JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITHorder the book
his LIFE his POLITICS his ECONOMICS

A Man of His Words

By Richard Parker
The Toronto Globe and Mail

Saturday, May 06, 2006

"Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue."

Galbraith's First Law

Ken Galbraith loved words, not least his own. He was no less fond, and no less generous in praise, of writers who took the craft of writing as seriously as he. Galbraith, despite his seeming fluency, was not a "natural" writer. The appearance of ease and spontaneity he treasured emerged, he often said, only after the fifth draft.

He worked hard learning how to write, beginning during an otherwise desultory education at Ontario Agricultural College (now the University of Guelph) in the late 1920s. (He credited two English instructors there -- "well known Canadian literary figures, of the secondary sort" -- with imparting the necessary fundamentals.) Subsequent study of economics, needless to say, set him back.

In the 1940s, he spent five years as an editor at Fortune. To the ultimate dismay of Henry Luce, Fortune's genetically Republican owner and editor-in-chief, it was there that Galbraith finally honed his craft, learning shape, pacing, colouring and character. Luce years later complained to President John F. Kennedy, "I taught Galbraith how to write -- and I've regretted it ever since."

The writer Galbraith praised most often for influencing his own style is Thorstein Veblen. Veblen today is forgotten, but in Galbraith's youth was legendary, an economist who skewered the cant of his profession and the pretenses of the Gilded Age it valorized with rapier thrusts of breathtakingly sarcastic ingenuity. He was a singularly iconoclastic figure (he showed up for an interview at Cornell wearing a coonskin cap and corduroy trousers) whose words were as memorable as his wardrobe. Galbraith considered Veblen's most famous work, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899, available in paperback from Prometheus), "a marvellous thing and in its own way, a masterpiece of the English language."

For today's reader, though, the prepositional "in its own way" is key. Veblen left us indelible phrases such as "conspicuous consumption," but more often daunted the unwary with sentences like this one: "Abstention from labor is not only an honorific or meritorious act, but it presently comes to be a requisite of decency." Like absinthe and aquavit, reading Veblen is an acquired taste, and too many pages at once risks unconsciousness. "Veblen must be read slowly and carefully," Galbraith admitted, for "the ideas are pungent, incisive and insulting. But the writing is a weapon as well . . . start[ling] his reader with an exceedingly perverse use of meaning."

Galbraith was also a satirical novelist, and took great pride that in 1967 two of his books, the fictional The Triumph and his far more sobering non-fictional The New Industrial State, had topped the bestseller list simultaneously. His taste in novels -- essentially that of an autodidact, given the limits of his early one-room schooling -- was as much his own as his love for Veblen. He liked vivid characters, sharp observation and purposeful plots: Among English novelists, not surprisingly, he considered Trollope vastly entertaining (though for some reason, he never liked the far superior Dickens).

Rather late in life, he was introduced to the work of Robertson Davies, which he thereafter avidly consumed. No doubt one reason was that Davies set his Deptford Trilogy -- Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders (1975; all three published by Macmillan Canada) -- in rural and small-town southwestern Ontario, not far from where Galbraith had grown up; this, however, was more likely a co-ordinate attraction. Far more powerful, Galbraith insisted, was "the ring of truth" in Davies, embedded in his richly imagined physical, social and moral landscape, and ornamented with what Galbraith found to be "an extraordinary range of wholly unpredictable information."

"Fitzgerald, Hemingway and even Faulkner dealt with a world with which the reader feels some connection," Galbraith wrote in an essay on Davies, reprinted in A View From the Stands. "Davies deals with matters far beyond ordinary experience; yet one finds oneself taking his word for it and according him full faith and credit. Even if he invents the way a magician practices his art, one has to believe that the invention is at the least the equal of the original." To Galbraith, the fact that Davies was Canadian was no doubt rightfully a matter of pride for Canadians; for him, it was enough to be confident that Davies's writing would "be recognized with the very best work of this century."

To really know Galbraith, however, one must read him in the original.

His most famous work is undoubtedly The Affluent Society, his extraordinary dismemberment of America's unparalleled and self-satisfied prosperity at mid-century. Focused on the imbalance between private opulence and public impoverishment, it indicts the conventional wisdom that more is better and that we are still "free to choose" (to borrow a phrase from his old nemesis, Milton Friedman), when in fact we live in a world increasingly manipulated toward the endless (and mindless) consumption of all that we need least.

Few who read the book find its lessons dated even today, in our super-sized world of McMansions and gargantuan SUVs.

Galbraith admirers, however, are an independent lot, and from among his four dozen books (many still in print 50 years on; all available, albeit often well-worn, thanks to the Internet), each has his or her favourite. Time magazine, for example, hated The Affluent Society but lauded his novel A Tenured Professor as equal to Voltaire at his best. His wife Kitty still counts his history, The Great Crash: 1929, as her favourite, citing critic Mark Van Doren's judgment -- "History that reads like poetry" -- as her own. Galbraith himself felt he'd done his best writing in The Scotch, a gentle, often lyric remembrance of his youth in Elgin County, on the north shore of Lake Erie.

Neophytes, however, have no better place to start than The Essential Galbraith (Mariner Books, 2001), a wonderfully encompassing primer of his thought and craftsmanship, composed of articles and excerpts drawn from his larger work. Assembled and arranged by his long-time editor and assistant Andrea Williams, it amounts to an introductory panopticon covering the career of this extraordinarily gifted, funny, intelligent -- and most important, wise -- man.