A Marginal Academic

After his graduation, Veblen tried his hand teaching at Monona Academyin Madison, Wisconsin, but the atmosphere at this Norwegian school provedas oppressive as that of Carleton. Rent by theological disputes over predestina-tion, election, and strong church authority, subjects totally uncongenial to Veb-len, the school closed permanently at the end of the year. When one of hisbrothers, Andrew, father of the famous mathematician Oswald Veblen, decidedto study mathematics at Johns Hopkins, Thorstein accompanied him to Balti-more, expecting to study philosophy. Thus began what Bernard Rosenberg hascalled "a torturous apprenticeship in academic maladaptation.''

When Veblen came East, his thoughts had already been shaped by theagrarian unrest and radicalism that had swept over the Midwest soon after theend of the Civil War. Moreover, when a German exile of the 1848 revolutionhad opened his library to him, Veblen became acquainted with Kant, Mill,Hume, Rousseau, Spencer, Huxley, and Tyndall--great intellects who hadnot been discussed in the lecture halls of Carleton. Egalitarian and radical inhis outlook, Veblen once again felt alien in the leisurely culture of the Souththat prevailed in Baltimore and at Johns Hopkins. Lonely, homesick, and shortof money, he was moreover intellectually ill-disposed toward the philosophyofferings of that school. He took three courses with George S. Morris butwas not impressed by this Hegelian philosopher, who felt that conventionalmanners and morals might find an even better defender in Hegel than in pre-vailing Scottish Common Sense. Veblen attended a course in political economywith a young man, Richard T. Ely, who was to become one of the main repre-sentatives of the new reform-oriented economics. But neither man cared forthe other. To judge from Veblen's later writings, the only man to have madesome impact on him was a temporary lecturer in logic named Charles SandersPeirce, who had already written a series of papers emphasizing that "thewhole function of thought is to produce habits of action."

When Veblen failed to receive a scholarship at Johns Hopkins, he decidedto transfer to Yale to study philosophy under its president, the Reverend NoahPorter. At Yale, as almost everywhere else, philosophy was still considered thehandmaiden of theology, and Veblen, the agnostic, found himself amongdivinity students, most of whom were preparing to teach the gospel. As ameans of defense, Veblen accentuated his sardonic attitudes and distance-creat-ing techniques, and he cultivated an air of complete aloofness and worldly-wise scepticism. Even those whom he managed to befriend later said that theyfound him trying, though stimulating.

At this time the intellectual atmosphere at Yale was charged by epic battlesbetween its president, Noah Porter, a man still deeply steeped in the pieties ofNew England transcendentalism, and the sociologist William Graham Sum-ner, who preached the gospel of Herbert Spencer. Sumner relentlessly foughtin the name of science and evolution, of Darwin and Spencer, against thetheological features of the school. A month before Veblen left Yale, Sumnerwas victorious and the whole curriculum of Yale was revamped. Science wonover religion.

Veblen found himself attracted to Sumner as he had never been attractedto any of his other teachers. In later years he was to dissect Sumner's conserva-tive economics in class, but, according to Dorfman, Sumner was "the only manfor whom he expressed . . . a deep and unqualified admiration." What at-tracted him was not only Sumner's Spencerian and evolutionary thought, buthis independence of mind, his refusal to go along with the crowd, his com-bative individualism. To be sure, the man who was to write withering attackson the predacious characteristics of captains of industry was hardly impressedby the views of a teacher who saw in these men the flowers of civilization.Veblen could not accept Sumner's doctrine, but he loved the man and partlymodeled himself after his image. He also managed to be on excellent termswith the Reverend Porter, under whom he did most of his work and whosupervised his dissertation. Locally he was known as "Porter's chum." Porteresteemed Veblen's superior intelligence even though he must have been madeuneasy by Veblen's conspicuous lack of reverence.

Veblen specialized in work on Kant and the post-Kantians, his first aca-demic paper being on Kant's Critique of Judgment. He was considered byPorter and some of his other teachers to be a highly intelligent, cultivated,though unconventional, young philosopher. But after he had received hisdoctorate, it became apparent that nobody was willing to give him an aca-demic position. College teachers, especially those in philosophy, were mainlyrecruited from the ranks of the divinity school. No faculty wanted a "Norskie,"especially one around whom there seemed to hover a cloud of agnosticism orworse. After having spent two and a half years at Yale, Veblen returned homedefeated and bitter. He now had a Ph.D. but no source of income or hope fora position.

