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Veblen,
a grayfaced shambling man lolling resentful at his desk with his cheek on his hand, in a low sarcastic mumble of intricate phrases subtly paying out the logical inescapable rope of matter-of-fact for a society to hang itself by,
dissecting out the century with a scalpel so keen, so comical, so exact the the professors and students ninetenths of the time didn't know it was there, and the magnates and the respected windbags and the appluaded loudspeakers never knew it was there.
Veblen
asked too many questions, sufferend  from a constitutional inability to say yes.
Socrates asked questions, drank down the bitter drink one night when the first cock crowed,

but Veblen

drank it in little sips through a long life in the stuffiness of classrooms, the dust of libraries, the statleness of cheap flats such as a poor instructor can afford.  He fought the bogy all right, pedantry, routine, timesavers at office desks, trustees, collegepresidents, the plump flunkies of the ruling businessmen, all the good jobs kept for yesmen, never enough money, every broadening hope thwarted.  Veblen drank the bitter drink all right.

The Veblens were a family of freeholding farmers.
The freeholders of the narrow Norwegian valleys were a stubborn hardworking people, farmers, dairymen, fishermen, rooted in their fathers' stony fields, in their old timbered farmsteads with carved gables they took their names from, in the upland pastures where they grazed the stock in summer.
During the early nineteenth century the towns grew:  Norway filled up with landless men, storekeepers, sheriffs, moneylenders, bailiffs, notaries in black with stiff collars and briefcases full of foreclosures under their arms.  Industries were coming in.  The townsmen were beginning to get profit out of the country and to finagle the farmers out of the freedom of their narrow farms.
The meanspirited submitted as tenants, daylaborers;  but the strong men went out of the country
as their fathers had gone out of the country centuries before when Harald the Fairhaired and Saint Olaf hacked to pieces the liberties of the Northern men, who had been each man lord of his own creek, to make Christians and serfs of them,
only in the old days it was Iceland, Greenland, Vineland the Northmen had sailed west to;  now it was America.
Both Thorstein Veblen's father's people and his mother's people had lost their farmsteads and with them the names that denoted them free men.
Thomas Anderson for a while tried to make his living as a traveling carpenter and cabinetmaker, but in 1847 he and his wife, Kari Thorsteinsdatter, crossed in a whalingship from Bremen and went out to join friends in the Scandihoovian colonies round Milwaukee.
Next year his brother Haldor joined him.
They were hard workers;  in another year they had saved up money to pre-empt a claim on a hundred and sixty acres of uncleared land in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin;  when they'd gotten that land part cleared they sold it and moved to an all-Norway colony in Manitowoc County, near Cato, and a place named Valders after the valley they had all come from in the old country;
there in the house Thomans Anderson built with his own tools, the sixth of twelve children, Thorstein Veblen was born.
When Thorstein was eight years old, Thomas Anderson moved west again into the blacksoil prairies of Minnesota that the Sioux and the buffalo had only been driven off from a few years before.  In the deed to the new farm Thomas Anderson took back the old farmstead name of Veblen.

He was a solid farmer, builder, a clever carpenter, the first man to import merino sheep and a mechanical reaper and binder;  he was a man of standing in the group of Norway people farming the edge of the prairie, who kept their dialects, the manner of life of their narrow Norway valleys, their Lutheran pastors, their homemade clothes and cheese and bread, their suspicion and stubborn dislike of townsmen's ways.
The townspeople were Yankees mostly, smart to make two dollars grow where a dollar grew before, storekeepers, middlemen, speculators, moneylenders with long heads for politics and mortgages;  they despised the Scandihoovian dirtfamers they lived off, whose daughters did their wives' kitchenwork.
The Norway people believed as their fathers had believed that there were only two callings for an honest man, farming or preaching.

