Monday, February 3, 2020

Oswald Veblen's Early Days in Iowa

On this day, when Iowa once again exercises its outsized influence on the fate of presidential candidates, here's some research on how Oswald Veblen's childhood in Iowa may have influenced his values and his life. In a career packed with accomplishments, he was driven by multiple passions--for mathematics of course, and the advancement of American academia generally, but also for land and for buildings that could bring people together. Having achieved a position of influence, he used it to help countless others advance their careers, apparently unburdened by the racial and gender prejudices common in his time. He used it also to advance institutions and technology, most notably early steps in the development of computers.

Veblen was born and came of age as the country itself was coming of age, in that 30 year span called the Gilded Age, marked by industrialization and growth at the end of the 19th century. By age 20, neatly coinciding with the dawn of the 20th century and reflecting the urgency of the era, he had already gained two B.A. degrees, and was headed to Chicago for graduate work.

Most biographical writings about Veblen dispense with his early years in a paragraph or two, but a trip back to his beginnings reveals how Iowa exercised an outsized influence on what Veblen would later achieve. His four years at what was then called the State University of Iowa would be particularly influential, but this post will focus on the landscapes and buildings that framed his pre-college years, with music providing a brief meander, like the Iowa River he looked out upon from the windows of his childhood home.

It's good to start with a question or two. What, for instance, drove Veblen, a mathematics professor at Princeton, to insist on "supervising every last detail of construction" of Old Fine Hall, and what drove him to overcome opposition and convince the Institute for Advanced Study to acquire 600 acres that would ultimately become the Institute Woods? The degree of his passion for land and buildings is well expressed by Abraham Flexner: "The prospect of a visit from an architect usually cost Professor Veblen a day's work and a night's sleep ... He is a most excellent person, but the word 'building' or 'farm' has an intoxicating effect upon him."

Here, then, are some seeds from which a life grew.

Iowa, for most people, probably conjures images of a flat or gently rolling land of crowded cornstalks and scattered farmers whose opinions loom large every four years when presidential candidates come a'calling. Less known is another Iowa, of "abundant rock outcroppings," of "deep, narrow valleys containing cool, fast-flowing streams" and "unexpectedly scenic landscapes." Tucked into what's been called the "Switzerland of Iowa", a geologic region known as the Paleozoic Plateau at the extreme northeastern corner of the state (the red area on the map), is a town named Decorah, where Oswald Veblen was born.

By the time Oswald arrived on the scene in 1880, his father Andrew had received a masters degree from Carlton College in Minnesota, and had moved to Decorah to teach physics and english at Luther College. Andrew had married Kirsti Hougen, who had grown up near the Valdres Valley in Norway from which Andrew's parents had immigrated a generation earlier. Oswald, then, was the first child born into a family with deep Norwegian roots, living at the time in the center of Norwegian immigrant culture in America. Decorah is not only the home of Luther College, conceived by Norwegian Lutherans in 1857, but also the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, with the most extensive collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world.

Along with the forests, abundant water and beauty that must have attracted Norwegians to that part of Iowa, a few other parallels can be drawn between where Oswald was born and the Princeton Ridge where he lived the last 20 years of his life. Like northeastern Iowa's bluff country, Herrontown Woods escaped the flattening effect of the glaciers, and has rock outcroppings and abundant springs. In their wills, the Veblens left behind some artifacts to be part of a "museum and library" at Veblen House.

When I mentioned Decorah to some friends who live in Iowa City, they made the astonishing claim that The New World Symphony--one of my favorites--was composed there. How could a Czech composer end up in Iowa? On the other hand, how did a Czech composer manage to so aptly capture the spirit of America in a symphony?

What appears to be true, after some digging, is that Antonin Dvorak composed the symphony early in a three year stint in the U.S. beginning in 1892. One year in, on the advice of his secretary, a homesick Dvorak headed not back to Europe for a summer break, but instead traveled with his family to a Bohemian enclave in Iowa. There they spent the summer of 1893 in a town not far from Decorah named Spillville, where Dvorak found a home away from home among many Czech immigrants, and soaked up the sounds and vast spaces of the American midwest. One of the string quartets he composed while there includes the song of the scarlet tanager.

Dvorak's visit to the midwest coincided with a momentous time in American history, during which he could hear the sounds of Native American music, played by Iroquois Indians who lived just outside of town, and then travel to Chicago to witness the latest inventions at the Chicago World's Fair. All of this must have seeped into his composing of the New World Symphony, which he completed while living in Spillville.

