Loneliness burdens most college freshmen, though precious few find lasting relief from it in the realm of ideas. So it happened for one freshman in 1935, when he left behind the isolation he had experienced at Texas A&M for the University of Texas and "the big discourse," his term for the Enlightenment humanism that extended him both refuge and inspiration. Once a diffident student who reserved his compositions for private display, he quickly gave to this tradition the allegiance of an apostle. At age 20, he wrote his father: "I work and live very rapidly these days. Mine is a pen from whose point much ink will flow and some day into the brains of the populace. But let that be."
Much ink did indeed flow from the pen of C. Wright Mills. As a professor of sociology at Columbia University, Mills wrote prodigiously throughout the forties and fifties, publishing in major newspapers and journals of opinion and in "little magazines" in equal measure. Two of his books, White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), sold widely outside the academy, exerting a profound influence on the early New Left. A heart attack in March 1962 cut short his life at 45 years. But ten books and nearly 200 articles, essays and reviews had already won him an international reputation. His books, now translated into twenty-three languages, remain widely circulated, as these anniversary editions and a new book of letters and autobiographical writings indicate.
Mills departed Austin in 1939 for doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin. Two years later, he completed a dissertation that fused the pragmatist philosophy he had learned at Texas with his new métier, sociology. "A Sociological Account of Pragmatism" disappointed him. Yet that dissertation, and particularly three innovative articles on the sociology of knowledge that preceded it, impressed influential members of the profession. In December 1940 Robert Merton, himself a theorist only six years Mills's senior, privately named him one of the three most promising sociologists in the nation.
A young prince in a rising discipline, Mills accepted an associate professorship of sociology at the University of Maryland, but he turned much of his attention to the lonely task of left-wing political agitation. In these years, whispers of a "permanent war economy" traveled among New York's Trotskyist community, to which Mills began to appeal for contacts, and his political writings expressed fear that monopoly capitalism was generating a proto-fascist domestic apparatus underwritten by cultural insensibility and mass discipline.
Unusually sensitive to the fast-changing character of liberal social structures, Mills proved impervious to the bitter ironies of reform. Unlike so many of his elders, he did not know firsthand the capacity of entrenched power to co-opt and redirect dissent; nor had he suffered the lost promises of international Communism. "I did not personally experience the thirties. At that time, I just didn't get its mood," he explained in one of the 150 letters published in C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, a beautifully edited volume by Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills (his daughters). "Only with the onset of World War II did I become radically aware of public affairs."
Released from military duty because of hypertension, Mills viewed the war as "a goddamned bloodbath to no end save misery and mutual death to all civilized values." He harbored no sympathy for the fresh scars of erstwhile agitators. In an essay published in 1942 in the New Leader, he observed that their chastened radicalism belonged to a more thoroughgoing "crisis in American pragmatism," in which private religious introspection, not political action, now served as the preferred sphere for the full development of the human personality. This kind of retreat into religion, Mills complained, neglected a "social theory of the self" (which he had explored in his early writings on the sociology of knowledge). Thereby, it left individuals intellectually powerless to affect the massive secular forces that increasingly overwhelmed them. The move away from politics "offers a personal and accommodative celebration of the modern fact of self-estrangement." (Similarly, he would later christen the "cult of alienation" that enveloped postwar literature merely as "a fashionable way of being overwhelmed.") Already by 1942, he had come to regard commitment to humanist politics and ideas as a spiritual enterprise that demanded steadiness of public purpose in the face of illiberal forces. This disposition, part evangelical, part stoic, would thereafter guide his criticism of US institutions.