Remembering C. Wright Mills

Cwmills Norman Birnbaum in The Nation:

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.