This mix of the ancient and the modern must also have seeped into Oswald Veblen, by this time 13 and living in Iowa City just to the south. Oswald's family hadn't stayed long in Decorah. In 1881, when Oswald was one year old, his family moved to Baltimore, where his father received two years' training at Johns Hopkins University before taking a position as professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Iowa. Oswald would live in Iowa City for the next 16 years, gaining seven siblings and two degrees.

Fittingly, given Oswald's future as a visionary who loved buildings and nature, the family home in Iowa City had a view, standing atop Mill Hill--a long hill overlooking the Iowa River--the same hill where later would stand the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. The address of the Veblen home was 707 N. Dubuque St. Though we have yet to track down a photo, it was by all accounts an attractive house, surely substantial to house a family of ten.

Here's a description by Dan Campion, an Iowa City writer who I reached out to after seeing his letter in the U. of Chicago alumni magazine, calling for the preservation of Yerkes Observatory, where I grew up.
"The Veblen house must've been a showplace. The site overlooks a stretch of the Iowa River downstream (south) of a bight and about a third to a half a mile north of the center of campus."
Most of what we know about Oswald's childhood home comes from the newspaper columns of historian Irving Weber. By Weber's description, the house had a career of its own, hosting a progression of owners following the departure of the Veblens from Iowa City in 1906.

Weber writes: 
This had been the lovely La Place Bostwick home, and the tea room was called Wisteria because of the beautiful wisteria flowers, droopy clusters of showy, purple blooms on the front of the house. Interestingly, the house, located at the top of the long Dubuque Street hill, had been known as "The House of Mystery" (1908-1918) when Bostwick lived there and invested $25,000 for construction of the 40-by-60-foot laboratory building in back to artificially produce pearls, using clams. Two thousand clams were dredged from the Iowa River, just below the Coralville Dam, and were implanted with a tiny pellet of clam shell (as an irritant to start the pearl). Iowa River water was constantly pumped over the clams in the laboratory tank, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In four years, Bostwick reaped his first harvest of pearls--round, of good quality, weighing 10 grams. 
The "House of Mystery" has echoes of H.G. Wells' novels published only a decade prior, like The Invisible Man, in which a man secretly manipulates nature in a way no one else had ever imagined.

From 1925-26, while Elizabeth Veblen would have been hosting teas in Princeton and growing wisteria in her garden, Oswald's childhood home in Iowa City was busy being one of several Tea Houses in Iowa City operated by women during the Prohibition era. Soon thereafter the house was displaced by the Sigma Chi fraternity and reportedly moved in 1928 to another location, as yet unknown.

Another building that may have had a big effect on Oswald was the Grammar School, an impressive structure built in 1893 at the northeast corner of Van Buren and Jefferson streets. Such edifices must have loomed large in the predominantly rural landscape of Iowa, and surely made an impression on a young Veblen.

Oswald would likely have been a student there only a year before moving on to the university at the tender age of 14, but the flush of new facilities he experienced just before leaving high school may have influenced his campaigns later in life to secure good facilities for Princeton's math department and the Institute for Advanced Study.

For his college education, Oswald looked no further than the State University of Iowa, where his father Andrew was a professor with a long beard and a reputation for high standards.

Deane Montgomery, a former faculty member at the IAS and close friend of Veblen's, offered a few insights about those Iowa City college days in Veblen's obituary for the American Mathematical Society: "As a student he won a prize in mathematics and another in sharpshooting. During these early years he took a trip by boat down the Iowa and Mississippi rivers and he often spoke of this trip with pleasure."

Additional research that I have yet to write up suggests that loss--of buildings and landscape--may also have made a big impression on Veblen in his early days. There was the ancestral Veblen land in Norway lost two generations earlier, reportedly to unscrupulous lawyers, but Oswald himself appears to have directly witnessed two great losses in his youth. One was the fire that consumed the university library--a much loved structure with many irreplaceable books. Another was the university green, an area of open space on campus that was progressively lost to buildings for lack of foresight by leaders who had failed to acquire more land early on to accommodate the university's future growth. 

Of all these elements--family tradition, the great outdoors and great indoors, precocious achievement, tragic loss and steady gain--Oswald Veblen was made. 

Thanks to the Iowa City Library and the State Historical Society for assistance in this research.

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