Back on the farm, Veblen claimed that he was ill and needed special care.His brothers were inclined to believe that he was just plain loafing--a sin notlightly forgiven among Norwegian farm folk. In the meantime, Veblen readeverything he could lay his hands on, roamed the woods, indulged in desultorybotanical studies, did some hack writing for Eastern papers, and seemed todrift into a life of permanent dilettantism.

In 1888, Veblen married Ellen Rolfe, the daughter of one of the leadingfamilies of the Middle West. Her father, a grain-elevator and railroad magnate,was appalled that his daughter was marrying a shiftless atheistic son of Norwe-gian immigrants. But he made the best of it and allowed the young couple tosettle on one of his Iowa farms. Veblen now made a few half-hearted attemptsto gain a teaching position, but all these moves proved to be of no avail. In themeantime he and his wife followed news of the radical agrarian movementthat swept the Middle West with passionate concern. Together they readEdward Bellamy's socialist utopia, Looking Backward , which had just beenpublished. Ellen Rolfe wrote later that "this was the turning point in ourlives." In his Iowa retreat, Veblen immersed himself deeply in the study ofeconomics, both the orthodox and the heterodox variety. Looking at the passingscene of agrarian and labor unrest, of increasing radicalization among farmersand workmen alike, he began to feel that economics might provide answers tothe crisis. After ten years of frustration and idle drifting, Veblen finally decidedto return East to study economics, registering at Cornell in the winter term of 1891.

The professor in charge of economics at Cornell, J. Laurence Laughlin,was sitting in his study when an anemic-looking man wearing a coonskin capand corduroy trousers entered and announced: "I am Thorstein Veblen."Laughlin became so impressed with Veblen that he secured a special universitygrant for him, even though all regular fellowships had already been filled.Heartened by this modest encouragement, Veblen now began to get down tothe business of serious writing. His first paper in economics, "Some NeglectedPoints in the Theory of Socialism," adumbrated his later interest. It was anattempt to use Spencerian evolutionary method while arguing against Spencerthat without the abolition of private property and free competition the crisisof the current industrial order could not be overcome. Several fairly technicalpapers for The Quarterly Journal of Economics followed in short order. Veb-len's mentor, Laughlin, thought so highly of them that he arranged for afellowship for Veblen at the new University of Chicago, where Laughlin hadjust been appointed head professor of economics.

The University of Chicago, where Veblen stayed from 1892 to 1906,provided the most congenial academic setting he was ever to find. The aggres-sive president, William Rainey Harper, had managed in a few years to attracta most distinguished faculty, and Veblen found a number of colleagues withwhom he could engage in lively interchange. John Dewey in philosophy,William I. Thomas in sociology, Jacques Loeb in physiology, to name just afew, influenced him deeply and in turn were stimulated by him. Veblen laterwrote a venomous portrait of Harper as a prime example of those "captains oferudition" who prostitute genuine scholarship in their drive for competitivestanding in the academic world. There was much truth in what Veblen said,but it must be acknowledged that, no matter how autocratic his administra-tion, no matter what questionable methods Harper may have used to extractever increasing funds from the University's founder, John D. Rockefeller, heattracted a first-rate faculty to Chicago and so made it possible for Veblen toenjoy the company of peers and colleagues that he could genuinely respect.

This is not to say that Veblen's Chicago career was without difficulties. Al-though he soon took over the editorship of The Journal of Political Economy,which Laughlin had founded soon after their arrival, Veblen was not originally amember of the faculty, but only a tutor. It was not until three years aftercoming to the University that he was promoted, at the age of 38, to instructor.His promotion to assistant professor had to wait another five years. There werea number of reasons for this academic neglect. Veblen was unorthodox in histhinking, in his teaching, and in his love life.

Veblen now wrote profusely, but his many brilliant contributions to TheJournal of Political Economy were scarcely of a sort to please the more staidmembers of his academic audience. They were, in fact, fierce assaults uponprevailing utilitarian and classic doctrine in economics, and upon the customand use of capitalist enterprise in the United States and elsewhere. Rangingwidely over the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, and economics,Veblen proceeded with mordant wit and sarcasm to undermine the receivedwisdom of economic theory. Whether reviewing books by Sombart or Schmol-ler, by Marx or Labriola, whether writing a fundamental paper such as the oneentitled "Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?" Veblen was single-minded in his iconoclastic enterprise of demolishing conventional ideas ineconomics and the social sciences generally.

