The Theory of the Leisure Class

ImageI’m leafing through Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class; I first look at the introduction by Martha Banta, Professor Emeritus. Subheadings: “Veblen’s Pivotal Work”, “Critical Appraisals”, “Veblen’s Career”, “Darwin and Social Darvinism”… “Veblen on the Sorry Plight of Women”… all lofty ideas … and then: “Veblen and the Novelists” Novelists?

It starts with:

“Novelists prefer to tell stories that revolve around conflict, betrayals, self-deception, and the unholy drive to win the social race against all competitors. Although of some fictive use, figures of the New Woman or the Engineer were unable to supply enough protagonists for authors dedicated to relating how well the American Dream functions or how it often fails. It was everything else that Veblen put into his book that made it a treasure-lode rich in plot ideas for novelists of his generation and those who came after” (xxi, emphasis in original).

All I can think of are those extravagant party scenes at the Great Gatsby with Leonardo di Caprio 🙂

Martha Banta goes on to detail earnestly how novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Henry James and Edith Wharton modelled their characters on Veblen’s theory. Apparently in 1899, the same year when Veblen’s treatise was published, the then Dean of American Letters, William Dean Howells, opined that “what mattered most to the narrative imagination was the spectacle of the ‘flower of the American leisure class’, complete with its ‘American magnate’, the ‘monarchical conditions’ of his home and his daughters bargained off in marriage to European aristocrats” (xxii). I like this! Inspiring generations of novelists – what honour for a historian of economic thought!

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