblen—though also concerned with other matters—stresses the conservative and protective role of the universities in relation to the pecuniary culture: “New views, new departures in scientific theory, especially new departures which touch the theory of human relations at any point, have found a place in the scheme of the university tardily and by a reluctant tolerance, rather than by cordial welcome; and the men who have occupied themselves with such efforts to widen the scope of human knowledge have not commonly been well received by their learned contemporaries.” No one will be in doubt as to whom, in the last clause, Veblen had in mind. Elsewhere he notes that “as further evidence of the close relation between the educational system and the cultural standards of the community, it may be remarked that there is some tendency latterly to substitute the captain of industry in place of the priest, as head of seminaries of the higher learning.”
Given such an environment and given also his subject, Veblen, it will be evident, needed the protection of his art. On the whole it served him well. In the course of his academic career he was often in trouble with academic administrators—but mostly on personal and idiosyncratic rather than political or ideological grounds. He was not understood or appreciated by his more pedestrian, if often more fashionable, academic colleagues. A man like Veblen creates problems for such people. They accept the established view, rejoice in the favor of the Establishment. Anyone who does not share their values is a threat to their position and self-esteem, for he makes them seem sycophantic and pedestrian, as indeed they are. Veblen was such a threat. But the rich, to whom ultimately he addressed himself, never penetrated his defenses.
Veblen also enjoyed a measure of political immunity in a hostile world because he was not a reformer. His heart did not beat for the proletariat or even for the downtrodden and poor. He was a man of animus and not of revolution.
The source of Veblen’s animus has regularly been related to his origin. He was the son of immigrant parents; he had experienced the harsh life of the frontier; he did so at a time when the Scandinavians were, by any social standard, second-class citizens. They were saved, if at all, only because they could not be readily distinguished by their color. What was more natural than that someone from such a background should turn on his oppressors? The Theory of the Leisure Class is Veblen’s revenge for the abuse to which he and his parents were subjected.
This, I am persuaded, misunderstands Veblen. His animus was based not on anger and resentment but on derision. I must here cite an experience of my own. Some ten years ago, to fill in the idle moments of one of the more idle occupations, that of the modern ambassador, I wrote a small book about the clansmen among whom I was reared on the north shore of Lake Erie in Canada. The Scotch (as with exceptional etymological correctness we call ourselves), like the Scandinavians, inhabited the farms; the people of the towns were English. From Toronto in the nineteenth century other Englishmen, in conjunction with the Church of England as a kind of holding company for political and economic interest, dominated the economic, political, religious, and social life of Upper Canada to their own unquestioned advantage.
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.)
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.