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Торстейн Бунде Веблен
(1857-1929)
Thorstein Bunde Veblen
 
Источник: Journal of Economic Issues, Jun99, Vol. 33 Issue 2, p297, 8p
Canterbery, E. Ray
THORSTEIN VEBLEN AND THE GREAT GATSBY
F. Scott Fitzgerald's short novel The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s; like its author, it is strongly identified with the Jazz Age-that temporal slice of self-indulgence sandwiched between the Great War and the Great Depression. Yet Fitzgerald's original setting for Gatsby was the middle of the Gilded Age (1885), and the theme of the novel is widely recognized as an indictment not so much of the Roaring Twenties as of the "American Dream," which had attained an honored place in American mythology well before the opening of the twentieth century.[1] It is my contention in this paper that much of the socioeconomic satire informing The Great Gatsby is not original with Fitzgerald, but reflects the influence, both directly and indirectly, of that earlier adversary of conspicuous consumption and pecuniary emulation, Thorstein Veblen.
The Dominance of Social Darwinism during the Gilded Age
During the Gilded Age (1870-1910), when cutthroat competition and unbridled capitalism led to the accumulation of wealth and capital in a few hands, a need arose to justify the excesses of the newly rich and their corrupt business practices. Thus emerged the "American Dream"-a blend of the Newtonian belief in a beneficent, finely tuned universe and the American versions of Calvinism and Puritanism, which condoned and encouraged the accumulation of wealth as a way of doing God's work.
Since the rich of the Gilded Age chose to display their great wealth in vulgar ways, their continued respectability required some blend of science with religion to make their wealth appear not only just, but inevitable. The American Social Darwinism of William Graham Sumner served this purpose, particularly as set forth in Horatio Alger, Jr.'s popular fiction for boys, which injects into the Protestant ethic an element from Newtonian science, the idea of a universe that rewards.
In the view of Herbert Spencer (l820-l903), the English founder of sociology, the fact that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is just nature's way of improving the species and the economy at the same time. Spencer's books sold by the hundreds of thousands, and his reception in New York in l882, two years before Gatsby originally was to arrive there, would have been the envy of Madonna's press agent.
Though a generation of scholars wallowed in Spencer's wake, the most eminent of the American Social Darwinists was William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), Veblen's professor at Yale. Sumner was direct, proclaiming that "the millionaires are a product of natural selection . . . the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society" [Sumner 1914, 90]. Thus, while Horatio Alger's heroes could achieve in fiction the American Dream of rising to the top, the doctrines of the Social Darwinists helped to preserve a social process that made sure such successes were infrequent.
Sumner ingeniously put Newtonian natural law, the Protestant ethic, and a misunderstanding of Darwinian natural selection all on the side of classical economics. Evoking both Calvin and science, his sociology equated the hard-working, thrifty person of the Protestant ethic with the "fittest" in the struggle for survival. Monetary success in the capitalistic society was the fulfillment of an automatically benevolent, free competitive order. In the competitive struggle, people went from natural selection to social selection of fitter persons and from "organic forms with superior adaptability to citizens with a greater store of economic virtues" [Sumner 1914, 57]. Not surprisingly, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller became disciples.[2]
Veblen's Counterpoint: The Theory of the Leisure Class (TLC)
Social Darwinism met its antithesis in The Theory of the Leisure Class [Veblen 1899]. When Veblen applied the law of natural selection to human institutions (broadly defined to include ideas and habits of thought), he found not progress, but regression. Human institutions (environment) perpetually lagged behind material change. Still, the successful individuals are those who can best adapt to changing institutions-more a Lamarkian than a Darwinian process. Because people are also creatures of habit, changes are made reluctantly and rarely. Because the leisure class is sheltered from pressures of subsistence, its members have no urgency to change and so retain their old habits of living. The social or cultural environment makes the survival of some characteristics more likely than others.[3]
A state of savagery requires people to be community-centered for survival. When technology advances sufficiently to create surpluses, predation and barbarism emerge, as do classes distinguished by wealth holdings. Barbarism promotes not only selfishness and emulation, but brutality [Veblen 1899, esp. chap. 9]. Though such characteristics assure survival in an economy of surpluses, they are neither noble nor progressive. Aggressive behavior is rewarded; the most cunning and competitive of the leisure class have the upper hand. If Veblen is correct, it is neither surprising that the "American Dream" is to become ever more affluent nor that the affluent promote exclusive institutions.