Veblen's teaching methods were even more unorthodox than his writings.He seemed to make a deliberate effort to discourage students from taking hiscourses. His lectures were wide ranging, and he usually presented the materialin a rambling and unorganized manner. As a result, his audience never quiteknew what to expect next. One of his former students describes his teachingthus:

He would come into the classroom with a half-dozen books under hisarm, sit down bashfully behind his desk, and commence mumbling throughhis whiskers the characteristic economic blasphemies for which he wasfamous. His inimitable wit played over the field and made what might havebeen a rather dreary exercise something to chuckle over. Judged by con-ventional standards, he was the world's worst teacher. He seldom knew atthe beginning of the hour what he would say or where he would arrive atits end. . . . I felt that these mumbling lectures were a good deal of a boreto him except for the opportunity they afforded him for flashes of wit andirony, and he took little interest in the question of whether his students werereading lessons and doing work in the course or not.

Veblen found the task of evaluating students or grading papers pro-foundly distasteful and as a consequence usually gave the whole class, as thespirit moved him, either a C or a B. When students tried to pin him downand asked him to say in plain language what he meant by his oracular andillusive pronouncements, he usually brushed them off with a sardonic smileand a witty remark. When pressed hard, he would say: "Well, you know, Ireally don't think I quite understand it myself."

Despite all these calculated maneuvers to rebuff student interest, Veblenacquired some of his most distinguished followers--among them, WesleyMitchell, Robert Hoxie, and H. J. Davenport--in the Chicago days. Theseand a few others learned not to be put off by his manners and quirks andto reach down to the serious core of his teaching. But the bulk of his studentscouldn't make sense of his lectures, especially when their quest for certaintywas met with Veblen's studied elusiveness. Wesley Mitchell has written thatVeblen "took a naughty delight in making people squirm." As a result, hisclasses were large for the first few days, but soon only a handful remained.Students were not an audience that Veblen appreciated.

Veblen was unorthodox in his teaching and in his writing, but whatshocked the university administration and many older colleagues profoundlywas his unorthodox love life. Women were much attracted to him, and storiesabout his affairs and escapades soon were bandied around in scandalized fac-ulty gatherings. Mrs. Veblen was much perturbed by these affairs andthreatened to leave him. Matters were not made easier by his habit of leavingin his pockets the letters he received from his female admirers. In all theseaffairs, Veblen was more the pursued than the pursuer. "What is one to dowhen a woman moves in on you?" he once complained. He remarked, some-what later, that "the president doesn't approve of my domestic arrangements.Nor do I." Nevertheless, his amatory escapades, even more than his scholarlyunorthodoxy and his unconventional teaching, made him an outcast in theuniversity's inner circles and eventually led to his dismissal.

In the Chicago days, Veblen pursued a kind of double-barreled strategy:he would alienate most students and faculty while at the same time buildinga close intellectual companionship with a chosen group of congenial colleagues.When his first and still most widely read book, The Theory of the LeisureClass, was published in 1899, the influence of such Chicago men as JacquesLoeb, Franz Boas, and William I. Thomas could be traced on virtually everypage.

The Theory of the Leisure Class helped bring Veblen to the attention of abroader public than he had enjoyed so far. It brought him a circle of admirerswho hailed the book as an epoch-making achievement. Lester Ward, the deanof American sociology, praised it highly, as did William D. Howells, the deanof American letters. Veblen was now an intellectual force to be reckoned with.His next book, The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), perhaps his mostsystematic critique of American business, received a somewhat less enthusiasticresponse. Conservative critics complained about his destructiveness, his amor-alism, and his lack of appreciation for the virtues of free enterprise. Manyradicals, appreciative of his critique of capitalism, were nevertheless unhappyabout his rejection of Marxism. Others complained about his involuted styleand lack of clarity. Yet critics and admirers seemed to agree that Vebleniandoctrine was now an established feature on the intellectual scene.

