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The Missing Footnotes

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 1992.

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 his father.

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 pen.

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


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