Economist and social scientist Thorstein Veblen has been called one of America’s most original and creative thinkers. His highly acclaimed treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) introduced the term “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen’s body of work remains seminal reading in understanding the modern consumer society and criticisms of capitalism.
Thorstein Bunde Veblen was born on July 30, 1857, in Cato Township, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. He was the sixth of twelve children born to his parents, Thomas and Kari Bunde, who had emigrated in 1847 from Vang, Valdres, Norway. In the summer of 1865, the family moved to Nerstrand, Wheeling Township, Rice County, Minnesota.
In 1874, when Veblen was seventeen, his father sent him without consultation to the preparatory school at Carleton College in Northfield. Thomas Veblen, a strong believer in education, had built a house near campus for his children while they attended school. All told, eight Veblen children matriculated at Carleton, including Emily (1855–1953), who graduated in 1881. She is considered the first Norwegian American woman to earn a college degree in the United States.
At Carleton, Thorstein Veblen was viewed as cynical and something of a misfit with a rebellious nature. His brilliance was obvious, but not readily appreciated by others at Carleton. However, a young instructor and future renowned economist, John Bates Clark (1847–1938), took an interest in Veblen and encouraged the study of economics. Veblen matriculated with ease in both the preparatory and college departments. He completed the required college course work in three years instead of the standard four years, graduating in 1880.
In pursuit of an academic career between 1880 and 1891, Veblen pinballed between achieving further education, staff appointments, health concerns, and marriage. Following graduation from Carleton, he taught for one year at Monona Academy in Madison, Wisconsin. When the academy closed its doors in 1881, Veblen was out of a job.
In the same year he briefly pursued graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. After failing to obtain a scholarship, Veblen transferred to Yale University. In 1884 he graduated from Yale with a PhD in philosophy. Following graduation, he earnestly tried to secure a teaching position without success. Despondent, Veblen returned home to the family farm in Nerstrand.
Veblen told his family that he suffered from malaria and needed time to recover. A dispirited malaise characterized his life until 1888, when he married fellow Carleton College classmate Ellen Rolfe (Class of 1881). A younger brother of Thorstein’s wryly remarked of this period, “He read and loafed, and the next day he loafed and read.”
After their marriage, the couple moved to a farm in Stacyville, Mitchell County, Iowa. The farm was gifted to them by her uncle, a Santa Fe Railroad magnate named W. B. Strong. A critical moment for Veblen occurred upon reading the popular utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy. Deriving inspiration from the book, and with prodding by his wife, Veblen entered graduate school in 1891 at Cornell University to study economics.
While at Cornell, Veblen was mentored by James Laurence Laughlin (1850–1933). When Laughlin took a position in 1892 as the head of the economics department at the newly established University of Chicago, he asked his protégé, Veblen, to join him. In the next fourteen years while at Chicago, Veblen firmly established himself with the publication of The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), which introduced the term “conspicuous consumption.” Upon the book’s release, a fashionable conversation subject entered the American lexicon, one known as “Veblenism.”
From 1906 to 1926, Veblen held teaching posts at Stanford University, the University of Missouri, and the New School for Social Research in New York City. His often-strained marriage ended in divorce in 1911. Veblen remarried Anne Fessenden Bradley in 1914. She died in 1920. He passed away in California on August 3, 1929, at the age of seventy-two.
To his credit, Veblen authored ten books, several of which remain in print, and over 150 articles. Although in Veblen’s lifetime he was often scrutinized as unorthodox with roguish ideas, his theories remain integral in contemporary conversation.
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