Thorstein grew up a hulking lad with a reputation for lazines and wit.  He hated the irk of overrepeated backbreaking chores around the farm.  Reading he was happy.  Carpentering he liked or running farmmachinery.  The Lutheran pastors who came to the house noticed that his supple mind slid  easily round the corners of their theology.  It was hard to get farmwork out of him;  he had a stinging tongue and was famous for the funny names he called people;  his father decided to make a preacher out of him.
When he was seventeen he was sent for out of the field where he was working.  His bag was already packed, horses hitched up.  He was being sent to Carleton Acaemy in Northfield, to prepare for Carleton College.
As there were several young Veblens to be educated, their father built them a house on a lot near the campus.  Their food and clothes were sent to them from the farm.  Cash money was something they never saw.
Thorstein spoke English with an accent.  He had a constitutional inability to say yes.  His mind was formed on the Norse sagas and on the matter-of-fact sense of his father's farming and the exact needs of carpenterwork and threshingmachines.
He could never take much interest in the theology, sociology, economics of Ccarleton College where they were busy trimming down the jagged dogmas of the old New England Bibletaught traders to make stencils to hang on the walls of commissioningmerchants' offices.
Veblen's collegeyears were the years when Darwin's assertions of growth and becoming were breaking the set molds of the Noah's Ark world;
when Ibsen's women were tearing down the portières of the Victorian parlors,
and Marx's mighty machine was rigging the countinghouse's own logic to destroy the countinghouse.
When Veblen went home to the farm, he talked about these things with his father, following him up and down at his plowing, starting an argument while they were waiting for a new load for the wheatthresher.  Thomas Anderson had seen Norway and America;  he had the squarebuilt mind aof a carpenter and builder, and an understanding of tools and the treasured elaborated builtupseasonbyseason knowledge of a careful farmer,
a tough whetstone for the sharpening steel of young Thorstein's wits.

At Carleton College young Veblen was considered a brilliant unsound eccentric;  nobody could understand why a boy of such attainments couldn't settle down to the business of the day, which was to buttress property and profits with anything usable in the débris of Christian ethics and eighteenth-century economics that cluttered the minds of college proressors, and to reinforce the sacred, already shaky edifice with the new strong girderwork of science Herbert Spencer was throwing up for the benefit of the bosses.
People complained they never knew whether Veblen was joking or serious.
In 1880 Thorstein Veblen started to try to make his living by teaching.  A year in an academy at Madison, Wisconsin wasn't much of a success.  Next year he and his brother Andrew started graduate work at Johns Hopkins.  Johns Hopkins didn't suit, but boarding in an old Baltimore house with some ruined gentlewomen gave him a disdaining glimpse of an etiquette motheaten now but handed down through the lavish leisure of the slaveowning planter's mansions straight from the merrie England of the landlord cavaliers.
(The valleyfarmers had always been scornful of outlanders' ways.)
He was more at home at Yale, where in Noah Porter he found a New England roundhead granite against which his Norway granite rang in clear dissent.  He tok his Ph.D. there.  But there was still some question as to what department of the academic world he could best make a living in.
He read Kant and wrote prize essays.  But he couldn't get a job.  Try as he would he couldn't get his mouth around the essential yes.
He went back to Minnesota with a certain intolerant knowledge of the amenities of the higher learning.  To his slight Norwegian accent he'd added the broad "a."

At home he loafed about the farm and tinkered with inventions of new machinery and read and talked theology and philosophy with his father.  In the Scandihoovian colonies the price of wheat and the belief in God and Saint Olaf were going down together.  The farmers of the Northwest were starting their long losing fight against the parasite businessmen who were sucking them dry.  There was a mortgage on the farm, interest on debts to pay, always fertilizer, new machines to buy to speed production to pump in a halfcentury the wealth out of the soil laid down in a million years of buffalograss.  His brothers kept grumbling about this sardonic loafer who wouldn't earn his keep.
Back home he met again his college sweetheart, Ellen Rolfe, the niece of the president of Carleton College, a girl who had railroadmagnates and money in the family.  People in Northfield were shocked when it came out that she was going to marry the drawling pernickety bookish badly-dressed young Norwegian ne'erdowell.
Her family hatched a plan to get him a job as economist  for the Santa Fe Railroad, but at the wrong moment Ellen Rolfe's uncle lost control of the line.  The young couple went to live at Stacyville where they did everything but earn a living.  They read Latin and Greek and botanized in the woods and along the fences and in the roadside scrub.  They boated on the river and Veblen started his translation of the Laxdaelasaga.  They read Looking Backward and articles by Henry George.  They looked at their world from the outside.

