'A disturbing genius, a visitor from another world'
Thorstein Veblen—from nearby Nerstrand, a Carleton grad—coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” spent seven years basically in hiding, and wrote a book that still drives economic thought 120 years after it was published.
On a quiet stretch of country road in rural Rice County there sits a perfectly preserved farmhouse in which one of the great minds of the late-19th Century was nurtured.
This farm was the boyhood home of Thorstein Veblen, who was unquestionably brilliant, and more than a bit eccentric. The place was so much a part of Veblen’s makeup that, after earning a Ph.D. from Yale in 1884, he went back to the farm and basically hid out in the attic for seven years, reading and thinking.
He said he was in poor health at the time, but as economist John Kenneth Galbraith has written, “Members of his family diagnosed [Thorstein’s] ailment as partly an allergy to manual toil.”
Within a few years, though, Veblen would become the most famous and controversial economist of his time. His book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” was massively influential upon its release in 1899.
In the book, he analyzed and satirized the Gilded Age barons who paraded their great wealth by building humongous mansions, traveling the world, and demonstrating that they were so rich they had no need to work. The means of gaining standing in American society, Veblen wrote, “are leisure and the conspicuous consumption of goods.”
Veblen was born in 1857 in Wisconsin, and was reared on the family farm in a tight-knit Norwegian-American settlement near Nerstrand, Minnesota. But the life of a farm hand was not for Veblen—a trait he demonstrated from an early age. As one of Veblen’s brothers remarked, “He read and loafed, and the next day he loafed and read.”
His mother doted on him, and Thorstein was said to be her favorite of her seven children. He was allowed to spend his time reading, while others did farm chores.
The neighbors were less than impressed. They found him to be lazy, cruel, and sarcastic, according to a Rice County Historical Society document. They apparently attempted to keep him from being confirmed in the community’s Lutheran church.
In 1877 at the age of 20, Veblen was sent by his parents to nearby Carleton College. There, he met his first wife, Ellen Rolfe, who was the niece of the college president.
Veblen graduated from Carleton within three years, then went east, first to Johns Hopkins University, and finally to Yale to earn his doctorate in 1884.
From Yale, he went back to the farm. After those seven years in the attic—during which he and Ellen were married, in 1888—he emerged in search of a university teaching position, eventually landing at the University of Chicago. While at Chicago in 1899, he wrote “The Theory of the Leisure Class.”
“The book is a tract on snobbery and social pretense,” Galbraith wrote in the introduction to a recent edition. “The book is truly a devastating put-down.”
The resulting controversy, though, was not entirely about Veblen’s economic theories. His personality traits and unusual living arrangements made him a figure of exasperation in more refined academic circles.
“Even by university standards, he was an oddball,” wrote Alex Beam in the Stanford University magazine, where Veblen taught after leaving Chicago. “Even his acolytes admitted that his lectures were incomprehensible.”
Eventually, Veblen’s first wife, Ellen, suffered a nervous breakdown (“Veblen was not an attentive husband,” Galbraith wrote) and the couple later divorced in 1911. But Veblen never lacked for female companionship, much to the chagrin of his more uptight colleagues.
“What is one to do if the woman moves in on you?” he asked.
In 1914, Veblen married a former student, Ann Bradley Bevans, and became a stepfather to and raised her two daughters.
Veblen went on to teach at the University of Missouri, and to write more books. For nearly 30 years, he spent summers on Washington Island, at the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, where he initially went to study the Icelandic language. Ann died in 1920.
Near the end of Veblen’s life, he returned to California to live in a cabin in the woods. When he died in 1929, his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
His reputation among scholars and editorialists waned for a while, but recent years have seen a rebirth of interest in Veblen’s theories.
“The objects of Veblen’s notorious critique in ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ strike a new resonance as stocks soar to record highs while millions are out of work or forced to labor in unsafe conditions, as the ultra-rich helicopter to the Hamptons for the pandemic while everyone else shelters in place,” wrote The Boston Review in 2020.
Veblen’s powerful intellect and peculiar habits made him “a disturbing genius, a visitor from another world,” Wesley C. Mitchell, founder of the National Bureau of Economic Research, once said.
More than one biographer, though, attributed Veblen’s otherworldliness to his growing up in—and later retreating to—that southern Minnesota farmstead.
“The Norwegian society that Veblen lived in was so isolated,” wrote Stanford historian George M. Fredrickson, that when he left it “he was, in a sense, emigrating to America.”
Actually, Veblen was just a visitor from the family farm in Nerstrand.
The homestead, the historic landmark
The Thorstein Veblen Farmstead is a National Historic Landmark, and is located at 16538 Goodhue Avenue, just north of Minnesota Highway 246 in southeastern Rice County. The property is privately owned and is not currently open to the public, according to the Thorstein Veblen Farm website, www.historicveblenfarm.com.
Veblen’s father, Thomas Veblen, built the home in 1866 on what was at one time a 200-acre property. The 1,869-square-foot, six-bedroom house was completed in 1870. The Veblens sold the property in 1893, and it remained a working farm under various owners until it was abandoned in 1970.
Over the next two decades the home and property were fully renovated. In addition to the home, the farm includes a granary and a barn, both also built by Thomas Veblen.