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Mills, C(harles) Wright

MILLS, C(harles) Wright

(b. 28 August 1916 in Waco, Texas; d. 20 March 1962 in Nyack, New York), leading sociologist in the 1950s and early 1960s, completing White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), books that critiqued the excesses of American capitalism and influenced the development of the New Left during the 1960s.

Mills was the son of Charles Grover Mills, an insurance salesman, and Frances Ursula Wright. He was raised by his mother and older sister and, at an early age, developed a love of reading. The family moved frequently, finally settling in Dallas, where Mills entered Dallas Technical High School in 1930. He was forced to attend Catholic mass and later wrote, "I never revolted from it; I never had to. For some reason, it never took." He graduated in 1934 and, at the insistence of his father, enrolled in Texas A&M, a military college. Mills suffered at the hands of the upperclassmen and later claimed that the hazing he had received turned him into a rebel. After a year at Texas A&M, he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied sociology, earning a B.A. in 1938 and an M.A. in philosophy in 1939.

In 1937 Mills married Dorothy Helen Smith. They would divorce (1940) and remarry (1941) and then divorce again (1947). The day after the second divorce, on 10 July 1947, Mills married Ruth Harper. They divorced in 1959. On 11 June 1959 Mills married Gloria Yaroslava Surmach. They had a son, adding to Mills's two daughters, one from each of his previous marriages. Mills left the University of Texas in 1939 for doctoral studies in sociology and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1942. Although Mills, like his grandfather, was an imposing figure physically, he was disqualified for military service during World War II because of hypertension. "If anything," wrote the historian David Halberstam in The Fifties, "this heightened his alienation from the American political mainstream, for it put him on the sidelines at what was the defining moment for most members of his generation." He taught at the University of Maryland during World War II, and in 1946, at the age of twenty-nine, he became an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York City.

Mills separated himself from his colleagues in both dress and decorum. "Mills seemed determined to provoke and antagonize his colleagues," wrote Halberstam. "He dressed as a lumberjack—in khaki pants, flannel shirts, and combat boots—and would arrive for class from his house in the country (which he had built himself)—astride his BMW motorcycle." In New York, Mills met intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, and Irving Howe but formed few close relationships. His combativeness alienated friends and critics alike.

During the 1950s Mills wrote two influential books, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), and both would have a profound impact on the New Left during the 1960s. "Mills eventually became the critical link between the old left, Communist and Socialist, which had flourished during the Depression," noted Halberstam, "and the New Left, which sprang up in the sixties to protest the blandness of American life." In White Color he decried the loss of individualism in the United States; in The Power Elite he gave expression to a growing swell of discontent with the years in which Dwight Eisenhower was president. "Mills's reconceptualization of America as mass society," wrote Andrew Jamison and Ron Eyerman in Seeds of the Sixties, "culminated with the publication of The Power Elite, a book that many would later see as a bible for the student movement of the 1960s."

In August 1960 Mills visited Cuba for two weeks to gather information for Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. He interviewed the guerrilla leader Che Guevara and spent a great deal of time with Cuba's leader, Fidel Castro, who expressed admiration for The Power Elite. In Listen Yankee, published in 1960, Mills worried that the United States' aggressive policy would have negative consequences. "He suggested that overt hostility and the development of sanctions against Cuba would drive the new, independent, socialist state out of a neutralist stance and into the Soviet bloc," wrote John Eldridge in C. Wright Mills, "which, as we now know, is precisely what happened." Mills's positive overview of the Cuban revolution also brought scrutiny from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a death threat. Despite the controversial nature of the book, Listen Yankee sold more than 400,000 copies.

Mills's "Letter to the New Left" appeared in the September–October 1960 issue of New Left Review. "Many prophetic movements have their John the Baptists," Irwin and Debi Unger wrote. "For the New Left, this figure was C. Wright Mills." In his "Letter to the New Left" and other writings, Mills began to rethink the political assumptions left over from the 1930s and offered fresh perspectives. Whereas the Old Left had invested its faith in the working class, Mills believed that labor, like government and business, had been co-opted by bureaucratic forces. He argued that, to solve society's problems, individuals would have to circumvent the system with direct democracy, organizing voluntary groups at offices, factories, and schools to generate and implement ideas. In the 1960s New Left organizations, such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), implemented direct democracy by moving into poor neighborhoods and attempting to improve living conditions. As the founder of SDS, Tom Hayden, recalled in Reunion: A Memoir, Mills "seemed to be speaking to us directly when he declared in his famous 'Letter to the New Left' that all over the world young radical intellectuals were breaking the old molds, leading the way out of apathy."

Mills's rhetoric caught on with the student movement because of his willingness to take a radical stance and write in a popular style. While many academics strove to become more objective following World War II, Mills attempted to revive the idea of the partisan intellectual from the 1930s. The intellectual, he believed, should raise questions, take sides on issues, and play an active role in public debate. As Theodore Roszak noted in The Making of a Counter Culture, Mills was not unique in pointing out the current state of affairs in America. "But it was Mills who caught on. His tone was more blatant; his rhetoric, catchier."

In December 1960, days before a scheduled debate with A. A. Berle, Jr., on U.S. policy in Cuba, Mills suffered a major heart attack. He remained in the hospital for two weeks and then checked himself out. He traveled throughout Russia and Europe with his family during the latter half of 1961 and returned to the United States in January 1962. Mills died of a second heart attack at the age of forth-five. The Marxists was posthumously published in 1962. "When he died," wrote Halberstam, "he had already become something of a mythic figure to a new generation of young American radicals and it would turn out that his posthumous influence was to be even greater." Mills is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Nyack, New York. His epitaph reads, "I have tried to be objective. I do not claim to be detached."

A number of Mills's letters appear in C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings (2000). Irving Horowitz, C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian (1983), offers a full-length biography, and David Halberstam, The Fifties (1993), provides a short sketch. Howard Press, C. Wright Mills (1978), and John Eldridge, C. Wright Mills (1983), analyze Mills's writings. Mills's influence on the 1960s is discussed in Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture (1969); Tom Hayden, Reunion: A Memoir (1988); Andrew Jamison and Ron Eyerman, Seeds of the Sixties (1994); and Irwin and Debi Unger, eds., The Times Were a Changin': The Sixties Readers (1998). Articles on Mills's theories and legacy are in the Nation (9 Oct. 2000) and Texas Monthly (Mar. 2001): 80–90. An obituary is in the New York Times (21 Mar. 1962).

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

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