Thorstein Veblen

The Person

Veblen drew a fine self-portrait in an essay entitled, "The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe," which he wrote toward the end of hiscareer. He says there that the Jewish man of ideas is saved from being intel-lectually passive "at the cost of losing his secure place in the scheme of con-ventions into which he has been born and . . . of finding no similarly secureplace in the scheme of gentile conventions into which he is thrown." As aconsequence, "he becomes a disturber of the intellectual peace, but at the costof becoming an intellectual wayfaring man, a wanderer in the intellectual no-man's-land, seeking another place to rest, farther along the road, somewhereover the horizon. [Such Jews] are neither a complaisant nor a contented lot,these aliens of the uneasy feet." Nothing could better characterize Veblen'sown life. Intentionally or not, he summed up in this passage the price andthe glory of his career.

A Marginal Norwegian

Thorstein Veblen was born on a frontier farm in Wisconsin on July 30,1857. He was a son of the Middle Border that produced in his generationLester Ward, Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon Parrington, and CharlesBeard, all men who, like himself, were to mount an assault against the re-ceived wisdom of the intellectual establishment of the East. But unlike theseother men, Veblen was almost as much a stranger to the culture of the Mid-west as he was to that of the East.

Veblen was the sixth of twelve children of Norwegian immigrants, his par-ents, Thomas Anderson Veblen and Kari Bunde Veblen, having come to Americaten years before his birth. They were of old Norwegian peasant stock, but hadhad a very hard time as children of tenant farmers in the old country. Veblen'spaternal grandfather had been tricked out of his right to the family farm andhad fallen from the honored status of farm owner to that of a despised tenant.His mother's father had likewise been forced to sell his farm in order to meetlawyers' fees and, crushed by this loss, had died still a young man, leavingVeblen's mother an orphan at the age of five.

After Veblen's parents emigrated to America to settle first in Wisconsinand then in Minnesota, they encountered obstacles similar to those faced bytheir parents in Norway. Land speculators drove them off their first landclaim; in their second venture they were forced to sell half their land in orderto pay usurious interest rates. Hatred of tricksters, speculators, and shysterlawyers ran deep in the family tradition and found characteristic expressionin much of Veblen's later writing.

Despite such obstacles, the Veblens managed through hard work, thrift,and single-minded devotion to the agricultural task at hand to acquire a self-sufficient farmstead in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where Thorstein was born.When he was eight years old, the family moved to a larger farm on theprairie lands of Wheeling Township in Minnesota. There his father became aleading farmer in the homogeneous Norwegian community, which, like otherNorwegian farming communities, lived in almost complete isolation from the sur-rounding world. Norwegian immigrants seldom met Yankees, except for busi-ness reasons or at political conventions. Frugal, hard-working and somewhatdour men piously following the prescriptions of their Lutheran religion, theyhad contempt for the loose ways of the Yankees and saw in them the repre-sentatives of a shallow, pleasure-loving, impious civilization. To the Norwe-gians, the Yankees seemed to be speculators, wheelers and dealers all, menwho couldn't be trusted, and whose ways were not only foreign but abhorrent.These sentiments also later found their way into Veblen's writings.

Although Veblen's parents were deeply rooted in the Norwegian com-munity and its traditional ways, they were nevertheless atypical. Their pious-ness notwithstanding, they refused to take part in sectarian quarrels overquestions of theology or church government, which tended to split these com-munities. Thomas Veblen minded his own affairs and was respected in thecommunity as a man of judgment and intelligence who, however, showedan unusual independence of conduct.

The son, quite early, took after the father. Children and elders alike wereimpressed by his precocious intelligence but found his almost compulsivelyindependent ways unsettling. In his early youth, he had fist fights with theboys, teased the girls, and pestered the older people. In his adolescent years,he sublimated aggression into sarcasm, corrosive wit, and scepticism. Whenthe time came for his confirmation, he submitted to the rite but made it clearthat he had already lost the faith. All in all, Veblen was as maladjusted in theNorwegian community and as alien to its life styles as he was later to be inthe American milieu.

From Coser, 1977:275-276.

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