C. Wright Mills, Man for All Seasons

Bar Harbor Island, Fla.

I appreciated Norman Birnbaum’s tribute to C. Wright Mills [“The Half-Forgotten Prophet,” March 30], though I don’t agree that he is a “half-forgotten prophet” or that he was “tied to his times,” which suggests that his work was only relevant to the times in which he lived. His classics are still in print–White Collar, The Power Elite, The Sociological Imagination and C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings as well as the book under review.

As the author of the Introduction to Letters, I was asked to speak at Books & Books, the largest independent bookstore in South Florida, on its publication in 2000. I was pleased by a good turnout and especially by a group of sociology students from the University of Miami, who told me they were great fans of Mills, having discovered his work when their sociology professor instructed them not to read it.

The relevance of Mills as “prophet” of our current crisis, symbolized by the bonuses of the AIG executives and their ilk, is summed up in The Power Elite by what Mills calls “the higher immorality”:

“In a society in which the money-maker has had no serious rival for repute and honor, the word ‘practical’ comes to mean useful for private gain, and ‘common sense,’ the sense to get ahead financially. The pursuit of the moneyed life is the commanding value in relation to which the influence of other values has declined. So men easily become morally ruthless in the pursuit of money and fast estate-building.

“A great deal of American corruption–although not all of it–is simply a part of the old effort to get rich and then to become richer.”

Those words from 1956 seem, like much of Mills’s work, a critique of 2009.



Mills is hardly “half-forgotten.” In my discipline, political science, his legacy is alive and well. True, the modern social sciences seem to be at odds with Mills’s lack of methodological “professionalism” (read: adherence to academic technocracy). His conclusions are also well to the left of today’s poli sci mainstream. Nevertheless, he is a founding father of what political scientists call “elitism,” which contends that power in the United States is concentrated in the hands of a few. His work was widely debated by “pluralists,” including the great Robert Dahl, who held more or less the opposite view. You can’t get out of graduate school in this field without having to contend with this debate, started by Mills. Five decades on, The Power Elite is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand American democracy.

Josh Leon

Culture–the Unkindest Cut

Portland, Ore.

Eyal Press’s “A Perfect Storm” [March 30], on the economic implosion of the nonprofit world, shows that much more than our economic health is at risk. Culture and community are eroding faster than the stock market. Here in Oregon the Legislature has slashed budgets for many social service and public assistance programs, and organizations that help define what it means to be an Oregonian are disappearing. The Oregon Historical Society has closed its research library. The coffers of the Oregon Cultural Trust, which receives its funding from a special license plate people can pay an extra fee for, have been raided by the state. Many institutions will be so crippled that if and when the economy improves, they won’t be able to rebound.


Her Story

New York City

Christine Smallwood states that Elaine Showalter’s book A Jury of Her Peers is the first literary history of American female authors [“Back Talk,” March 30]. Frederick Ungar published American Women Writers: From Colonial Times to the Present in Four Volumes, A Critical Reference Guide. I have Volume 3, edited by Lina Mainiero and published in 1981.


Smallwood Replies

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Elaine Showalter makes the following distinction: “Jury of Her Peers is a narrative literary history, covering 350 years in twenty chapters and told by a single author with a point of view. The Ungar volumes, on the other hand, are critical reference guides comprising brief entries on many women writers, written by a range of contributors and arranged alphabetically.”


‘Old Boy’ Network

Los Angeles

I recently ran across Scott Sherman’s compelling piece about George Plimpton [“In His League,” Feb. 2; “Letters,” March 23]. I was fascinated by glimpses of the early Paris Review, which by some miracle printed one of my stories. As Sherman says, Peter Matthiessen’s CIA link was an open secret. He and George came from the social class most desired by Langley before it was Langley. A college friend who worked for the CIA was called in to speak to the director because it was discovered that her family contained a bunch of reds. “Are you going to fire me?” she asked. “Of course not,” replied the director. “We’re not like those apes over at the FBI.”

I knew and liked George and don’t believe he was a man without qualities or disguised an empty suit. He did the best with what he had, which was physical courage, irony, courtesy and considerable literary talent. He was our Gatsby, in a way. I loved it when he called me “old boy.” Simple good manners should not be undervalued. Also, in so many ways he was in the best sense a Citizen of New York.


Wrong Country, Wrong Number

Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon stated in their April 13 article on Tell Her the Truth that the play was being staged “across the United States” and listed Cambridge as one of the cities. To the disappointment of Boston-area readers, the play was staged in Cambridge, England.

Katha Pollitt, in her March 23 “Subject to Debate” column, gave $800,000 as twenty times the US median household income. It is sixteen times that income.