Since pecuniary emulation is an individual's strongest motive, the standard of living shared by a particular class determines the "accepted standard of expenditure." As Veblen put it,
To accept and practise the standard of living which is in vogue is both agreeable and expedient, commonly to the point of being indispensable to personal comfort and to success in life. The standard of living of any class, so far as concerns the element of conspicuous waste, is commonly as high as the earning capacity of the class will permit-with a constant tendency to go higher [Veblen 1899, 111-112].
Emulation dominates Veblen's chapter "Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture," where he writes that "admitted expenditure for display is more universally practised in the matter of dress than in any other line of consumption" [Veblen 1899, 167]. Sharpening the edge of his sarcasm, Veblen writes, "the woman's shoe adds the so-called French heel to the evidence of enforced leisure afforded by its polish; because this high heel obviously makes any, even the simplest and most necessary manual work extremely difficult" [1899, 171]. Of course, much more complex and subtle sociology is at work in TLC, including the woman's service as a "chief ornament" around the house and an adequately adorned "trophy" for her husband. Women indeed comprise an abused class in TLC.
Taboos also play roles in consumption. Ceremonial consumption such as "choice articles of food, and . . . rare articles of adornment, becomes tabu to the women and children; and if there is a base (servile) class of men, the tabu holds also for them" [Veblen 1899, 69]. Certain intoxicating beverages and narcotics are reserved for the use of men. Such taboos separate one class from another; members of the "superior class" identify themselves not only by what they consume, but by their power to prevent the consumption of the same items by others. The taboo is a way of preventing emulation of the upper classes by the lower classes.
Parallels Between The Theory of the Leisure Class and The Great Gatsby
All of which brings us to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby [1925]. Fitzgerald's masterpiece is the supreme Veblenian parable of conspicuous consumption, of conspicuous emulation, of pecuniary culture, and of vicarious consumption-even of waste and the leisure class itself. Jay Gatsby wants to live with Daisy Buchanan because she is a member of the established American aristocracy of wealth. Gatsby lacks the maturity to realize that Daisy cannot be obtained by money alone and in a vulgar display of conspicuous consumption, he flaunts his nouveau wealth. Despite Daisy's infinite price (perhaps "priceless"), Gatsby is most attracted to Daisy's voice (not the supra-price), which he describes as "full of money," a voice fostering an illusion he considers real. Fitzgerald here has put on display Veblen's "secondary utility," based on emulation that "seized upon the consumption of goods as a means to an invidious comparison, . . . as evidence of relative ability to pay" [Veblen 1899, 154]. The "evidence" of ability to pay, however, is not the same as the actual ability to pay, especially in the instance of "purchasing" Daisy whose price is infinite. Gatsby attempted to display a purchasing ability that was out of his reach.
Surpluses, so essential to Veblenian economics, allow ostentatious display; they also promote advertising. During the Gilded Age, of course, the rich engaged in self-advertisement. By the 1920s, advertising had become an important allied industry. (Not accidentally, Fitzgerald's first post-Great War job was writing for the Barron Collier advertising agency in New York City.) Daisy, in her turn, is attracted to Gatsby because he reminds her of "an advertisement," the superficial illusion he represents. She sobs when she sees "such beautiful shirts" [Fitzgerald 1925, 93]. As Veblen would predict, for Fitzgerald's central characters the cultural illusions are more important than wealth.
The first dust jacket for Gatsby depicted the painted eyes of an oculist's billboard advertisement, the source of symbolism for a business dedicated to persuasion through fallacies and exaggerations. But the eyes look out over a wasteland. George Wilson, after his wife Myrtle's death (from the careless driving of Daisy), mistakes the "eyes" on such a sign for the all-seeing eyes of God and cannot believe that they are "just an advertisement."
As to snobbery, Fitzgerald's Gatsby again provides instruction. Tom and Daisy Buchanan live in a Georgian colonial mansion representing established wealth. Gatsby, not unlike the robber barons at the turn of the century, has purchased a pretentious, vulgar imitation of a European mansion in East Egg. Even Gatsby's ivy is nouveau and not in the same league as the Buchanans'. The establishment sees clearly that Gatsby, having no sense of tradition, simply copies the style of others, much as an American university will pattern its library on a medieval Gothic chapel. Worse, Gatsby's sartorial choice, a pink suit, is as vulgar and nouveau as his gaudy, cream-colored car, his mansion, and his lavish parties.
