Saturday, April 9, 2011
In taking a look back over my blog this weekend, I realized that I missed out on writing a blog for Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. I'm actually really glad that I'm writing it now though, because I think it raises some really interesting points and makes me look over what we've covered in class so far in a new light.
We covered chapters on Conspicuous Leisure and Conspicuous Consumption. Each of these themes cover the idea that the leisure class must live their lives in a very outwardly luxurious manner in order to secure the esteem of their colleges. In a way, this manner of living is almost directed at harvesting jealousy, as it hinges in the innate comparisons that members of the leisure class form with each other. Who has the newest car? Whose house is the largest? Who quit his job and hires servants to press the orange-juicer button? It definitely spoke to many of the works we've read, obviously Gatsby, Silas, and House of Mirth. It even extends to the novels of the lower class as well, specifically Maggie. Maggie's goal is obtain some kind of security and stability in her life, but she certainly feeds off of the outward social richness that Pete provides. She basks in the evenings out, the fancy dinners and shows that put her in a position of public appraisal of her wealth. Pete succumbs as well to the seductive call of social wealth, as his encounter with Nellie sends him off into her arms, as she hails from a higher social class and can therefore offer him a higher position in society. From the lower class to the upper crust, no one is resistant to the temptation of being able to live a conspicuously wealthy lifestyle for purely social reasons.
For a while, I assumed that every work in this class would be sort of in that general vein. It's a very American thing, after all, to compare yourself to others and show off your accomplishments, is it not? I guess I've been taking these paramount ideas of conspicuous leisure and consumption to be overarching truths of America, from the low to the upper classes.
However, reading Grapes of Wrath kind of switched things up for me. The Joad family lives in a state of extreme poverty and wants nothing more than to get to the mythic opulence and comfort of California, the land of "milk and honey". At face value, they're like any other group we've seen in the other novels: striving for wealth. But they're not really striving for wealth, persay, just the wealth of comfort. Of stability, of a lifestyle unburdened by the strains of hunger and need. Grampa simply wants to eat the grapes and let the juice run down his chin; nowhere does he suggest wanting to have anyone watch him do it. Their wealth is based not in the having of things, but in the comfort of the family unit as a whole. Ma's dream is of a white house on a farm-- she doesn't want anything big, just something to contain her loved ones. And at night, when the cars park in impromptu villages, everything is shared, people give to those that need without expecting anything in return.
I wonder of Grapes of Wrath represents a turning point in how America approached wealth. Surely an event as monumental as the Great Depression could have the the potential to restructure the social construction and concept of wealth for the nation. In the light of such nationwide destitution, did we move from a nation of show-offs to a nation of bare-necessities? Was this a permanent change, or did it revert right back to conspicuous leisure and consumption once the nation had pulled itself out of the depression? Or is this portrait of "wealth is family" America unique to the impoverished farmland families of the Great Depression? I'd be very interested to see what the wealthy were doing during the Depression. Did they live their wealth just as blatantly, or lay low? I'll be interested to see how the remaining novels in this course approach this issue.