Last reviewed: June 2018
Norwegian American economist and sociologist.
July 30, 1857
August 3, 1929
Menlo Park, California
Thorstein Bunde Veblen was born to Norwegian immigrant parents on a farm in Wisconsin when that state was still largely on the frontier. In 1865 the family moved to a 290-acre farm in Minnesota in a Norwegian community where Old World ways and speech were dominant. When Veblen was seventeen, his father, eager for his children to be educated, enrolled his son at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota Thorstein Veblen.
After graduation Veblen went to Madison, Wisconsin, where he taught for a year (1880–81) at Monona Academy. Afterward, he attended the Johns Hopkins University. Failing to receive a fellowship there, he left before the first term’s end for Yale College (now Yale University), where he took a PhD in philosophy in 1884. That same year, two of his writings appeared: “Kant’s Critique of Judgment,” an essay on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy; and “The Distribution of the Surplus Revenue,” an essay on the surplus federal revenue of 1837, which won Yale’s John Addison Porter Prize for the year's best work of scholarship.
Unable to find a job despite his publications and his doctorate, Veblen returned to the farm in Minnesota. After marrying Ellen May Rolfe, whom he had known in college, he moved with her to a farm in Iowa. In 1891 he obtained a fellowship at Cornell University, continuing to write for academic journals. Through a friend he received a teaching fellowship at the new University of Chicago in 1892, where he remained until 1906. During this period he also served as editor of the Journal of Political Economy, from 1896 to 1905, and his two best-known works—The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904)—were published, making him famous outside academic circles.
Because of marital problems Veblen moved west, where he taught at Stanford University for slightly more than two years, from 1906 to 1909. During this time, he lived in a faculty cottage in Menlo Park, California, next to a house on Sand Hill Road that his wife had built herself “in order to keep track of her estranged husband's coming and goings,” according to scholar and history professor Russell Bartley. His reputation for infidelity eventually forced him to resign, and he returned to the Midwest, where in 1911 he took a position as lecturer at the University of Missouri. In 1914 he was married a second time, to Ann Bradley Bevans.
Veblen held his academic position at Missouri for seven years, continuing to write his controversial books. After a brief period as an editor of the Dial, he became a faculty member at the New School for Social Research in 1919, the same year it opened in New York City. Over the years his thought and writings became more bitter and increasingly revolutionary. Bevans died in 1920, leaving Veblen to care for her two daughters (his stepdaughters), Becky and Ann.
In 1923, Veblen's first wife, Ellen, offered to sell him the house on Sand Hill Road, and he accepted. Veblen retired from the New School in 1926 and, on the advice of his physician, moved back to California, accompanied by Becky. The two of them lived in the Sand Hill Road house until Veblen's from heart disease in 1929, just days after his seventy-second birthday.
Veblen’s was a stormy life. He was the subject of one of H. L. Mencken’s most derisive essays in the first series of his Prejudices, published in 1919; Mencken ridiculed Veblen’s tortured style and what he considered the essential hollowness of the ideas, concluding that Veblen was merely a “geyser of pish-posh.” Nevertheless, Veblen’s writings had a considerable influence on social and economic thought among those who opposed his theories as well as those who admired them.