Daisy could never leave Tom for Gatsby because she and Tom are partners in a "secret society" of wealth, one that Gatsby cannot recognize, much less join. Daisy cannot leave the trappings of the old aristocracy. Tom, having originally "bought" Daisy with the gift of a ,000 necklace, deploys brutality to keep her-even at the far greater cost to Gatsby of his (American) dreams and his life. Though Gatsby does not know it, no matter how great his acquisitive spirits as a bootlegger, the acquisition of Daisy is taboo.
Members of the upper-middle class or even middle-middle class who want to emulate the rich leisure class must do so by buying cheap imitations or by borrowing, even at the risk of bankruptcy or worse, which I have called the "Gatsby effect" [Canterbery 1998, 142-146]. The Gatsby effect, of course, intimates disasters beyond bankruptcy from which recovery is possible. After all, Jay Gatsby died for the sins of his own emulation, a conspicuous waste.
Before Fitzgerald, only Veblen seems to have captured this cultural richness and the culture of the rich with just the proper subtle balance, mixing satire, irony, and realism to expose the false values and social waste of the upper classes. At the center of the American dream, as well as Gatsby's own, is the belief that sufficient wealth can recapture and fix everything, even the ephemeral, illusory qualities of youth and beauty. It was the same kind of "beauty" satirized by Veblen.
In Gatsby, both new wealth (Jay Gatsby's) and old wealth (Daisy's) lead to human failings, though the failings are manifested differently. Early in the novel, Jay Gatsby is observed in the attitude of a worshipper, alone, stretching his arms toward a single, faraway green light at the end of the Buchanans' dock across the water-the visible symbol of his aspirations. Green is the color of promise, of hope and renewal, and, of course, of money. For Gatsby, ideals are wrapped up with wealth, and so the means corrupt the ends. But it turns out that Daisy Buchanan is unworthy of his vision of her, and her "vulgar, meretricious beauty," her pretentiousness, is a snare. Gatsby dies disillusioned, while Daisy lives on, oblivious. So much for Gatsby-like hope, so much for the shallow end of the American Dream.
Ultimately, Was Fitzgerald Influenced by Veblen?
The Theory of the Leisure Class was a scholarly yet satirical protest against the false values and social waste of the upper classes during the Gilded Age. The Great Gatsby was the exemplary novel of the Jazz Age in which Fitzgerald's sharp social sense enabled him to vividly depict the excesses and false values of the upper class at a time when gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession. The two works share not only a set of themes and a moral stance, they also exhibit many of the same writing qualities-humor, satire, teasing, exaggeration, poetic imagery, symbolism, allegory, and folklore. Nevertheless, the parallels might be dismissed as coincidental, were it not for two pieces of evidence directly linking the two writers.
The Direct Evidence
Fitzgerald first described an East Egg type of society in a March 30, 1924, syndicated article originally titled "Our Irresponsible Rich." Although Fitzgerald does not refer to Veblen in the article itself, his notes relating to the article make clear that he was consciously documenting Veblen's theme of conspicuous consumption and waste [Fitzgerald 1972, 104]. In May of the same year, Fitzgerald, with three chapters of Gatsby in manuscript, abandoned Long Island's lavish parties and escaped with Zelda to the more sedate Riviera, where he completed the draft. It is thus plausible to assume that the Veblenian sentiments explored in the article were much on Fitzgerald's mind as he wrote and rewrote the novel.
One paragraph of the syndicated article is especially revealing. In it Fitzgerald writes: "Here we come to something that sets the American `leisure class' off from the leisure class of all other nations-and makes it probably the most shallow, most hollow, most pernicious leisure class in the world" [Fitzgerald 1924, 7].
Fitzgerald continues in high Veblenian style: "At no period in the world's history, perhaps, has a larger proportion of the family income been spent upon display . . ." And the waste goes on: "All that leisure-for nothing! All that wealth-it has begotten waste and destruction and dissipation and snobbery-nothing more. . . . He [the young man of inherited wealth] stocks his cellar with liquor and then votes righteously for prohibition `for the good of the masses'."
Fitzgerald even appears to update Veblen's view of rich, oppressed women: "The boy watches his mother's almost insane striving toward a social position commensurate with her money. He sees her change her accent, her clothes, her friends, her very soul, as she pushes her way up in life, pulling her busy husband with her."
Overall, Fitzgerald's theme is that the American upper class had no sense of stewardship of society so that corruption, such as the Teapot Dome scandal (then afflicting the Harding administration), was to be expected, given the premises of the American Dream associating money with success. The status of the upper class is at once gracious in its advantages and privileges but not worthy of aspiration and vision in its callous treatment of those below. The inherited rich are families in decay.
