You are here: ET-home > Historical context > The restoration that changed scholarship
>Joseph Dorfman's Many Errors from a Minnesota Perspective

Elegant Technology
ET homeCurrent insightsElegant Technology definedHistorical contextAbout the authorend



Joseph Dorfman's Many Errors from a Minnesota Perspective

by Jonathan Larson

Personally, I find Dorfman's biography of Veblen to be an absurd and wholly unbelievable piece of utter rot--the kind that gives academics and other intellectuals a bad reputation. But compared to some of the relatives I met at the August 13, 1994 Veblen family reunion, my feelings could best be characterized as charitable. So while I will attempt to be "objective" in my description of those objections to his work that I have uncovered, I may fail.

Before I go further, I should like to attempt to outline the elements of my perspective in this matter:

Even though I am but 1/8 Norwegian, (7/8 Swede) I think I know something about these people. Norwegians constitute the largest ethnic group in Minnesota--where I have lived for most of my life. They are actually hard to ignore. I have visited Norway on two occasions and am an avid amateur historian of Viking culture.

I have lived in small agricultural towns on the prairie for half of my life--still do. Both my grandfathers were farmers--one was an early member of Land o' Lakes in the 1920s when joining cooperatives was a radical act and long before it became the largest co-op in America. I have heard agricultural issues debated from a radical perspective my whole life.

I know something about farm kids--not only were my parents, uncles, and aunts in this category, but virtually every person I knew until age 18 qualified.

My father was a Lutheran minister who served small congregations in southwestern Minnesota and northwestern North Dakota while I was growing up. The church in North Dakota was totally dominated by folks of Norwegian descent. One of the jobs of the preacher (and his wife and family) in such a setting is to provide a cultural model to supplement the religious one. To this day, my mother and sisters are both called upon to give talks on the meanings and practices of the various Swedish holidays. Even though I am a religious skeptic and my credentials with the Minnesota Humanists are in perfect order, I know something about being raised in the Lutheran traditions. My editor and publisher in Finland is also a Lutheran PK--although in his case, his father was the Bishop of Helsinki where such a title is equal in pay and status to the foreign minister in a culture with a state church. He informs me that we "backsliding" Lutheran-PK-skeptics have quite the "fraternity." Besides Soren Kirkegaard and Ingmar Bergman, most of the leadership of the German Bader Meinhof faction was composed of Lutheran PKs. Actually, "secularized" Lutherans like myself are the norm rather than exception. In Sweden, while over 90% of the population claim membership in the Lutheran church, less than 2% ever actually attend devout observances.

As a glorified hobby, I am an expert carpenter and furniture builder. I have restored 10 historically significant structures--one was pictured in National Geographic Magazine. Even though I was spared the real work on the Veblen house, I know the process well and recognize quality work when I see it.

So you see, I have some baggage to bring to my perspective on Dorfman's description of Veblen. In my opinion, he does not describe the possible Veblen because he willfully and otherwise misrepresented Veblen's roots--to the point where the people who know what those roots are, are genuinely hurt and angry. I must say that I have a real sympathy for their position.

The essential hurt stems from Dorfman's "man from Mars" description of Veblen intellectual perspective. Scandinavians consider themselves a very civilized and practical people. This level of civil behavior is quite unique to the planet earth, to be sure, but Scandinavia is not outer space nor are the Nordic people aliens--although at times we have reason to feel as if we are not really part of the rest of the country, like when Minnesota was the only state never to vote for Reagan. Because Veblen was so obviously a man of Nordic culture, a slur on him is really a slur on the culture. I defend Veblen because when I do, I defend my culture.

So what did Dorfman do in his bizarre biography?
He totally ignored Nordic cultural influences even though Veblen took the time to translate a Viking saga. He did report that someone claimed that Veblen was very proud of his Norwegian roots--but nowhere in his whole book did he ever explore what that might mean.

He deliberately, and in the face of pictures from a respected colleague, distorted the physical conditions of Veblen's childhood. Even though Thorstein lived on the Minnesota farm for twenty years as compared to only 8 years of formal education, he treated the whole experience as if Veblen could have learned nothing from a farm. Hate to inform you Dorfman, but farmers are NOT ignorant and stupid peasants--and most especially, not Thomas Veblen.

I suppose this last element is what so offends the Emily Veblen descendants. Emily was the only child who stayed in the area. Her granddaughter is married to a prosperous citizen named Halvorson of Northfield. For the Aug. 13th reunion, they commissioned a painting by a local artist named Tom Maakestad, (pr. Mach-ah-stead) who lives about five miles from the farm and is the son of John Maakestad, who taught art at St. Olaf for over 40 years, called, "The Education of an Economist." It pictures old Thomas plowing behind two horses with a young Thorstein walking along beside him with a book in his hand. The farm is in the background. I don't know what they paid for the painting but Maakestad usually gets about $5000 for such work.

