C. Wright Mills: Before His Time

C. Wright Mills: Before His Time

Maybe C. Wright Mills’s greatest legacy was a decade of activism and rebellion.


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.

All this was more than a decade before the first communes were established and before the style epitomized by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became popular. At the time of his death from a heart attack at the age of 45, in March 1962, Mills was working on a proposal for the creation of a political consciousness and direction that did not yet exist in this country: he called it the New Left.

The vitality and continuing value of Mills’s work spring partly from the fact that as an inveterate teacher he not only told us how things were but how they might be, and sometimes how each of us could help make them better. In fact, his stand was that as intellectuals we have a responsibility to make them better.

More than a quarter-century ago, in The Causes of World War III, Mills excoriated “the rise of the cheerful robot, of the technological idiot, of the crackpot realist” in both the United States and the Soviet Union, and he proposed a program of individual action to forestall a nuclear holocaust. Mills urged us to go on “expeditions” behind the Iron Curtain as representatives not of our national interests but of “intellectual and cultural values that are not confined by any nationalist boundary,” and to engage in discussions “in full autobiographical candor” with “our opposite numbers among the enemy” in order to create new ideas and opportunities for peace. The message of that book is more urgent today than when it was first published, in 1957; it ought to be reissued and read by everyone concerned with the planet’s survival.

I am grateful for the legacy of courage and enterprise that Mills has left us in his books, but I miss the man himself. I am sorry to say I was unable to recognize him in the first full-length biography of him, C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian, by sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz (Free Press, 341 pp., $19.95). Though the author claims in the introduction that he “tried to contact every living person who has firsthand information on Mills,” he inexplicably neglected, in the course of some two decades of research, to get in touch with “either family members or Mills’s closest friends”–this according to a letter in The New York Times Book Review from Mills’s three children and two of his former wives, protesting Horowitz’s “distorted view of the man who is his subject.”

Horowitz’s opinion of Mills has shifted drastically. After Mills’s death in 1962, Horowitz considered him “the greatest sociologist the United States has ever produced,” and in 1964, he described him as “the man whose spirit and zest for life inform the current political struggle for a better world.” But the present volume calls him “a prophet and fanatic” whose “quite personal style led to a near-unanimous negative consensus about him.” The invalidity of Horowitz’s judgment is revealed in his description of Swados’s memoir as “a savage critique of Mills cloaked as obituary.” I offer the conclusion of that piece as an accurate assessment of the Mills I knew when I was his student, research assistant and friend, from 1954 until his death:

He was as combatively exhilarating as any man has ever been, he worked with the contagious wild passion of an inventor or a driven idealist, and when he was really dauntless he was the bravest man I have ever known.

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