Thorstein Veblen and 'The Great Gatsby.'

By Canterbery, E. Ray | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Thorstein Veblen and 'The Great Gatsby.'


Canterbery, E. Ray, Journal of Economic Issues


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 (1820-1903), 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 1882, 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. …

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