Veblen in Perspective: His Life and Thought.

Author:Kaboub, Fadhel
Position:Book Review

by Stephen Edgell. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe. 2001. Paper, ISBN: 156324117x, $22.95. 209 pages.

Stephen Edgell has made a remarkable contribution to institutionalist literature by providing a thorough and accurate account of Thorstein Veblen's life and work. This book is a must-read for all Veblen scholars and a very good introductory book for students interested in institutionalism in general and in Veblen in particular. In less than 170 pages of text, Edgell presents Veblen's economic and social thought within its historical context and emphasizes the importance of Veblen's character and influences.

A valuable rectification to Joseph Dorfman's thesis (1934) is fully documented by Edgell. Correspondence between Dorfman and Andrew Veblen (Thorstein's brother) proved that Veblen's alleged poor economic and social background and its impact on Veblen's writing was a pure invention of Dorfman, then a PhD student writing his dissertation on Veblen. Dorfman was trying to demonstrate that Veblen's "miserable life," beginning with his impoverished childhood, greatly influenced his critical writings. Dorfman portrayed Veblen as the lonesome and deprived son of immigrant farmers who routinely went through failures and misfortunes and found revenge and comfort in criticizing the American society of his time. Unfortunately, the Dorfman argument made its way through the literature for decades, and very few scholars realize that it was nonsense. Edgell concludes that Veblen's failure to achieve academic success in the profession was due to his unconventional ideas.

If anything, Veblen's family was well to do, as demonstrated by their sending all of their children, including the girls, to college in the 1870s. Andrew Veblen wrote extensively to Dorfman trying to convince him in vain to change his "working theory" about Thorstein's life. Dorfman missed the chance on several occasions to rectify a very important historical mistake about Veblen's alleged economically impoverished uprising and his socially and linguistically limited childhood experience. Edgell's investigation demonstrates that Dorfman was well aware of his mistake but always sought to hide it.

Edgell convincingly argues that Veblen rich cultural and ethnic background had contributed to his knowledge of the value of workmanship and cooperation. Edgell also invites the readers to consider the influence of Henrik Ibsen and Edward Bellamy on Veblen's work, especially his Theory of the Leisure...

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