I have no idea how much five grand means to the Halvorsons but it was clear they wanted to make a statement. The statement was, "Whatever you may read about Thorstein Veblen, he got his ideas on a farm--in Minnesota--at the side of one of Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth."

The Halvorsons HAVE a point. Veblen went to Carleton yet devoted his life to debating the doctrines of John Bates Clark. Veblen went to Yale yet proposed the ultimate answer to Graham Sumner's odious notions of Social Darwinism. Veblen could hardly be considered a product of his formal education except that it thoroughly annoyed him. He was a scrupulously honest scholar yet he had probably less than 100 footnotes in all his work. Obviously, Dorfman's proposed scholarly antecedents for Veblen's ideas meant that Dorfman may have read those authors, but had no proof that Veblen did.

As an urbanite, Dorfman just totally dismissed the possibility of the really smart farm kid and what those people would accomplish. Throughout the American midwest, farm kids would go on to invent the essential parts of the American industrial revolution. I tell people, many of Minnesota's high-tech industries were formed by people with childhoods much like Thorstein's. Anyone who wishes to understand the real difference between Veblen and Marx must only remember one fact: Marx's thinking led to such abominations as Stalin's Soviet Union or Mao's China while the sort of thinking embodied in Veblen's work produced 3M, Control Data, and Medtronics--some of the most enlightened organizations in history.

I must tell you that I have no problem understanding the concept of the really smart farm kid. I am bright enough to have been in Mensa and have been published on two continents, yet in every grade and high school I attended, there was always some farm kid who got better grades than I. I know two people from childhood who got 800s on their SAT math scores. Garrison Kiellor's description of Lake Wobegon as a place where "All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average" is partly true. When I lived in southwestern Minnesota, we were administered a national achievement test in 10th grade where in our class, the lowest scored percentile rating was 56 and all my friends were in the 90s. Since the poor girl who got the 56 was this pathetic creature that we all tried to help out of some notion of charity, we could not imagine who might have scored so low as to drag that national average down to 50. Someone suggested Iowans to much mirth but we finally settled on West Virginians or Alabamans. Goodness knows, I still wonder because I truly believe MY formal education was so utterly worthless, I cannot imagine it being worse elsewhere but somehow it must be.

I have a theory of why the farm education is so useful. The farm kid is attached to the earth in ways that really aid in the understanding of scientific laws. When an urban kid takes biology, for example, everything is new. When a farm kid takes biology, he has seen these processes at work and must only learn the terminology. Note Veblen's relentless disparagement of those who confuse science with taxonomy--this is that phenomenon at work.

But Veblen was not only a farm kid, his father was also this incredible builder. In Norway, woodworking is a high art that has been perfected for at least 900 years and has higher standards than even metalworking. Just to get into a carpenter's apprenticeship program in Norway meant that Thomas was a young man of unusual ability. In today's Norway, Thomas would probably become an engineer or doctor given greater opportunity. As it was, the profession of woodworking was near or at the top of a culture that had already valued it for centuries when Thomas learned his trade in the first half of the 19th century.

Besides ignoring Veblen's Norwegian heritage and totally discounting his agrarian education, Dorfman also blows it on the subject of religion. This is quite odd because when you remove the mumbo-jumbo of religion, what is left is culture. As Veblen is sometimes thought of as a cultural anthropologist, it is obvious that he was very interested in what remains when the ignorance of religion is removed. His Ph. D was on Kant, a prototype of the secularized Lutheran. I suppose it is easier to now understand the concept of the secularized Lutheran because of the extensive models in Scandinavia. Even so, Dorfman must have known of the existence of secular Jews, why was the notion of secular Lutherans so impossible to understand?

I try to explain my position on religion as it relates to Veblen as follows;

Thomas and Kari got help and support from the rest of the clan in the form of the Valley Grove Lutheran Church--a community gathering place for the Norwegians who settled near the small town of Nerstrand Minnesota--where they were members. The first preacher of this church was a story unto himself. Named Nils Quammen, he would serve the needs of two growing churches 20 miles apart--a distance he would travel by horseback. In fact, he was the only Lutheran preacher in four large counties for the first few years of his 46-year tenure. In his "spare" time, he helped found St. Olaf College in Northfield--a small liberal arts college that today is best known for its music department. He could preach in German, Norwegian, and English and knew Greek and Hebrew. He was a good enough medical doctor so that when Minnesota established a board certification examination, he passed the test. But just to make sure Quammen did not have too much idle time on his hands, his congregations presented him with an 80-acre farm and some cows.

Thorstein was once asked his religion. He responded, "I am a Lutheran." And why is that? "Because the nearest Lutheran Church is 50 miles away." In this, Thorstein was typical. The Lutheran Church is a state religion throughout Scandinavia. As a result, establishment churches and their clergy tend to inspire the skepticism afforded all meddling government civil servants. Yet even though a modern Scandinavian feels obligated to go to church but four times in a lifetime, it is still very hard to escape the cultural influences of the faith.

