A Marginal Freelance

In 1917, when questions of war and peace assumed foremost importancein the minds of many American intellectuals, Veblen resolved to move toWashington to be nearer to the center of events. In the fall of 1917 PresidentWilson had asked Colonel House to bring together an academic study groupto discuss the terms of a possible peace settlement. Veblen prepared severalmemoranda for this inquiry, but his contributions seem not to have been muchappreciated. Soon, however, he was given another opportunity to serve theadministration. Having been granted a leave of absence from Missouri, hejoined the Food Administration as a special investigator. But his time ingovernment service was short and nasty: he was as little concerned with pleas-ing governmental bureaucrats as he had been with placating their academiccounterparts. Veblen was put to work investigating methods for alleviatingthe manpower shortage in the Midwest, which was impeding the harvest. Hesuggested that the despised Industrial Workers of the World, the antiwarsyndicalist and radical organization that had been persecuted by the govern-ment, be used for harvesting. He proposed that members of the I.W.W. beenrolled under officers of their own choice as members of a collective laborforce. In this way agricultural productiveness would be enhanced, and thepersecution of the I.W.W. would cease. As might be expected, the proposalwas received with a combination of hostility and indifference, as was anothermemorandum that suggested how the shortage of sales personnel in retailestablishments could be overcome. The administration need only install afarm-marketing and retail-distribution system under the parcel-post divisionof the Post Office to avoid the waste resulting from an excessive number ofretail outlets. It must be conceded that a man who suggested to the administra-tion that his plans would lead to a reduction of the parasitic population ofcountry towns by nine tenths, and a consequent increase in the available laborsupply, was not exactly attuned to the political realities of governmental policy-making. Veblen's sojourn among the Washington bureaucrats ended ratherabruptly, having lasted less than five months.

During the war, Veblen's influence among a small group of left-wingintellectuals and progressive academics began to grow. Francis Hackett, theliterary editor of The New Republic, lost no opportunity to praise his work.Graham Wallas, in a review of Imperial Germany, called its author a genius.Max Weber and Werner Sombart had earlier expressed their appreciation ofhis work. Professor Frederick W. Taussig of Harvard called his Instinct ofWorkmanship a "brilliant and original book, like everything that comes fromhis pen," and Alvin Johnson spoke of the "sheer intellectual power of theauthor." Radicals like Floyd Dell wrote that his The Nature of the Peace"should result in his being either appointed to the President's War Council, orput in jail for treason."

What Dell wrote in jest proved to be not so far from reality. In view of theobscurity of Veblen's approach, the Postmaster of the City of New York ruledthat Imperial Germany could not be mailed since it fell under the provisionsof the Espionage Act, while the official governmental propaganda agency, theCommittee on Public Information, believed it to be excellent war propaganda.Some government bureaus thought the book damaging to America, while,others thought it damaging to Germany.

In the fall of 1918, Veblen moved to New York to become an editor ofThe Dial, as well as a key contributor to it. The magazine, which RalphWaldo Emerson had founded, was now proposing to devote itself to mattersof international reconstruction and to the reform of industry and education.Although the masthead included other major figures, John Dewey and Ran-dolph Bourne among them, the magazine was soon referred to as the "Veblen-ian Dial." For a year or two, and despite personal tragedy--his wife had apsychotic breakdown and had to be removed to a sanitarium--Veblen nowexperienced for the first time the pleasures of being an intellectual celebrity.Fame, which had eluded him for so long, now came to the man of sixty.

Veblen's articles for The Dial, more savage and mordant even than hisearlier writing, fitted perfectly the disillusioned mood that gripped the liberalworld after the failure of Wilsonianism. Moreover, Veblen, who had up to thispoint always maintained the mask of the objective observer, now advocateda thoroughgoing revamping of the whole structure of American society. Hiswritings in The Dial lacked the precision of his earlier work, but they madeup for this by an impassioned rhetoric. Moreover, the man who had alwaysheld Marx at a distance, now praised the Russian Revolution. "The Bolshevistscheme of ideas," he wrote, "comes easy to the common man." He felt thatsalvation from the messy anarchy of predatory capitalism would come throughthe matter-of-fact expertise of engineers; he called, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for a Soviet of Engineers.

These savage onslaughts on the established order gained Veblen manynew admirers, while making some of his old friends uncomfortable. WaltonHamilton wrote that Veblen had better return to his work as a "certifiedeconomist," while Randolph Bourne and Maxwell Anderson felt that Veblen'sideas were seminal and permeated the whole intellectual atmosphere. Thefinal accolade came when the great curmudgeon of American letters, H. L.Mencken, as conservative in his political views as he was radical in his culturalcriticism, honored Veblen with a fierce assault: "In a few months," he wrote,"almost in a few days, he was all over The Nation, The Dial, The New Repub-lic and the rest of them, and his books and pamphlets began to pour from thepresses. . . . Everyone of intellectual pretensions read his works. . . Therewere Veblenists, Veblen clubs, Veblen remedies for all the sorrows of theworld. There were even, in Chicago, Veblen girls--perhaps Gibson girls grownmiddle-aged and despairing." Mencken felt that this Veblen adulation was allso much hokum. He considered Veblen's writing intolerably bad, and histhinking "loose, flabby, cocksure, and preposterous."

