There seems to be little question that Veblen had a grasping and intelligent mind; as a young man he read ferociously. But, Veblen proceeded in life as an isolated figure; his mind unpenetrable by others; and his personality matched his physical appearance, -- strange.1
"He walked through life as if he had descended from another world, and the goings on which ... appeared to him as piquant, exotic, and curious as the rituals of a savage community ... [he was] a mass of eccentricities."In time Velben found himself teaching at the University of Chicago, a university that was well funded (Rockefeller) and had determined to corner the entire intellectual market, even if it meant that the university was to end up with such a strange individual in its stable, as undoubtedly Thorstein Velben was.2 Veblen's teaching methods were such that they drove students away: "He mumbled, he rambled, he digressed."3
Though Veblen makes for an interesting biographical sketch, what in economics he will be remembered for is his work, The Theory Of The Leisure Class. It came off the presses in 1899. It was first written in such a polysyllabic manner that the publisher had to get Veblen to re-write it several times. In it, Veblen set forth his corrosive view of society.4
"For most people the book appeared to be nothing more than just ... a satire on the ways of the aristocratic class, and a telling attack on the foibles of the rich.
Although Veblen might stop along the route to comment on the more striking local scenery, his interest lay at the terminus of his journey, in such questions as What is the nature of economic man? How does it happen that he builds his community that it will have a leisure class? What is the economic meaning of leisure itself?"5
Veblen's theory of the leisure class is to be compared to that of Marx's theory. Marx was of the view that the upper class were at "swords points" with one another and the inevitable historical outcome would be the violent overthrow of the upper classes. Veblen, however, was of the view that the lower classes were not out to overthrow the upper class; but, rather, strived to climb up to it. Its presence, indeed, served the larger community by setting the example and giving the working class purpose.
2 In 1906, Veblen was to move on, eventually to teach at Stanford and then at the University of Missouri (1911).
3 Heilbroner, op. cit., p. 214.
4 Another work, for which Veblen is less well known is The Industrial System and The Captains of Industry (1919).
5 Heilbroner, op. cit., p. 216-7.