Maybe C. Wright Mills’s greatest legacy was a decade of activism and rebellion.
Whether in the classrooms of his popular sociology courses at Columbia University in the 1950s or in his increasingly controversial and widely read books, the late C. Wright Mills was a great teacher. In The Sociological Imagination, a guide to the pitfalls and promises of his academic profession, Mills taught that any writing “that is not imaginable as human speech is bad writing.” That belief alone would have made Mills unique among American sociologists, and his own implementation of it helped him gain an audience far beyond the confines of the academy–and increased the enmity toward him within it.
When I was one of his students at Columbia in 1954, Mills’s very appearance was a subject of controversy. In that era of cautious professors in gray flannel suits he came roaring into Morningside Heights on his BMW motorcycle, wearing plaid shirts, old jeans and work boots, carrying his books in a duffel bag strapped across his broad back. His lectures matched the flamboyance of his personal image, as he managed to make entertaining the heavyweight social theories of Mannheim, Ortega and Weber. He shocked us out of our Silent Generation torpor by pounding his desk and proclaiming that every man should build his own house (as he himself did a few years later) and that, by God, with the proper study, we should each be able to build our own car! “Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps,” Mills wrote in the opening sentence of The Sociological Imagination, and I can hear him saying it as he paced in front of the class, speaking not loudly now but with a compelling sense of intrigue, as if he were letting you in on a powerful secret.
Against the awful image of Willy Loman’s wasted life which haunted our dreams of the future in the 1950s, against the lock-step fate of The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man which seemed to lie in wait for us after graduation, Mills gave us more hopeful possibilities. His withering critique of the stifling elements he saw in society (as expressed in White Collar, on the American middle class, and in The Power Elite, on the ruling circles) was not simply negative. The very audacity of Mills’s attacks on the status quo carried with it a promise of something better. As his novelist neighbor and friend, the late Harvey Swados, reflected in Dissent in 1963, “the best of the young academics” and “many thousands of plain readers” here and abroad were drawn to his work because “they sensed correctly that, faulty and flawed as it was, the vision of Wright Mills cut through the fog and lighted their lives for them.”
Though most of Mills’s work and fame belonged to what Swados called “that unlovely decade, the fat and frightened fifties,” he was, in his life style as well as his intellectual concerns and attitudes, one of the first harbingers of the sixties. Back in those undergraduate classes at Columbia, Mills enthralled us with calls to “abandon” the cities, which he felt were already hopelessly dehumanizing, and set up small, self-governing units around the country. There people could develop crafts and skills and work with their hands, as he was already doing, learning to repair his beloved German motors.