Mencken predicted that the Veblen vogue would soon subside. He provedto be correct. The mood of revolt that had followed the failure of Wilsonianismsoon subsided. Some leading intellectuals left in despair for exile in Europe,but the majority made their peace with America or drowned their anxieties inthe pleasure-seeking whirl of the Jazz Age. Radicals were hounded and perse-cuted by the notorious Lusk Committee of the New York State Legislature andby the infamous raids of Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer, who led the man-hunt against those suspected of sympathy with the Russian Revolution.

Veblen's career at The Dial came to an end after one year, when it wasturned Into a literary magazine. The newly organized New School for SocialResearch now offered him refuge. It boasted an eminent faculty includingCharles Beard, James Harvey Robinson, Wesley Mitchell, Harold Laski,Alexander Goldenweiser, and Horace Kallen, and promised to become thefountainhead of revolutionary departures in American education. Veblen hada fairly comfortable position there. His salary of $6000 was mainly contributedby a former student from the Chicago days who admired him greatly. Heagain offered his by now-famous course on "Economic Factors in Civilization";he also worked on articles that continued The Dial series and were now pub-lished by another radical publication, The Freeman, and prepared his last bookAbsentee Ownership. But he was becoming increasingly tired. He was now inhis middle sixties, and age began to make itself felt.

Two ironic incidents from this last period of his life are worth recounting.The editor of a leading Jewish magazine approached Veblen and asked himto write a paper discussing whether Jewish intellectual productivity would beincreased if the Jews were given a land of their own and Jewish intellectualswere released from the taboos and restrictions that impeded them in the gentileworld. Veblen accepted, and delivered his essay on "The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews," in which he argued that the intellectual achievement ofthe Jews was due to their marginal status and persecuted role in an alienworld, and that their springs of creativity would dry up should they become apeople like any other in their own homeland. Needless to say, the essay was notpublished by the editor who had commissioned it. It appeared instead in ThePolitical Science Quarterly of Columbia University.

A few years later, some of Veblen's admirers urged his nomination forthe presidency of the American Economic Association. Conservative membersof the old school objected. After a long academic wrangle it was decided thathe would be nominated, provided that he would consent to become a memberof the Association. Veblen refused. "They didn't offer it to me when I neededit," he said.

In the middle twenties, although he had attracted new admirers and dis-ciples, Veblen felt increasingly lonely in New York. He had some desultorycontact with the leaders of what was to become the short-lived technocraticmovement, but none of this seemed to satisfy him. When meeting with friendsor foreign visitors, he often remained silent throughout the encounter. "His pro-tective mechanism of silence had become his master," says Dorfman. He be-came increasingly helpless in practical matters and relied almost entirely on theprotection of his friends. Ellen Rolfe died in May, 1926. In 1927 Veblen decidedto return to California in the company of his stepdaughter Becky. He pre-tended to himself that this was only a temporary visit, but probably knewthere would be no return.

Back in Palo Alto, Veblen lived for a year in an old town shack that he stillowned from his Stanford days. He later moved into his mountain cabin in theadjacent hills, where he lived in almost total isolation. Eager for conversation,he felt altogether lonely and neglected. Everyone, he thought, had forgottenhim. Worried about his financial situation, he tried (and failed) to recoup hisinvestments in the collapsing raisin industry. Absentee ownership did notprofit him.

In the summer of 1929, Veblen made plans to return East, but a relativepersuaded him that his ill health would not allow this. On August 3, 1929, hedied of heart disease.

As the depression struck America in the year of Veblen's death, he wassuddenly rediscovered. Some of his admirers and disciples, including RexfordTugwell, A. A. Berle, Thurman Arnold, and Felix Frankfurter, became lead-ing members of Roosevelt's braintrust or intellectual spokesmen for the NewDeal. They all attempted to apply Veblenian doctrine to the social and eco-nomic reconstruction, which was now the order of the day. Leading left-wingspokesmen and publicists such as Stuart Chase, John Chamberlain, and MaxLerner spread Veblen's message. William Ogburn and Robert Lynd incorpo-rated his thought into the fabric of their sociological investigations. In 1938,when a number of leading intellectuals were queried by the editors of TheNew Republic to name "The Books that Changed [Their] Minds'' Veblen'sname came first on the list. At the time of his death, the total sales of his tenbooks was approximately 4o,ooo copies. Over half of this was represented byThe Theory of the Leisure Class, the only book by which he was then re-membered. Between February 1930 and September 1934, his books sold about4,000 copies. Today most of them are available in paperback, and The Theoryof the Leisure Class has become a perennial best-seller in a variety of inex-pensive editions. Veblen paid a heavy penalty for having taken the leadtwenty years too soon.

From Coser, 1977:285-289.


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