by Jonathan Larson (1993)
There is something vaguely ghoulish about the historic preservation
of buildings associated with notorious people that smacks of graveyards,
icons and votive candles. In the case of the Veblen farmstead, the creation
of a shrine is especially inappropriate given Thorstein's lifelong distaste
for such practices.
Ruthmary Penick, the former archivist at Carleton College, began efforts to
save the farm buildings in 1952. When describing the frustrations of her quest,
she often wonders if Thorstein's wish that no shrines be erected in his name
has cursed her work. As Veblen would have no doubt disapproved of the concept
of a curse and her determination has been tenacious, other reasons explain
the sorry state of the farm when restoration finally began in the spring of
The Veblen aficionados who have begun the restoration project understand Thorstein's
aversion to shrines yet believe that saving the farm is an historic imperative.
This contradiction has been finessed by assigning historic discovery, rather
than shrine creation, as the primary rationale for restoration. It is believed
that Veblen, a world-class history buff in his own right, would approve of
the tone and direction of the scholarly inquiry associated with this effort.
National historic designation is granted to buildings for two reasons--architectural
interest or the significance of an occupant. Historic designation was granted
to the farm because Thorstein lived there, yet it could have easily been considered
architecturally significant. The house is believed to be the best remaining
example of Norwegian immigrant design. Understanding the implications of this
assigned historical status has shed considerable light on the writings of Veblen.
Thomas Anderson Veblen was a superb builder and the house is a monument to
his craft. While other Minnesota settlers were still building log cabins, he
constructed a house that has endured 125 winters, yet with few modifications,
could be occupied as a modern dwelling. As originally constructed, the Veblen
house featured a walk-in closet with a large window off the master bedroom,
wainscoting, a two-level porch/deck which occupies most of the east side of
the house, a floor-to-ceiling pass-through buffet/china hutch arrangement between
the kitchen and a formal dining room, a full basement with a walk-out, tongue-and-groove
planking on the ceilings, hardwood floors, 6 over 6 double-hung windows, frame
and panel doors, and a built-in storage hutch in the main downstairs living
room. The upstairs has a room specifically made large enough to accommodate
a loom and quilting operations. The kitchen was well laid out and it had the
modern feature of an indoor pump. The two brick chimneys are routed through
the interior so as to maximize heat recovery. They emerge through the peak
of a simple roofline which was covered with cedar shingles. The durability
of this design is now obvious--both the roof and the foundation are still remarkably
straight. It's a NICE house!
This was the third house Thomas would build for his growing family in America.
Like other small contractors that would follow, he no doubt justified the extravagance
of such a dwelling as advertising for his craftsmanship. Together with the
obvious input of his wife Kari, he designed and built a leading-edge, thoroughly
modern home that was comfortable, convenient, and quite beautiful.
There is an old Norse saying "A big barn will build a big house, but a
big house will not build a big barn." Thomas Veblen was forced by this
dictum to build a huge barn to go with such a house. It featured an efficient
layout, durable construction, lots of windows to let in the light, and a jaunty
red-with-white-trim paint job. While Kari was showing off her weaving/quilting
room, Thomas could be out in the barn demonstrating the convenience of the
stable/carriage-storage arrangement. The Veblen farm was probably the most
modern for 50 miles in any direction for 50 years.
Not only skilled and ingenious, Thomas was incredibly hard working. While he
was building his dream house and barn, he was also busting 200 acres of virgin
sod--a task so difficult it took six oxen to pull the plow. There were no power
saws or nail guns help the builder either.
Kari was equally as accomplished. Not only did she raise twelve children using
primitive and labor-intensive methods, but she kept the history of the settlement,
had enough medical expertise to stitch up cuts and set broken bones, and wove
enough cloth so she could give away some as charity. She taught her children
so well that nine would attend college and two would become world-class intellectuals.
The history unearthed by rebuilding the farm is more than slightly important
to an understanding of Veblen's writing. One reason Thorstein is so widely
misunderstood is that he wrote virtually without footnotes. As he was an intellectually
honest person, one might assume that if he had borrowed his ideas from someone
else, he would have attributed them. This means that most of his writing was
at the very least, original to him. Scholars who attempt to fix his thinking
in the intellectual firmament must cope with this intrinsic originality. Of
course, that is why they, and the rest of us, are interested in Veblen--because
he was a genuine original. In many respects, to rebuild the farm is to find
those missing "footnotes."
Veblen developed his thinking on that farm, and it shows. For example, his
use of the word "instinct" as it is applied to human behavior has
been a source of controversy over the years. But by the standards of his day,
he uses the word carefully. His father, ever the trendsetter, practiced genetic
engineering by purchasing prize breeding stock. It would be difficult to grow
up with nineteenth century agriculture and not believe in the possibilities
of genetic manipulation. More than the latest science, genetics in agriculture
would promise economic salvation for the economically hard-hit farmers of his
youth. The dark side of genetic thinking would not shock the world until years
after his death Moreover, when he writes about the "instinct of workmanship," he
was obviously attempting to describe his father accurately and the concept
probably fit quite well.
With some justification, Veblen thought his father a great man who had accomplished
much and raised a great family. Thorstein, not a man given to compliments,
called his father the most intelligent man he ever met. His sense of justice
was shaped by a profound rage over the lack of social respect for people like
Viking-Americans never suffered from racism and although Norwegian immigrants
were often considered backward primitives, they integrated into the American
experience about as gracefully as any group. Nevertheless, they suffered discrimination
and systematic economic exploitation by real estate agents, lenders, lawyers,
grain buyers, town merchants, and most especially, the railroads.
