Aug 24 Written by 

Veblen on Vacation

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Coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and author of Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), economist Thorstein Veblen built his own summer house and study cabin on Washington Island in Lake Michigan, at the tip of Wisconsin’s peninsula (its “thumb”) where he stayed every sumveblen study cabin 2011mer from 1896 to 1926. In 2009 somebody moved the cabin to its current spot on Little Lakeveblen with plans to restore it. On vacation I found it by chance. It’s not much to see, now or back then. It's built in Norwegian-immigrant style, boards and logs arranged vertically so as to channel wetness to the ground. He also made all his own furniture and a boat. He wrote nine books, all still in print. The photo of Veblen with his cabin was taken about 1915. 

The man was eccentric; he has been called the Frank Lloyd Wright of economics. An American with his name of course had to be a Norwegian from Wisconsin, which explains his progressivism and contempt for non-productive activity. Until I visited the cabin, all that had never crossed my mind.

We have Veblen to thank for his contributions to the theories of consumerism and the business cycle, and in the Gilded Age he accurately foresaw a U.S. economy that would benefit mainly the very wealthy. He taught at Mizzou for seven years, hating it and calling Columbia “a woodpecker hole of a town.” For a year he was one of the editors of The Dial, which became a litmag that first published the likes of Marianne Moore.

When Veblen first came to Washington Island he stayed in a boarding house and looked for people who could teach him to speak Icelandic so he could translate an old epic poem. In 1957, for her master’s thesis, a graduate student collected islanders' memories and stories about the great man, and incidentally was given the books and papers left in the study. Veblen wore really old clothes, people said. But he was generous with money and liked anybody who could teach him anything.

Catherine Rankovic

Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.