As his fame outside the university grew, his life inside it became wellnigh impossible. When Veblen returned from a trip to Europe in 1904, duringwhich he had been accompanied by a female companion who was clearly nothis wife, he was asked by the university authorities to sign a paper declaringthat he would have no further relations with the woman involved. He repliedthat he was not in the habit of promising not to do what he was not ac-customed to doing. His days at Chicago were now numbered. He made effortsto secure a variety of appointments, among others to the Library of Congress,but all these efforts failed. Finally, Stanford University offered him an Associ-ate Professorship at a relatively high salary, and he joined its staff in 1906.

Veblen stayed at Stanford a little more than three years. His style of life,of morality, and of expression continued to be as unconventional as it had beenin Chicago. His wife, who had left him for a time, returned to him in PaloAlto, but the marriage was clearly on the rocks. Matters were not made easierwhen one of his Chicago admirers wrote him that she wanted to be the motherof a great man's children. Mrs. Veblen left him again. When his amatoryadventures could no longer be covered up, the administration forced him toresign in December 1909.

Veblen did not make the close intellectual friends at Stanford that he didat Chicago. The major elements of his "system," if such it can be called, hadbeen set down in the Chicago days. His subsequent books, beginning withThe Instinct of Workmanship (1914) on which he was working at Stanford,are, with one exception, only elaborations of previous lines of thought. Veblenprobably was therefore less eager for intellectual stimulation than he had beenearlier. He was as distant and aloof at Stanford as he had been at Chicago, butapparently made less of an effort to gather around himself a chosen few intel-lectual peers.

After having been forced to resign at Stanford, Veblen applied for a posi-tion at various schools. But the known circumstances of his severance fromStanford led every administration that was approached to recoil. Veblen was amarked man. To have offended the academic proprieties twice in a row wasjust too much. Finally, a former student, H. J. Davenport, came to the rescueand persuaded the president of the University of Missouri to offer Veblen aposition in its School of Commerce, of which Davenport was dean. EllenRolfe Veblen now secured a divorce and, as a result, the president of Stanford,in a recommendation to make the temporary appointment permanent, wroteto the president of the University of Missouri that he saw no reason why Veb-len should not be retained since he had now straightened out his matrimonialaffairs. In 19I4 Veblen married his second wife, Anne Fessenden Bradley, adivorcee whom he had known at Chicago and Stanford. The new Mrs. Veb-len, far less educated than the first, did all his typing, washed all the laundryand sewed all the clothes for her two daughters from an earlier marriage. Sheseems to have been totally devoted to Veblen, and being a radical like him, shewas wholeheartedly in favor of "the movement," forever discussing the virtuesof Socialism with the conventional faculty wives. She was also in full agree-ment with her husband's rather original ideas in regard to household duties.For example, the making of beds was considered a useless ceremonial; thecovers were merely turned down over the foot of the bed so that they couldbe easily drawn up at night. Dishes were washed only when the total supplywas exhausted; then they were stacked in a tub, a hose turned on them, and,after the water had been drained off, they were left to dry. Veblen alsoadvocated, though he stopped short of practicing, the making of clothes out ofdiscardable paper.

Although Veblen was coddled and indulged by a number of his formerstudents now on the staff of the University of Missouri, he lacked the widerintellectual companionship he had enjoyed at Chicago and, to a degree, atStanford. Neither faculty nor students at the University of Missouri were ofthe quality that Veblen had been accustomed to; as a result, he withdrew evenmore. As his health grew poorer and he began to feel the weight of years, hiscourses became even less organized than before, and his contempt for his stu-dents deepened. The university authorities were flattered to have attracted aman of his reputation, but they felt he was not contributing fully. As a result,he never got a permanent position and remained a lecturer, whose appoint-ment had to be renewed annually, during the entire seven years of his stay.His Stanford salary had been $3000; at Missouri he was paid under $2000in his first few years and received only $2400 in 1917, just before he left.

While at Missouri, Veblen completed his third book, The Instinct ofWorkmanship, and soon after the beginning of World War I, he publishedhis Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, one of his more importantworks. Soon after, there followed, An Inquiry into the Nature of the Peace (1918), a less significant and more ephemeral book. In the same year, hefinally published his savage onslaught on the structure and operation of theAmerican university, The Higher Learning in America, most of which hadbeen put to paper in the Chicago days. The books that followed were eithercollections of previously published papers or restatements usually in somewhatmore high-flown language, of points he had made before. These books includedThe Vested Interests and the Common Man (1919), The Place of Science inModern Civilization (1919), The Engineers and the Price System (1921) andAbsentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times (1923).

From Coser, 1977:278-285.


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