Until 1873, farming the Minnesota grasslands was quite profitable. The Veblen
farm is less the 50 miles from the central Minneapolis milling district and
35 from a Mississippi River grain terminal which provided competitive markets.
Although the growing season is short, (the recorded minimum time between frosts
is 110 days) rainfall is always ample and the soil superb. Thomas found at
least two feet of rich, fertile, black loam topsoil when he first turned the
virgin prairie. Combined with his building expertise, Thomas probably became
prosperous beyond his dreams in those first years in Minnesota.
Thorstein would have been 16 years old when the agricultural depression began.
At first, Thomas' prosperity and favorable geographical location would insulate
him from the gathering economic storm. But by the time Thorstein returned from
Yale in 1885, it is highly likely that even his multitalented father was losing
money for the agricultural depression was already in its 12th year. Thorstein's
curiosity about political economy was no doubt motivated by the simple question:
If honest, talented, hard-working people like my parents are in economic difficulty,
what is wrong with the economy?
Northfield, the closest large town to the Veblen farm and home to Carleton
College where siblings still attended school, was probably still abuzz when
Thorstein returned from Yale. The notorious Jesse James Gang had tried to rob
the local bank the year before and sharpshooting farmers ended the lives of
most of them. Farmers knew how to handle such petty criminals who robbed at
gunpoint. Veblen would concentrate his attention on those who stole with a
Thorstein would leave the farm for the last time in 1892--the same year that
he would begin The Theory of the Leisure Class. '92 was a significant year
as organized farmers would form the Populist Party and Ignatius Donnelly, the
Minnesota utopian writer/ National Farmer's Alliance organizer, would write
the fiery preamble to the Party constitution. It would have been impossible
for Thorstein not to have heard all the progressive political arguments of
his day. It is likely that he read, heard, or possibly met Donnelly. Although
Veblen was essentially apolitical, it is assumed his family was progressive
Republican--as most Norwegian immigrants were in Minnesota. The sole recorded
example of his political activity was a letter he signed in 1924 urging Robert
La Follette to run for president. As Donnelly was elected Minnesota's first
Lt. Governor as a Republican in 1858, Veblen's political views were probably
similar to his over a wide range of issues.
Veblen's sometimes controversial description of the "peaceful industrial
type" was probably also influenced by observing his father's work. In
Viking societies, the distinction between the warlike and the industrial personality
is so clearly obvious as to barely warrant comment.
At the height of the Viking age, they had settlements and a trading area from
North America to the Crimea. Within this huge area, Viking language and money
dominated. While Swedish Vikings colonized the Baltic shores, the Norwegians
settled in England and Northern France (Normandy--Norman is a bastardization
of Northmen) as well as "Vinland." The Vikings were not to be trifled
with--they won most of their battles for hundreds of years. The Swedish army
has more captured battle flags than any other army on earth--mostly because
it dominated the Thirty Years War under Gustavus Adolphus. It was not until
Peter the Great that a Russian army beat them in battle.
If Viking society produced some of history's most fearless and feared warriors
and sailors, these adventures had the side effect of concentrating the characteristics
of the men left behind to tend the fields and, more importantly, build the
boats. The longboat was a stunning technological achievement that required
the efforts of full-time craftsmen to build. By the 10th century, Viking woodworkers
had become history's finest--a lead Scandinavians have not relinquished to
this day. Thomas Veblen was a master carpenter--a trade with a 900 year tradition
by the time he learned his obviously superb skills.
As the warlike Vikings ventured from their Nordic lairs, those who stayed at
home eventually took over. Fearsome is not a description applied to modern
Scandinavians yet their industrial output is world-class. In a sense, Viking
societies simply exported their most violent men to die in battle or be lost
at sea. Only the severe food shortages and population pressures of the middle
19th century would drive a quintessential stay-at-home, peaceful type like
Thomas from his home in Norway.
In Thomas, Thorstein would see a man skilled in the noble traditions of Viking
woodworking who had crossed an ocean and built three farms in North America.
He would see a man who brilliantly farmed 200 acres of the finest soil on the
planet driven to the wall by people engaged in predatory fraud. That poverty
was not the fault of the poor was unmistakable and in daily evidence for him.
The exploited, peaceful, hardworking, industrious type was as real as his father.
A legitimate argument can be made that the farm shaped more of Thorstein's
thinking than all his formal studies put together.
Buildings contain their own historical record that can be interpreted in reconstruction.
Stabilizing the severely damaged barn, the priority project for 1992, involved
restoring some of the original framing designed by Thomas. Today's restoration
architects have computers to analyze the structure necessary to withstand wind
and snow loads. The conclusion they reached was that the barn would not have
fallen into such sorry shape had later owners not tampered with Thomas' framing.
The house speaks volumes about the type of person Thomas thought he was and
the role he and his children would play in the larger society. Joseph Dorfman,
widely considered to be Veblen's definitive biographer, portrayed Thorstein
as the product of a deprived, dirt-poor upbringing. The house does not support
that contention. Andrew, Thorstein's brother, protested this description in
long and detailed letters describing the wonders of the house which he sent
while Dorfman was working on the book. Finally in frustration, Andrew sent
pictures of the house and barn taken in 1890. Dorfman did not change his characterization,
but fortunately, the pictures survived in his papers. It is from those pictures
and letters that restoration decisions will be made.
Veblen's intellectual reputation is finally being restored. It is hoped that
the restoration of the farmstead enhances this process.
RETURN TO: Correcting the history
of Thorstein Veblen