Thorstein Bunde Veblen: A Marginal Freelance
In 1917, when questions of war and peace assumed foremost importance in the minds of many American intellectuals, Veblen resolved to move to Washington to be nearer to the center of events. In the fall of 1917 President Wilson had asked Colonel House to bring together an academic study group to discuss the terms of a possible peace settlement. Veblen prepared several memoranda for this inquiry, but his contributions seem not to have been much appreciated. Soon, however, he was given another opportunity to serve the administration. Having been granted a leave of absence from Missouri, he joined the Food Administration as a special investigator. But his time in government service was short and nasty: he was as little concerned with pleas- ing governmental bureaucrats as he had been with placating their academic counterparts. Veblen was put to work investigating methods for alleviating the manpower shortage in the Midwest, which was impeding the harvest. He suggested that the despised Industrial Workers of the World, the antiwar syndicalist and radical organization that had been persecuted by the govern- ment, be used for harvesting. He proposed that members of the I.W.W. be enrolled under officers of their own choice as members of a collective labor force. In this way agricultural productiveness would be enhanced, and the persecution of the I.W.W. would cease. As might be expected, the proposal was received with a combination of hostility and indifference, as was another memorandum that suggested how the shortage of sales personnel in retail establishments could be overcome. The administration need only install a farm-marketing and retail-distribution system under the parcel-post division of the Post Office to avoid the waste resulting from an excessive number of retail 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 of country towns by nine tenths, and a consequent increase in the available labor supply, was not exactly attuned to the political realities of governmental policy- making. Veblen's sojourn among the Washington bureaucrats ended rather abruptly, having lasted less than five months.
During the war, Veblen's influence among a small group of left-wing intellectuals and progressive academics began to grow. Francis Hackett, the literary 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 of his work. Professor Frederick W. Taussig of Harvard called his Instinct of Workmanship a "brilliant and original book, like everything that comes from his pen," and Alvin Johnson spoke of the "sheer intellectual power of the author." 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, or put in jail for treason."
What Dell wrote in jest proved to be not so far from reality. In view of the obscurity of Veblen's approach, the Postmaster of the City of New York ruled that Imperial Germany could not be mailed since it fell under the provisions of the Espionage Act, while the official governmental propaganda agency, the Committee 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 of The Dial, as well as a key contributor to it. The magazine, which Ralph Waldo Emerson had founded, was now proposing to devote itself to matters of 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 a psychotic breakdown and had to be removed to a sanitarium--Veblen now experienced 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 his earlier writing, fitted perfectly the disillusioned mood that gripped the liberal world after the failure of Wilsonianism. Moreover, Veblen, who had up to this point always maintained the mask of the objective observer, now advocated a thoroughgoing revamping of the whole structure of American society. His writings in The Dial lacked the precision of his earlier work, but they made up for this by an impassioned rhetoric. Moreover, the man who had always held Marx at a distance, now praised the Russian Revolution. "The Bolshevist scheme of ideas," he wrote, "comes easy to the common man." He felt that salvation from the messy anarchy of predatory capitalism would come through the 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 many new admirers, while making some of his old friends uncomfortable. Walton Hamilton wrote that Veblen had better return to his work as a "certified economist," while Randolph Bourne and Maxwell Anderson felt that Veblen's ideas were seminal and permeated the whole intellectual atmosphere. The final accolade came when the great curmudgeon of American letters, H. L. Mencken, as conservative in his political views as he was radical in his cultural criticism, 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 the presses. . . . Everyone of intellectual pretensions read his works. . . There were Veblenists, Veblen clubs, Veblen remedies for all the sorrows of the world. There were even, in Chicago, Veblen girls--perhaps Gibson girls grown middle-aged and despairing." Mencken felt that this Veblen adulation was all so much hokum. He considered Veblen's writing intolerably bad, and his thinking "loose, flabby, cocksure, and preposterous."
Mencken predicted that the Veblen vogue would soon subside. He proved to be correct. The mood of revolt that had followed the failure of Wilsonianism soon subsided. Some leading intellectuals left in despair for exile in Europe, but the majority made their peace with America or drowned their anxieties in the pleasure-seeking whirl of the Jazz Age. Radicals were hounded and perse- cuted by the notorious Lusk Committee of the New York State Legislature and by 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 was turned Into a literary magazine. The newly organized New School for Social Research now offered him refuge. It boasted an eminent faculty including Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson, Wesley Mitchell, Harold Laski, Alexander Goldenweiser, and Horace Kallen, and promised to become the fountainhead of revolutionary departures in American education. Veblen had a fairly comfortable position there. His salary of $6000 was mainly contributed by a former student from the Chicago days who admired him greatly. He again 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 book Absentee Ownership. But he was becoming increasingly tired. He was now in his 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 him to write a paper discussing whether Jewish intellectual productivity would be increased if the Jews were given a land of their own and Jewish intellectuals were released from the taboos and restrictions that impeded them in the gentile world. Veblen accepted, and delivered his essay on "The Intellectual Pre- eminence of the Jews," in which he argued that the intellectual achievement of the Jews was due to their marginal status and persecuted role in an alien world, and that their springs of creativity would dry up should they become a people like any other in their own homeland. Needless to say, the essay was not published by the editor who had commissioned it. It appeared instead in The Political Science Quarterly of Columbia University.
A few years later, some of Veblen's admirers urged his nomination for the presidency of the American Economic Association. Conservative members of the old school objected. After a long academic wrangle it was decided that he would be nominated, provided that he would consent to become a member of the Association. Veblen refused. "They didn't offer it to me when I needed it," 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 desultory contact with the leaders of what was to become the short-lived technocratic movement, but none of this seemed to satisfy him. When meeting with friends or 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 the protection of his friends. Ellen Rolfe died in May, 1926. In 1927 Veblen decided to return to California in the company of his stepdaughter Becky. He pre- tended to himself that this was only a temporary visit, but probably knew there would be no return.
Back in Palo Alto, Veblen lived for a year in an old town shack that he still owned from his Stanford days. He later moved into his mountain cabin in the adjacent hills, where he lived in almost total isolation. Eager for conversation, he felt altogether lonely and neglected. Everyone, he thought, had forgotten him. Worried about his financial situation, he tried (and failed) to recoup his investments in the collapsing raisin industry. Absentee ownership did not profit him.
In the summer of 1929, Veblen made plans to return East, but a relative persuaded him that his ill health would not allow this. On August 3, 1929, he died of heart disease.
As the depression struck America in the year of Veblen's death, he was suddenly rediscovered. Some of his admirers and disciples, including Rexford Tugwell, A. A. Berle, Thurman Arnold, and Felix Frankfurter, became lead- ing members of Roosevelt's braintrust or intellectual spokesmen for the New Deal. They all attempted to apply Veblenian doctrine to the social and eco- nomic reconstruction, which was now the order of the day. Leading left-wing spokesmen and publicists such as Stuart Chase, John Chamberlain, and Max Lerner 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 The New Republic to name "The Books that Changed [Their] Minds'' Veblen's name came first on the list. At the time of his death, the total sales of his ten books was approximately 4o,ooo copies. Over half of this was represented by The Theory of the Leisure Class, the only book by which he was then re- membered. Between February 1930 and September 1934, his books sold about 4,000 copies. Today most of them are available in paperback, and The Theory of 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 lead twenty years too soon.
From Coser, 1977:285-289.