THORSTEIN VEBLEN by Elizabeth Jorgensen

THORSTEIN VEBLEN

Victorian Firebrand
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A conspicuously flawed biography about the subversive economist who coined the term “conspicious consumption.— Veblen (1857—1929) wore out welcomes at Cornell, the University of Chicago, Stanford, the University of Missouri, and the New School School for Social Research (of which he was a co-founder) . The trouble was not just that he needled the ostentatious lifestyles—and organizational practices—of plutocrats in his classic Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). Rather, his reputation suffered because of “landfill of lies and half-truths” depicting him as an irredeemable womanizer, write the Jorgensens (Eric Berne, Mastergamesman, not reviewed). Drawing on newly opened archives at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and Carleton College, Veblen’s alma mater, the authors recast him as a chivalric lover who made an ill-advised marriage to his eccentric first wife, Ellen; as an intellect whose unconventional views on equality made him irresistible to women; as a barely solvent academic unable to attain positions worthy of his brilliance because of Ellen’s whispering campaigns; and as a sickly old man mourning the loss of his devoted second wife to madness and death. Though they strive admirably to set the record straight, the authors falter. Sometimes their comparisons are ludicrous (e.g., a disciple who lied about Veblen had “something like the mindset of the man who ‘adored’ John Lennon but eventually shot him”). Instead of quoting passages from significant letters that passed between Veblen, Ellen, and a student with whom he fell in love, the Jorgensens reproduce these letters in their entirety, then repeat them in the appendix. Worse, by failing to admit the shortcomings of Veblen’s theories, they—re unable to fully assess his enduring strengths as a skeptic who subjected classical economics to sociology and anthropology and as a writer whose satiric prose evokes comparisons to Wilde. A biography of a “dismal science” practitioner that is itself sort of dismal. (photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-7656-0258-X
Page count: 320pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1998