Veblen at Missouri
| Peter Klein |
Thorstein Veblen was a professor at the University of Missouri from 1911 to 1918, following stints at Chicago and Stanford and before moving to New York to co-found the New School for Social Research with Charles Beard and John Dewey. Little has been written about Veblen’s time at Missouri, or his relationship with Herbert J. Davenport, who recruited Veblen to Missouri and provided his lodgings. (Veblen is mostly forgotten, locally, but Davenport, who founded the College of Business, is fondly remembered.)
The most detailed account of Veblen’s Missouri years (to my knowledge) appears in Russell H. Hartley and Sylvia Erickson Hartley, “In the Company of T. B. Veblen: A Narrative of Biographical Recovery” (International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 13, no. 2: 273-331 — the entire issue is devoted to Veblen). One snippet:
The notion that Veblen’s years in Missouri were a kind of Siberian exile which he spent as an embittered recluse seems more the fancy of academic urbanites than a reflection of actual fact. Dorfman’s puzzling assertion that Columbia “was the first country town where Veblen had stayed for any length of time” contradicts both the facts of Veblen’s life and Dorfman’s own account of those facts. By the time he settled into the Davenports’ at the end of 1910, Thors had lived thirty of his fifty-three years in rural and small-town settings. Columbia was a veritable metropolis compared with Nerstrand or Stacyville and was more than twice the size of Northfield, where he had spent six years attending Carleton.
Veblen’s reported description of Columbia as “a woodpecker hole of a town in a rotten stump called Missouri,” cited by Dorfman as evidence of his “abhorrence” of the place, reflects his wit and mordant sense of humor rather than emotional distress over his physical location. It was an offhand commentary on the local Chamber of Commerce’s campaign to elicit a promotional slogan for the Boone County seat — a remark perfectly in tune with Veblen’s views of business and the commonweal, comprehensible only in light of his analysis of American country towns generally.