Mencken on Veblen

by Don Boudreaux on October 10, 2004

in Books

Thorstein Veblen’s home in Menlo Park, CA, was just bought by a developer for more than $1M. This is the home in which Prof. Veblen died, in 1929. According to this New York Times account, it’s an unattractive little shanty – in Menlo Park today, it is no doubt conspicuous in its ramshackleness.

The developer will tear down the hovel to make room for grander dwellings that will fit in more comfortably with the rest of Menlo Park’s palaces. Out with conspicuously consuming holier-than-thou “simplicity” and material chastity!

My friend Fred Dent calls the fate of Veblen’s house an irony. He’s right. It is ironic, and deliciously so.

Reading about the fate of Veblen’s shanty called to mind one of my favorite essays by my absolutely favorite American of all time, H.L. Mencken. It’s entitled simply “Professor Veblen,” and appears on pages 265-275 of the indispensable A Mencken Chrestomathy. Mencken found Veblen’s thinking to be confused and his prose to be silly. In short, in Mencken’s opinion, Veblen was “a geyser of pish-posh.”

After quoting at length a selection from Veblen’s most famous book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Mencken asks “Well, what have we here? What does this appalling salvo of rhetorical artillery signify? What was the sweating professor trying to say?”

I love especially Mencken’s last question. So much of academic writing remains to this day, so, so, so – well, let’s let Mencken describe further his impressions of Veblen’s work, a description that applies to too much that is composed by even today’s celebrated Professors and Thinkers:

[It is] a cent’s worth of information wrapped in a bale of polysyllables…. It was as if the practice of that incredibly obscure and malodorous style were a relentless disease, a sort of progressive intellectual diabetes, a leprosy of the horse sense. Words were flung upon words until all recollection that there must be a meaning in them, a ground and excuse for them, were lost. One wandered in a labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable to walk. It was, and is, impossible to imagine worse English, within the limits of intelligible grammar. It was clumsy, affected, opaque, bombastic, windy, empty. It was without grace or distinction and it was often without the most elementary order…. Worse, there was nothing at the bottom of all this strident wind-music – the ideas it was designed to set forth were, in the overwhelming main, poor ideas, and often they were ideas that were almost idiotic. The concepts underlying, say, “The Theory of the Leisure Class” were simply Socialism and well water.

I’ll say again what I’ve said before, and will probably repeat repeatedly in the future: If any human being was ever born were born to blog, it was Mencken. Too bad he was born a century too soon to contribute to the blogosphere.

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