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The Naughty Professor

Thorstein Veblen was a renowned economist when he came to Stanford in 1906. But his untidy "domestic affairs" and disdain for teaching cut short his tenure.

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By Alex Beam

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Stanford President David Starr Jordan, the eminent ichthyologist charged with staffing up the new University, landed a big one: Thorstein Veblen, the most famous economist in America. After some dickering over salary--Veblen wanted $3,000 a year but had to settle for $2,500--the controversial Norwegian-American left his post at the University of Chicago and headed West in 1906. It was a lateral move at best. Chicago, awash in Rockefeller money, was gaining recognition as one of the nation's great academic centers. Stanford, only 15 years old, had just been ravaged by an earthquake. The rural, dusty, coltish University was still struggling to its feet.

So who was Thorstein Veblen? As his name and works vanish from required reading lists across the country, few remember that this taciturn farmer's son from Wisconsin revolutionized the study of economics in turn-of-the-century America. Before Veblen, economics in America was a sleepy, unscientific apologia for laissez-faire capitalism. After Veblen, it was something else again.

The 1899 publication of Veblen's landmark critique, The Theory of the Leisure Class, inspired a new generation of social critics to challenge the comfortable assumptions of dog-eat-dog "Darwinian" economics. According to one of his most enduring formulations, the "leisure class" acquired goods not to use but for "conspicuous consumption," just as primitive tribal chieftains wore beads and shards of broken glass. Veblen was a most unpopular prophet in his own country. H.L. Mencken dismissed him as the "head Great Thinker to the parlor radicals"--an odd match for the pragmatic-minded university that Jane Stanford and David Jordan were assembling on her late husband's farm.

* * *

Veblen's Stanford sojourn was destined to be brief and eventful. He was contrary, and a contrarian; even by university standards, he was an oddball. Like many scholars, he found academic life to be pettifogging and inane. Unlike many scholars, however, he wasn't afraid to say so.

Furthermore, the 49-year-old newcomer had what might delicately be called a "woman problem." In an introduction to The Portable Veblen, social critic Max Lerner wrote that Veblen "was a striking figure, and not a few women found him an interesting one. He on the other hand scorned the furtiveness that academic life required in such matters, and his wife was not averse to making scenes."

Veblen's troubled Stanford years remind us that great brains do not a great professor make. Even his acolytes admitted that his lectures were incomprehensible. He mumbled, and recited the same material to undergraduate audiences and doctoral seminars. He hated the grading system, and willfully switched A's to C's and vice versa. "My grades are like lightning," he once said. "They are liable to strike anywhere." Students shunned him, and the feeling was mutual. One year, his posted office hours changed from "10-11, MWF" to "10-10:05, Mondays."

"The ideal situation for a professor, he appeared to think, was not to have any students at all," wrote journalist Robert Duffus in a 1944 memoir. Hired to bolster the economics department, Veblen instead set off a rush for the exits. During his three years at the Farm, enrollment in his "Economic Factors in Civilization" dropped from 12 students to 3. The sign-up sheet for his "History of Political Economy" ranged from 3 students to 11.

Duffus was a student of Veblen's who became the professor's friend. Veblen was renting Cedro Cottage (across Sand Hill Road near the present-day Oak Knoll School) from the University, and needed help caring for the menagerie of hens, roosters, horses and cows roaming the 24-acre site. Duffus chopped firewood and swabbed the stables in return for room and board, a barter arrangement that pleased the celebrated economist: "No cash nexus," was how Veblen described their terms of trade.

Duffus and the other lodgers came to appreciate Veblen's sardonic wit and eccentricities. This was, after all, a man who eschewed typewriters and deemed the newfangled telephone a nuisance. When dirty dishes piled up, he hauled them outside and doused them with a garden hose.

* * *

Duffus was aware of Veblen's fondness for extramarital dalliances, although he didn't know the full history. While at the University of Chicago, Veblen vacationed in Europe with another man's wife. The aggrieved husband demanded the economist sign a statement saying he would not see the woman again. When Veblen refused, writes his biographer Joseph Dorfman, "[his] days at Chicago were numbered." (The whereabouts of Veblen's wife, the long-suffering Ellen, were a matter of conjecture; she often retreated to a family-owned Oregon timber claim when life with her husband became stressful. "Mrs. Veblen did not appreciate these affairs," Dorfman notes, "and he made the situation more difficult by his habit of leaving in his pockets the letters he received from his women admirers.")

In Palo Alto, Veblen acted discreetly. Only once, according to Duffus, did a young woman spend the night at the Cedro homestead, and she introduced herself at the dinner table as the professor's niece. Driving back to Cedro in a horse and buggy after escorting his guest to the train station, the laconic Veblen mumbled only one comment to Duffus: "That is not my niece."

Veblen's more serious entertaining took place at a ramshackle hut in the Santa Cruz mountains, a converted chicken coop he "borrowed" from the Cedro property and had hauled into the hills by oxcart. "Veblen had a way of asking his girl students to spend weekends with him in a cabin in the woods," according to Van Wyck Brooks, who was President Jordan's private secretary. "I remember the puzzled look with which [Jordan] said of Veblen, 'What can you do with such a man?' "

* * *

What indeed? The Stanford Special Collections archive has remnants of a triangular correspondence among Ellen Veblen, her husband, and a reluctant President Jordan. Mrs. Veblen was living in Southern California when she asked Jordan to send her a portion of her husband's salary. Veblen wrote to Jordan that "she is not at present hampered for want of money." Jordan warned him that a court would require him to pay his wife hefty maintenance fees for desertion. At one point, Jordan dispatched Professor Archibald Treat to tell Veblen: "The president is disappointed with the conduct of your domestic affairs." A weary Veblen replied: "So am I, sir. So am I."

In late 1909, Veblen resigned and decamped to Europe to pursue Scandinavian archeological interests. Jordan, who wrote Veblen a tepid letter of recommendation, complained to Mrs. V.: "I do not find in Dr. Veblen any willingness to take responsibility for anything."

On that note, Stanford's Veblen era came to an abrupt end--just three years after he arrived on the Farm. Veblen even- tually found a home at New York's New School for Social Research. He continued to write, and one of his best-known works, The Higher Learning in America, is widely read as "payback" directed against Stanford and Chicago. Veblen dipped his pen in acid when describing the modern university president ("an itinerant dispensary of salutary verbiage"), trustees ("quite useless to the university") and professional schools ("the law school belongs in the modern university no more than a school of fencing and dancing").

At the end of his life, wracked by poor health and worn out by a nomadic career, Veblen returned to Palo Alto. He bought a tiny house on the Stanford campus, where he and his stepdaughter from his second marriage lived for two years before he collapsed from heart failure in the fall of 1929. As Duffus wrote: "He died when all the elements in American life that he had so brilliantly exposed, so mercilessly stripped and held up to scorn, were riding high and handsome. . . . The market was booming, but his own stock, the increment of lonely thinking, was low."

And then came the Crash.

Alex Beam, a 1996-97 Knight Journalism Fellow, is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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