Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

The story of Veblen’s life seems sad to the modern reader: he had much trouble adapting himself to American life. Born of Norwegian parents in Wisconsin, educated at Carleton College, Johns Hopkins, and Yale, Veblen could find no appropriate academic employment until about seven years after he had been awarded his doctorate. Then, as a teacher at the University of Chicago and Stanford, his eccentricities and irregularities made him socially unacceptable. THE THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS was the first of a series of books in which he examined the nature of that society which did not accept him, which found him unsuited to it. Fairness of some of his judgments or the validity of some of his inferences may be questioned but one cannot question the ironic wit with which Veblen dissects American society. He is, in fact, in the great tradition of American humorists who assume a mask of simplicity for comic effect. With a straight face the sociologist demonstrates that “the relation of football to physical culture is much the same as that of the bull-fight to agriculture” or that “the ultimate ground for decency among civilized people [is] serviceability for the purpose of invidious comparison in pecuniary success.” Veblen has, of course, an extremely serious charge to make, but one must not fail to note the ironic and witty way in which he frames that charge.

Veblen states that the purpose of his study in THE THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS is to discuss the place and value of that class as an economic factor in modern life. Historically, the leisure class develops at the higher stages of barbarian culture. The occupations of this nonproductive class are government, warfare, religious observance, and sports. Communities with a leisure class must be predatory and rich enough to exempt a number of its members from everyday industry. Male members of the leisure class live for predatory exploit; women and lower class men live for drudgery. Possession of goods shows the success of the barbarian in predatory exploits. Possession of wealth becomes the basis for esteem. The drive to obtain esteem and respect, therefore, takes the form of pecuniary emulation. Pecuniary emulation requires that a man ostentatiously refrain from productive work...

(The entire section is 923 words.)