I first read C. Wright Mills in Dwight Macdonald’s all too short-lived journal Politics in 1944. It was an essay on the plight of the intellectuals. I was 18 at the time and thought there was nothing better than becoming an intellectual–and I suppose I had John Dewey’s influence on the New Deal generation in mind. Mills’s earliest academic work was on American pragmatism, which he viewed as our way of connecting present and future, a dramaturgy of historical purpose. By the time I heard Mills speak, at a meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society in 1948, he had become exceedingly pessimistic about the liberating power of thought. That made sense to me. I was studying sociology in the graduate program at Harvard, where themes like class, gender and race were assiduously underemphasized. In the larger university there was almost nothing to be heard of Joseph Schumpeter’s claim that intellectuals were ineradicably anticapitalist. Harvard’s professors were too busy flying to Washington to staff the agencies of our expanding imperial power. One could not emigrate to Columbia University to study with Mills. His appointment was at Columbia College, and he warned graduate students away: he was thought an outsider in the “profession,” and association with him was unhelpful to their careers. Still, it was Mills (and to be sure, David Riesman) whom the New York intellectuals and their readers in the universities thought of when they thought of sociology at all. Mills was the self-designated survivor of a tradition of large historical and social criticism in American sociology that had largely disappeared by the time he apprenticed himself to it.
I recall holding a copy of the newly published White Collar one spring day in 1952, on the steps of Harvard’s Emerson Hall. Talcott Parsons came by, took the book from my hands, opened directly to Mills’s description of the university as a higher or lower fusion of bureaucracy and feudalism and said that he entirely disagreed–and added, oddly, that he had not read the book. Time passed, and in 1956 I found myself teaching at a place where my colleagues did read Mills, the London School of Economics. No one, however, had met him. Then we learned that he was a Fulbright professor in Copenhagen, and so we invited him to London. I was his host for the visit and was astonished at his first question. Why, when he asked to be sent as a Fulbright professor to the LSE, had we said that we were not interested? We hadn’t: no one had asked us. The Fulbright authorities, apparently, thought that they could hardly deny an award to Mills–but must have considered it safer to send him to Denmark.
Mills traveled frequently back and forth across the Atlantic in those years. I was among those who introduced him to British and European academics sympathetic to the American radicalism he represented. They liked his admission of perplexity in the face of change in modern social structure and were scornful of his American detractors, like Edward Shils, who denigrated Mills in the CIA-funded monthly Encounter. “Wright is fortunate in his enemies,” the British historian Edward Thompson said. In Europe, he was fortunate in his new friends–Thompson among them. He traveled in Communist Europe with Ralph Miliband, an LSE political scientist and the intellectual voice of those in the Labour Party persisting in a British sort of Marxism. (One of his sons, the present British foreign secretary, David Miliband, was given the middle name Wright as a token of affection for Mills.)