In '91 Veblen got together some money to go to Cornell to do postgraduate work.  He turned up there in the office of the head of the economics department wearing a coonskin cap and gray corduroy trousers and said in his low sarcastic drawl, "I am Thorstein Veblen,"

but it was not until several years later, after he was established at the new University of Chicago that had grown up next to the World's Fair, and had published The Theory of the Leisure Class, put on the map by Howell's famous review, that the world of the higher learning knew who Thorstein Veblen was.
Even in Chicago as the brilliant young economist he lived pioneer-fashion.  (The valleyfarmers had always been scornful of outlanders' ways.)  He kept his books in packingcases laid on their sides along the walls.  His only extravagances were the Russian cigarettes he smoked and the red sash he sometimes sported.  He was a man without smalltalk.  When he lectured he put his cheek on his hand and mumbled out his long spiral sentences, reiterative like the eddas.  His language was a mixture of mechanics' terms, scientific latinity, slang, and Roget's Thesaurus.  The other profs couldn't imagine why the girls fell for him so.
Tongues wagged so (Veblen was a man who never explained, who never could get his tongue around the essential yes;  the valleyfarmers had always been scornful of the outlanders' ways, and their opinions) that his wife left him and went off to live alone on a timberclaim in Idaho and the president asked for his resignation.
Veblen went out to Idaho to get Ellen Rolfe to go with him to California when he succeeded in getting a job at a better salary at Leland Stanford, but in Palo Alto it was the same story as in Chicago.  He suffered from woman trouble and the constitutional inability to say yes and an unnatural tendency to feel with the workingclass instead of with the profittakers.  There were the same complaints that his courses were not constructive or attractive to bigmoney bequests and didn't help his students to butter their bread, make Phi Beta Kappa, pick plums off the hierarchies of the academic grove.  His wife left him for good.  He wrote to a friend, "The president doesn't approve of my domestic arrangements;  nor do I."
Talking about it he once said, "What is one to do if the woman moves in on you?"
He went back up to the shack in the Idaho woods.
Friends tried to get him an appointment to make studies in Crete, a chair at the University of Pekin, but always the bogy, routine, businessmen's flunkies in all the university offices... for the questioner the bitter drink.

His friend Davenport got him an appointment at the University of Missouri.  At Columbia he lived like a hermit in the basement of the Davenports' house, helped with the work round the place, carpentered himself a table and chairs.  He was already a bitter elderly man with a gray face covered with a net of fine wrinkles, a Vandyke beard and yellow teeth.  Few students could follow his courses.  The college authorities were often surprised and somewhat chagrined that when visitors came from Europe, it was always Veblen they wanted to meet.
Those were the years he did most of his writing, trying out his ideas on his students, writing slowly at night in violet ink with a pen of his own designing.  Whenever he published a book, he had to put up a guarantee with the publishers.  In The Theory of Business Enterprise, The Instinct of Workmanship, The ested Interests and the Common Man,
he established a new diagram of a society dominated by monopoly capital,
etched in irony
the sabotage of production by business,
the sabotage of life by blind need for money profits,
pointed out the alternatives:  a warlike society strangled by the bureaucracies of the monopolies forced by the law of diminishing returns to grind down more and more the common man for profits,
or a new matter-of-fact commonsense society dominated by the needs of the men and women who did the work and the incredibly vast possibilities for peace and plenty offered by the progress of technology.

These were the years of Debs' speeches, growing labor-unions, the I.W.W. talk about industrial democracy;  these years Veblen still held to the hope that the workingclass would take over the machine of production before monopoly had pushed the western nations down into the dark again.

War cut across all that;  under the cover of the bunting of Woodrow Wilson's phrases the monopolies cracked down, American democracy was crushed.
The war at least offered Veblen an opportunity to break  out of the airless greenhouse of academic life.  He was offered a job with the Food Administration, he sent the Navy Department a device for catching submarines by trailing lengths of stout bindingwire. (Meanwhile the government found his books somewhat confusing.  The postoffice was forbidding the mails to Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution while propaganda agencies were sending it out to make people hate the Huns.  Educators were denouncing The Nature of Peace while Washington experts were clipping phrases out of it to add to the Wilsonian smokescreen.)
For the Food Administration Thorstein Veblen wrote two reports;  in one he advocated granting the demands of the I.W.W. as a wartime measure and conciliating the workingclass instead of beating up and jailing all the honest leaders;  in the other he pointed out that the Food Administration was a businessman's racket and was not aiming for the most efficient organisation of the country as a producing machine.  He suggested that, in the interests of the efficient prosecution of the war, the government step into the place of the middleman and furnish necessities to the farmers direct in return for raw materials;
but cutting out business was not at all the Administration's idea of making the world safe for democracy;
so Veblen had to resign from the Food Administration.
He signed the protests against the trial of the hundred and one wobblies in Chicago.

