Penn State

Willa Z. Silverman - professor of French and Jewish studies, Penn State University Park

Book Title: The Theory of the Leisure Class

Author: Thorstein Veblen

Book Description:

As a social and cultural historian of France at the turn of the twentieth century, I find Thorstein Veblen's 1899 critique of the "leisure class" of his day ceaselessly insightful. While primarily the work of a sociologist and economist, this examination of the "lifestyles of the rich and famous" is in fact broadly and boldly interdisciplinary, drawing on anthropology, social psychology, and history. Veblen's now canonical notions of conspicuous and vicarious consumption and leisure, and of invidious comparison, are rooted in his observation that the unbridled consumerism of his upper-class contemporaries stemmed from their deeply-felt social insecurity and desire to imitate a bygone aristocratic model of prowess by flexing not swords or muscles, but wallets. Veblen's work has helped me better understand such disparate fin de siècle phenomena as collecting, etiquette, and the corset, which Veblen might trace to women's status as "chattel" and emblems of "conspicuous uselessness." While it was the robber barons of the Gilded Age that Veblen held under the microscope, his analysis applies equally well to the upper-bourgeoisie of the Belle Époque, and to the leisure class of our own day.

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