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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 933


This is the grave of C. Wright Mills.

Born in 1916 in Waco, Texas, Mills grew up in a middle-class household. His father was an insurance agent and his mother a housewife. They moved around Texas constantly for his father’s work, finally settling in Dallas, where Mills graduated from high school. He started at Texas A&M but hated it and transferred to the University of Texas in Austin. He graduated in 1939 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in philosophy. Mills was already a rising star in sociology, having published at least two major papers as an undergraduate.

Mills headed off to the University of Wisconsin for his Ph.D. He had the secret weapon so many leading male academics of his time period (and for decades after) had–a wife that did much of the work for him. He had married a sociology graduate student named Dorothy Smith while in Austin. So not only did she know her stuff, but she was expected to do all the typing and editing too. Pretty easy to publish a lot when you have a wife to do all the grunt work without any credit at all. Anyway, Mills received his Ph.D. in 1942 and started teaching at the University of Maryland.

Mills soon became the nation’s most prominent sociologist because he took to applying his work to the public. Like his good friend, the historian Richard Hofstadter, Mills became a leading commenter on politics. He used his sociological training to explore the leading political powers of the time. His 1948 book The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders argued correctly that the current era’s labor leaders were happy to be in a capitalist system and have given up opposing any basic tenets of the system so long as workers got good money for it. White Collar: The American Middle Classes, from 1951 is a kind of prelude to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, a discussion about how the ability of the middle class to live in an autonomous state was overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of the era, turning the middle classes into automatons of a capitalist system. In 1956 came The Power Elite, which looked at different forms of power in American society and came to the conclusion that all elites in American society sought to locate power within an increasingly centralized bureaucratic state that they controlled. He addressed the fears of global conflict in his 1958 book The Causes of World War Three and his 1960 book Listen, Yankee, which tried to tell Americans why Fidel Castro had succeeded in taking power in Cuba and pushing the nation to understand the legacy of its foreign policy, something most Americans never want to understand. He also attempted to update Marxism in his 1962 book The Marxists, which criticized liberalism as something controlled by elites but also noted that classical Marxism was hopeless in explaining the modern world. Like so many authors, he respected Marxism but also had to deal with the fact that it was wrong about a lot and thus constantly needed updating and revision.

Mills’ increasing critique of American foreign policy during the McCarthyist period made him something of a hero to leftists in the U.S. and Latin America. Carlos Fuentes dedicated his 1962 novel The Death of Artemio Cruz (a very good novel) to Mills, calling him the “true voice of North America, friend and companion in the struggle of Latin America.” Mills did publish some more traditional academic and theoretical material as well, often in collaboration with other scholars, but he mostly embraced being the Texas cowboy academic who did whatever he wanted, consequences be damned. This included him teaching in flannel shirts and jeans at Columbia in the era of suits. He just didn’t care what anyone thought about this. On a personal level, this kind of behavior led him to be a real jerk–four marriages, constant and ritual infidelity to women, as well as engaging in mocking and public criticism of his own colleagues. Yuck. But he could also take on power wherever he found it. When he gave a talk in the Soviet Union, where he was feted as an American who hated American capitalism, he was called to give a toast. In front of his Soviet hosts, he stated, “To the day when the complete works of Leon Trostsky are published in the Soviet Union!” Wow.

Heavily influenced by the pragmatism of thinkers such as John Dewey, Mills wanted to change the world. He stated in The Sociological Imagination, his influential 1959 book where he laid out the principles of sociology for the world,

It is the political task of the social scientist – as of any liberal educator – continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is his task to display in his work – and, as an educator, in his life as well – this kind of sociological imagination. And it is his purpose to cultivate such habits of mind among the men and women who are publicly exposed to him. To secure these ends is to secure reason and individuality, and to make these the predominant values of a democratic society.

Makes sense to me, minus the gendered language of the era.

Mills also had a bad heart. He knew he would not live a long time and he was an ambitious man. So he worked hard, basically all the time when he wasn’t cheating on his wives. His fourth attack killed him in 1962, when he was all of 45 years old.

Three months after Mills died, Students for a Democratic Society issued its famous Port Huron Statement, demanding change in American society. The leading spirit behind that statement was Tom Hayden, who was deeply influenced by Mills. It’s interesting to consider what Mills would have thought about the changes that would soon transform the United States over the next ten to fifteen years had he lived. Mills himself had come up with the term “New Left” in 1960, when he issued a statement called “Open Letter to the New Left.” So one presumes he would have been an active supporter, including the fight against the Vietnam War. Still, who can tell.

C. Wright Mills is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other sociologists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lester Frank Ward is in Watertown, New York and Albion Woodbury Small is in Newton, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here. https://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2018/02/on-the-internet

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