Thorstein Veblen as a young man

A Brief Biographical Sketch[1]

Thorstein Veblen was a radical; his theory cut deeply into the orthodox assumptions and pre-conceptions of American society, challenging them root and branch. Academic legends abound concerning Veblen’s academic career, many of which derive from Joseph Dorman’s Thorstein Veblen and His America. Recent research suggests however that in fact Veblen was rather more conventional in his bearing and behavior than the numerous tales of his romantic prowess would lead one to believe. Indeed, Veblen’s older brother, Andrew, who Dorfman interviewed for his book, insisted that the latter much exaggerated the family’s cultural isolation. According to Andrew, the Veblens regularly associated with and befriended many of their Yankee and Catholic neighbors. Whatever may have led Thorstein Veblen to his novel ideas, it was not the social marginality of his upbringing in the American mid-west.

Veblen’s work cracked through the confinements of conventional thought, but Veblen lived the life of a creative intellectual within the looser bounds of a remarkably productive, but problematic academic life. Often the recipient of high praise for his superior intellectual achievements during his lifetime, and for a time employed in such respected settings as the University of Chicago and Stanford, he spent seven of his later years in what he felt was intellectual exile at the University of Missouri at Columbia. After leaving Missouri, Veblen lived out the war years and their aftermath close to the citadels of power in Washington D.C. and New York City. He even briefly worked for the US government as an economist, and then joined that small circle of brilliant academics, which formed the first faculty of The New School for Social Research. This was also a period during which, for the only time in his life, Veblen wrote polemically, hoping to advance the causes of peace and social justice at a time when the post-war politics of fear and repression had turned America into a “psychiatrical clinic.”

Veblen was born in rural Wisconsin in 1857, just as the great national crisis of slavery was reaching its height, just around the same time when the forces of industrial capitalism were about to hasten the transformation of America into an urban capitalist empire. He was reared in partly Scandinavian Lutheran communities in the upper Midwest, mainly in central Minnesota, until he left for graduate school at Johns Hopkins. Thorstein was the fourth son of upwardly mobile Norwegian immigrant farmers who sent their children to Carleton College; indeed, they chose their farm site in part because it was only a few miles from the college. Veblen’s sister, Emily, in fact, was the first woman to graduate from a Minnesota college. Among Veblen’s teachers at Carleton was the brilliant young economist John Bates Clark, the first of a series of conservative professors from whom Veblen would receive notable encouragement. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Veblen taught for a year, but then enrolled at Johns Hopkins for graduate study, where he was a student of the philosopher Charles S. Peirce and economist Richard Ely. After a short and not especially fruitful stay, he transferred to Yale, where he obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy and economics in 1884, where his mentors included such noted conservative academicians as Noah Porter and William Graham Sumner. Degree in hand, Veblen returned to the rural Midwest, living with relatives or in-laws, spending much of his time trying to avoid the hard and dangerous work of the farm. Reading, reflection and study were his animating interests. Teaching jobs were hard to come by in this phase of his life: his agnosticism leaving him unemployable in schools with religious affiliations. Besides, he had to yet to make a name for himself as a significant voice in economics or philosophy. In any case, a Ph.D. dissertation on Kant was of little value in the great farming country of the American heartland.

In 1890, Veblen decided to make another run at an academic life, this time as a Ph. D. candidate in economics at Cornell. There he impressed another well-known conservative, the eminent economist J. Lawrence Laughlin. Laughlin was so taken by Veblen that when the senior man moved to the University of Chicago in 1892, he invited the young scholar to join him. Shortly thereafter Laughlin appointed Veblen managing editor of the Journal of Political Economy; Veblen now began his career as a publishing scholar. Seven years later, in 1899, Veblen delivered The Theory of the Leisure Class to the American reading public and immediately won the notoriety that goes with a widely read and controversial new book. The good times did not last. Veblen’s failing marriage created bitter private tensions, whose ramifications were felt all the way into the University president’s office. Aggravating those problems, Veblen’s radicalism and his failure to “advertise” the university properly, further offended the administration. He was forced to move along to a new position at Stanford. A similar bundle of difficulties followed him there, along with his embittered ex-wife, whose charges of “womanizing” once again helped to undo Veblen’s position. (Jorgensen and Jorgensen, 1999, 65- 131) This defeat led him to Missouri in 1909, and then on to Washington and New York City, where, for a time, he served as one of the editors of the Dial, a radical journal of literary and political opinion, as well as on the formative staff of The New School. In the late ‘20s, Veblen returned to California, where he died quietly, in August 1929, just a few months shy of the economic crisis whose onset he anticipated in Absentee Ownership.

Throughout his academic life, Veblen supported radical causes, showing special sympathies for the Industrial Workers of the World and the conscientious objectors who resisted service in World War I. Publicly, however, Veblen did not make for a loud or challenging presence in American politics; he led no political movement or party to advance progressive agendas; he lent his name to no sectarian program of social change; indeed, he rarely, if ever, voted. Overall, he played little active role in conventional or subversive politics. He might well be the exemplar of the late 20th century tenured radical, except that Veblen did not win lasting tenure or security at any university, nor did he show any willingness to modify his opinions in order to win permanent employment. His outspoken criticisms of the existing order did considerable harm to his academic career, probably more harm, in fact, than the colorful liaisons of his academic legend. Though he did not act aggressively in politics, Veblen did have a strong social and political voice, whose utterances were made in books and essays that penetrated the mysteries of the human situation. With wit, irony, and sobering logic, his work questioned the seemingly solid foundations of conventional society; his was the influence of insubordinate ideas, ideas whose effects could be traced in such varied 20th century American movements as technocracy, socialism, the New Deal, feminism, and especially, through the influence of others who took him seriously, such as C. Wright Mills, the radical movements of the 1960s and beyond. To read Veblen, then, is to become acquainted with a reservoir of radical thinking touching issues of culture, history, consumption, technology, the business cycle, corporate behavior, waste, inequality, democracy, war and power.

[1] Sidney Plotkin adapted this sketch of Veblen's life from Rick Tilman, Thorstein Veblen and His Critics, 1891-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), ch. 1. It also owes much to the valuable scholarship of Russell and Sylvia International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 13: 273-332; Stephen Edgell, Veblen in Perspective, His Life and Thought (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2001); and Elizabeth Watkins Jorgensen and Henry Jorgensen, Thorstein Veblen, Victorian Firebrand (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999);