After the armistice he went to New York.  In spite of all the oppression of the war years, the air was freshening.  In Russia the great storm of revolt had broken, seemed to be sweeping west;  in the strong gusts from the new world in the wast the warshodden multitudes began to see again.  At Versailles allies and enemies, magnates, generals, flunky politicians were slamming the shutters against the storm, against the new, against hope.  It was suddenly clear for a second in the thundering glare what war was about, what peace was about.
In America, in Europe, the old men won.  The bankers in their offices took a deep breath, the bediamoned old ladies of the leisure class went back to clipping their coupons in the refined quiet of their safe-deposit vaults.
The last puffs of the ozone of revolt went stale
in the whisper of speakeasy arguments.

Veblen wrote for the Dial,
lectured at the New School for Social Research.
He still had a hope that the engineers, the technicians, the nonprofiteers whose hands were on the switchboard might take up the fight where the workingcass had failed.  He helped form the Technical Alliance.  His last hope was the British general strike.
Was there no group of men bold enough to take charge of the magnificent machine before the pigeyed speculators and the yesmen at office desks irrevocablly ruined it
and with it the hopes of four hundred years?

No one went to Veblen's lectures at the New School.  With every article he wrote for the Dial the circulation dropped.
Harding's normalcy, the new era was beginning;
even Veblen made a small killing on the stockmarket.
He was an old man and lonely,
his second wife had gone to a sanatarium suffering from delusions of persecution.
There seemed no place for a masterless man.

Veblen went back out to Palo Alto
to live in his shack in the tawny hills and observe from outside the last grabbing urges of the profit system taking on, as he put it, the systematized delusions of dementia praecox.
There he finished his translation of the Laxdaelsaga.

He was an old man.  He was much alone.  He let the woodrats take what they wanted from his larder.  A skunk that hung round the shack was so tame he'd rub up against Veblen's leg like a cat.
He told a friend he'd sometimes hear in the stillness about him the voices of his boyhood taking Norwegian as clear as on the farm in Minnesota where he was raised.  His friends found him harder than ever to talk to, hardre than ever to interest in anything.  He was running down.  The last sips of the bitter drink.
He died on August 3, 1929.
Among his papers a penciled note was found:
It is also my wish, in case of death, to be cremated if it can conveniently be done, as expeditiously and inexpensively as may be, without ritual or ceremony of any kind;  that my ashes be thrown loose into the sea or into some sizable stream running into the sea;  that no tombstone, slab, epitaph, effigy, tablet, inscription or monument of any name or nature be set up to my memory or name in any place or at any time;  that no obituary, memorial, portrait or biography of me, nor any letters written to or about me be printed or published, or in any way reproduced, copied or circulated;
but his memorial remains
riveted into the languages:
the sharp clear prism of his mind.

-- THE BITTER DRINK, by John dos Passos, from The Big Money, vol III of the USA Trilogy.

And as this is not in Project Gutenberg or any other ascii vault I could find, I had to type it in -- yowza!

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 08:19:21 PM EST
De,
Thanks for the work. I drank in every word.

Time to get one of his books now.

by citizen on Mon Feb 26th, 2007 at 12:45:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh DeAnader

This is wonderful.  Thank you so much.  I thought I had read all the good stuff written about Veblen.  I was wrong.

If you don't mind, I'll put this on my website.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Mon Feb 26th, 2007 at 01:36:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am posting three pictures I rarely show because most people cannot understand why they are interesting.  But after DeAnder's hand-typed addition to our lives, these pictures mean something.  Dos Passos "got" Veblen!!!

Stanford house

This is the house where Veblen died.  It was recently destroyed.  The land it sat on had become amazingly "valuable" there across the street from the Stanford Golf Course.

Veblen's table

Veblen was a son of a master carpenter--who was much more in love with ornamentation than his son.  This table was built by an old man.  It is about as plain as one can be.  Yet it is well-proportioned, sturdy, and carefully built.  There is actually a glue joint that ran the length of the top that does not show up on this picture.  This table was built by the man who wrote "The Theory of the Leisure Class" AND "The Instinct of Workmanship."

table detail

Nothing fancy about this joint.  Veblen's father built his Minnesota house using mortise and tenon joints on the FRAMING to save money on nails.  He laid the first hardwood floor in the county using groove and spline joints.  Thorstein very likely know how to make fancy joints, he simply choose not to on this table.  There were two of these tables--Veblen probably built them both in a single day.


"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Mon Feb 26th, 2007 at 02:25:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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