Thorstein Veblen seemed from the first like a good place to begin this series on “Books that Changed Their Minds.” His most famous work, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) was the oldest of the books featured in Malcolm Cowley’s 1938 New Republic forum that I’m using as my springboard, and, along with John Dewey, he was the only author to have five titles on the longer list that Cowley assembled. (For the curious: Walter Lippmann, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and Beatrice & Sidney Webb were the only others with as many as three titles listed.)
But as I discovered while reading more of the essays in the New Republic forum, and while thinking and reading more about the reception of Veblen during these years, 1900-1940, I recognized that Veblen is a fine place to start not just because of the prominence of his ideas and his texts, but because he can truly be taken as typical of a shallowness in the circulation of intellectuals and their texts during this time, and more particularly in the way they articulated what a “change of mind” entailed.
Initially, I had thought that the keyword in the forum’s title “Books That Changed Our Minds” was “mind”—how was the “American Mind” or even just “Our Minds” defined—who was included, who was excluded, how was it contrasted or connected to a “European Mind” or a “Communist Mind” or a “Fascist Mind?” But I now realize that the definition of “change” might be equally significant.
When I charge Cowley et al., with shallowness, it may well be that shallowness is intrinsic to curated lists and symposia like The New Republic’s (not that a blog post is going to be any deeper!), but I think it is also a feature especially marked during this time in the way “iconoclasts” like Veblen or Dreiser were elevated to sainthood, to a kind of exemplary irascibility and a holy, higher foolishness. In other words, what makes Veblen so vital to a project like Cowley’s is his paradigmatic status as a cause of minds changing upon contact with a text, or more accurately, upon contact with a kind of vital personal force that can be felt behind a text. This changing of one’s mind is most generally described as a liberation or an emancipation, a very odd locution given that what is being described is not just a throwing off of a previous intellectual “master,” but the eager self-indenturing to another.
Readers of Veblen like Rexford Tugwell, who wrote the New Republic forum’s essay on Veblen from late March 1939, or James Rorty or Stuart Chase were proud acolytes; acknowledging the extent to which his ideas molded their own was a badge of honor rather than an admission of unoriginality. That hardly seems like a “liberation.”
The paradoxical use of the language of emancipation to describe this breaking of a former intellectual subordination in order to form a new one directs us to think about how far this dynamic departs from the master-slave relationship of Hegel, how undialectical their idea of iconoclasm really is. What really marks most of this kind of autobiographical account of the “books that changed our minds” is the absolute linearity of their conception of change: readers jump from one intellectual master to another, like a cowboy performing a rodeo trick, leaping from horseback into a new saddle on the next horse.
Veblen is a perfect case study for this dynamic—or at any rate his readers make him into a perfect case study. Their accounts of Veblen emphasize four things: his martyrdom, his resolute defiance of his martyrdom, his resistance to writing in a way that courted comprehension, and his ultimate vindication by the course of events.
Effectively summarized, this was the story: Veblen was a stubborn man—made stubborn by circumstance but remaining stubborn by choice. Tugwell writes “he remained a stranger; when conciliatory gestures were made in his direction he chose to ignore them… secretly he had no doubt of his own superiority, although unpleasant experience had taught him the folly of revealing it. Indeed, it was the fear of ridicule that caused him to adopt the mask of irony and indifference he wore throughout his life.” He was seldom if ever given a hearing among the established social scientific journals and elites of his day (and he was even driven from two universities for his heterodox personal conduct), but he refused to acknowledge the utility of a little careerism, and his indifference won him an audience among a younger generation. Here’s John Dos Passos:
Veblen / asked too many questions, suffered from a constitutional inability to say yes. / Socrates asked questions, drank down the bitter drink one night when the first cock crowed, / but Veblen / drank it in little sips through a long life in the stuffiness of classrooms, the dust of libraries, the staleness of cheap flats such as a poor instructor can afford.
The greatest sign of Veblen’s “constitutional inability to say yes” was his constitutional inability to write invitingly. His prose was legendary for its opacity and its demandingness; Dos Passos described it as “long spiral sentences, reiterative like the eddas. His language was a mixture of mechanics’ terms, scientific latinity, slang, and Roget’s Thesaurus.” At one time, a professor at Amherst suggested that the requirement of Greek and Latin be supplanted by a course in Veblen: the students would still get the discipline of translating something difficult into English, and they might learn something relevant.
Comprehensible or no, what his acolytes had gleaned from his works was amply substantiated by events taking place only a couple months after he had died in August 1929. Veblen was remembered by many of his students as one of the few believers in the business cycle; Joseph Dorfman, one of his first biographers, quotes Stuart Chase’s glee at the vindication of Veblen’s morose prophecies: “Day by day, as the depression deepens, the soundness of his analysis, the awful import of his prophecy, becomes more apparent. It is a pity that he should not have been spared to witness, a faint, sardonic smile upon his lips, the brood of black ravens which have come to roost.”
Throughout, what I think we see is that Veblen’s “iconoclasm” is praised not for the vigor of its engagement with the leading ideas of his time, but for the purity of its aloofness. Opposite to the master-slave dialectic, recognition is never even struggled over, but is disdained; what is desired is not really victory but vindication, not self-consciousness but self-justification.
I’m obviously being very hard on the Veblenites here, and I’d be very happy to hear some more charitable readings, but it seems to me that the “change” that is indicated in the “Books that Changed Our Minds” is a pretty airy one, so insubstantial that I have trouble seeing where the “change” actually occurs.
 Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” was published in 1893, but it was not collected in a book until 1920, and that book, The Frontier in American History, is technically what Charles Beard addressed in the New Republic forum. An interesting side-note: The Nation’s review of The Frontier in American History ran side-by-side with its November 1920 review of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.
 Tugwell’s explanation for the origins of this stubbornness leaves much to be desired: “His smoldering animus is easily understood if it is kept in mind that he came of foreign peasant stock and that he grew up in the Midwest of the seventies and eighties.”
 This was written in June 1932, when over a third of non-farm employees were out of work. A great time for gloating.