Lutherans in North America are categorized as generic Protestants--which in most cases is quite accurate. Historically, however, Lutherans have quite different traditions from their better-known Puritan/ Calvinist cousins. The Puritans believe the rich are blessed by God and we must be suspicious of the poor. The Lutherans believe that God most loves the hardworking person--Luther taught that every task was worth doing for the Glory of God--and that historically, these folks have been the poor. In Lutheran societies, as a consequence, it is the rich who are suspect--especially the idle rich. In Scandinavia, even the royalty is expected to be useful to society. Veblen's lifelong suspicion of the leisure class had deep cultural roots. When the larger west Valley Grove Church building was constructed in 1894 by one of Thorstein's younger brothers, someone took the time to record the fact that the spire at Valley Grove was higher as measured from the bed of the Cannon River than the spire on the Congregational Church in Northfield. It is obvious those Norwegian settlers did not consider themselves generic Protestants--and they most certainly did not consider themselves Puritans.

Troubled by the church's ancient mystical teachings, Veblen left the physical church far behind and would become one of the most relentlessly skeptical and secular writers of history. Intellectual reasons aside, he may have had a more basic reason to leave the church--apparently Confirmation instruction under Quammen was quite the ordeal. He had a vile temper that he would display for anyone who had not carefully memorized their lessons. Children were expected to learn large sections of the Bible and Luther's Catechism--and finally recite them aloud at the public gathering called Confirmation. Thorstein would not have been the first young Lutheran to conclude that after such an experience, he had been "improved enough." Yet he had reason to admire the cultural manifestations of the faith. Lutherans in the tradition of J.S. Bach are supposed to sing--the Valley Grove church had a lovely pipe organ.

The highest trappings of civilization--reading, poetry, and music--showed up on the frontier because these settlers brought them along--sometimes at church. The clergyman was expected to be a repository of learning--Quammen clearly filled the bill.

Thorstein got the full dose of Norse culture. His first attempt at writing a book (and last published) was a translation of the epic Icelandic Lexdaela Saga. Like a good Viking, Veblen was brash and daring, persistent in the face of enormous hurdles and numerous setbacks, with the desire to comprehend, if not physically explore, the whole world. He had a Nordic gift for languages--it is said that Veblen knew 25. His range of interests was so wide it is sometimes claimed that Veblen was the last human to know "everything," i.e. everything that humans knew at the time. By the standards of his own ethnic enclave, he was a superb specimen even though he was always acutely aware that his was a minority culture in North America.

I believe that anyone looking for problems in Veblen's childhood to explain "errors" in his writings are barking up the wrong tree. He had an incredible childhood. He had hardworking, kind, and prosperous parents, the nicest home in the neighborhood, woods to explore, learned scholars for tutors, and a religious heritage that glorified education and the arts. He was given the opportunity for advanced education that few others his age ever got. He saw a culture establish itself at the edge of primal wilderness and then saw the American industrial revolution as it happened--created by folks very much like himself. He was habituated in the arts of craftsmanship and the nature of cause and effect by parents whom he saw every day doing their work. He became a man during the greatest experiment in real popular democracy Minnesota (and maybe the USA) would ever see--the quality of subject matter debated in Nerstrand while he lived on the farm would stun the average modern viewer of C-SPAN.

I am absolutely convinced that Thorstein Veblen showed up at school on the first day quite educated and that the only value school held for him was that it taught him the conventions of the academic world--conventions he utterly detested as demonstrated by The Higher Learning in America.

When Veblen is considered a secular Norwegian, a cultural (and lapsed) Lutheran, educated by people who were prospering in some of the most difficult environments ever settled by humans, and heir to one of the most remarkable political traditions in history, he suddenly seems like quite a normal guy. Even his intellect is not so unusual by Nordic standards. The harsh environment did for the Norwegians what social persecution did for the Jews--it effectively lopped off the bottom of the human intelligence range. Not all Norskes had Veblen's abilities, of course, but except for medical examples of retardation, it is really pretty difficult to find a "slow" Norwegian--no matter what jokes we Swedes may make at their expense. Veblen only proved the old Populist saying, "There is as good in the ranks as ever came out of them."

Accomplishment is how these folks judge themselves. Norwegians have historically been very poor--but this has never demonstrated laziness or stupidity. In the end, this is what makes Veblen's work so attractive--he knew there was no link between riches and intelligence or accomplishment because he had a thousand years of cultural heritage to back him up.

RETURN TO: The restoration of the Veblen farm in Minnesota

RETURN TO: Correcting the history about T. B. Veblen

modify datebloglinkall videosall pdf filescontact usend