An earlier direct reference to Veblen appeared in a paragraph intended for a published review of a 1921 book by H. L. Mencken. "It seems cruel," wrote Fitzgerald, "that the privilege [of reviewing Mencken] could not have gone to Thorstein Veblen" [Bruccoli and Duggan 1980, 75]. The paragraph, deleted by a party unknown, was apparently a Fitzgerald joke, given the fact that Mencken had earlier published an assault on Veblen's critique of capitalism as a "wraith of balderdash" [Mencken 1949, 273].
The Indirect Evidence
While Fitzgerald (who considered himself not only a good historian, but a practicing socialist) often refers to Karl Marx's Das Kapital and other socialist writers such as Upton Sinclair, none of his published writings cite or even mention Veblen. And when Fitzgerald designed "courses" for the education of Sheilah Graham, he did not list any of Veblen's books, though he included Marx [see Graham 1967, 213]. Nonetheless, the class distinctions made in The Great Gatsby are clearly Veblenian, not Marxist. We can only speculate about the motives for Fitzgerald's failure to acknowledge fully his debt to Veblen. It may be simply a matter of ego. Though he was generous in attributions, Fitzgerald prided himself in his originality. The parallels between his depiction of class, especially in The Great Gatsby, and Veblen's sharpest satire may have been too close for comfort, providing a motive for distancing himself from Veblen. Alternatively, Veblen's influence may have been more subliminal by the time Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby.
Other evidence of the Veblen-Fitzgerald connection may be lost to history. Fitzgerald had no secretary until 1932; thereafter, he retained carbon copies of his correspondence. Out of a total of 6,000 known letters, an estimated 3,000 were written prior to 1932, Fitzgerald's pre-carbon age [Bruccoli and Duggan 1980, xv]. Thus, much of the missing correspondence covers the Gatsby period. We may never know the extent of Fitzgerald's debt to Veblen.
Notes
1. The original time and locales-the Midwest and New York City-are characterized in a letter to Max Perkins, Fitzgerald's long-time editor [see Bryer and Kuehl 1971, 61].
2. Carnegie describes in his autobiography his troubled mental state concerning what he believed was the collapse of Christian theology, a tension miraculously relieved by his reading of Darwin and Spencer.
I had found the truth of evolution. "All is well since all grows better," became my motto, my true source of comfort. . . . Nor is there any conceivable end to his [the human being's] march to perfection [Carnegie 1920, 327].
3. This is a very compressed summary of my understanding of Veblen's methodology. For a full explication of anthropological influences, see Mayhew [1998]. For much more detail on Veblen, Darwin, and biology, see Tilman [1996]. For an expanded version of my views, see Canterbery [1987, 1999].
References
Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Margaret M. Duggan. Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1980.
Bryer, Jackson, and John Kuehl, eds. Dear Scott/Dear Max. New York: Scribner's, 1971.
Canterbery, E. Ray. The Making of Economics. 3d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1987, chap. 14.
"The Theory of the Leisure Class and the Theory of Demand." In The Founding of Institutional Economics: The Leisure Class and Sovereignty, edited by Warren J. Samuels, 139-156. London: Routledge, 1998.
The Literate Economist: A Brief History of Economics. 2d ed. River View, N.J.: World Scientific, 1999, chap. 22.
Carnegie, Andrew. Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Vegetable, or from President to Postman. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923.
"What Kind of Husbands Do `Jimmies' Make?" (also titled elsewhere, "Our Irresponsible Rich") Baltimore American, 30 March, 1924, p. 7; reprinted in Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Jackson R. Bryer, eds. F. Scott Fitzgerald In His Own Time: A Miscellany. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971.
The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's Ledger: A Facsimile, introduced by Matthew Bruccoli. Washington, D.C.: Microcard Editions, 1972.
Graham, Sheilah. College of One. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.
Beloved Infidel. 1958. Reprint. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1989.
Mayhew, Anne. "Veblen and the Anthropological Perspective." In The Founding of Institutional Economics: The Leisure Class and Sovereignty, edited by Warren J. Samuels, 234-249. London: Routledge, 1998.
Mencken, H. L. A Mencken Chrestomathy, edited by H. L. Mencken. New York: Knopf, 1949.
Sumner, William Graham. The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays, edited by Albert Galoway Keller. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, l914.
Tilman, Rick. The Intellectual Legacy of Thorstein Veblen: Unresolved Issues. Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press, 1996, 47-71.
Tomlinson, Everett T. "The Perpetual `Best-Sellers'." World's Work 20 (June 1910).
Turnbull, Andrew. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962.
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899. Reprint. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1994.
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