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Critic and Crusader

The Exemplary Passions of C. Wright Mills

THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION Fortieth Anniversary Edition By C. Wright Mills; Oxford University Press: 256 pp., $13.95 paper

C. WRIGHT MILLS Letters and Autobiographical Writings Edited by Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills; University of California Press: 380 pp., $34.95

May 28, 2000|TODD GITLIN | Todd Gitlin is professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University and the author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage," "The Twilight of Common Dreams" and the novel "Sacrifice." His essay, in somewhat different form, appears as the afterword to the new edition of C. Wright Mills' "The Sociological Imagination."

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Even if the rest of this sentence reads like an oxymoron, C. Wright Mills was the most inspiring sociologist of the second half of the 20th century, his achievement all the more remarkable for the fact that he died at 45 and produced his major work in a span of little more than a decade. For the political generation trying to find bearings in the early '60s, Mills was a guiding knight of radicalism. Yet he was a bundle of paradoxes, and this was part of his appeal, whether his readers were consciously attuned to the paradoxes or not. He was a radical disabused of radical traditions, a sociologist disgruntled with the course of sociology, an intellectual frequently skeptical of intellectuals, a defender of popular action as well as a craftsman, a despairing optimist, a vigorous pessimist and, all in all, one of the few contemporaries whose intelligence, verve, passion, scope--and contradictions--seemed alive to most of the main moral and political traps of his time. A philosophically trained and best-selling sociologist who decided to write pamphlets, a Populist who scrambled to find what was salvageable within the Marxist tradition, a loner committed to politics, a man of substance acutely cognizant of style, he was not only a guide but an exemplar, prefiguring in his paradoxes some of the tensions of a student movement that was reared on privilege, amid exhausted ideologies, yet hellbent on finding, or forging, the leverage with which to transform America root and branch.

In his two final years, Mills the writer became a public figure, his tracts against the Cold War and U.S. Latin American policy more widely read than any other radical's, his "Listen, Yankee," featured on the cover of Harper's magazine, his "Letter to the New Left" published in both England (New Left Review) and America (Studies on the Left) and distributed, in mimeographed form, by Students for a Democratic Society.

In December 1960, cramming for a television network debate on Latin America policy with a leading establishmentarian, Mills suffered a heart attack, and when he died 15 months, later he was instantly acclaimed by his admirers as a martyr. SDS's Port Huron Statement carries echoes of Mills' prose, and Tom Hayden, its principal author, wrote his master's thesis on Mills, whom he labeled "Radical Nomad," a heroic if quixotic figure who, like the New Left itself, tried to bull through the ideological logjam. After his death, one son of the New Left founders was named for Mills, along with at least one cat, my own, so called because he was almost red.

Mills' writing was charged--seared--by a keen awareness of human initiative and disappointment, a passionate feeling for the human adventure and a commitment to dignity. In many ways the style was the man. In a vigorous, instantly recognizable prose, he hammered home again and again the notion that people lived lives that were not only bounded by social circumstance but deeply shaped by social forces not of their own making and that this irreducible fact had two consequences: It lent most human life a tragic aspect with a social root and created the potential--if only people saw a way forward--of improving life in a big way by concerted action.

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In "The Sociological Imagination" and other works, Mills insisted that a sociologist's proper subject was the intersection of biography and history. His own biography and history met in a distinctly American paradox: He was the lone artisan who belonged by refusing to belong. "I have been intellectually, politically, morally alone," he would write in an essay that went unpublished in his lifetime. "I have never known what others call 'fraternity' with any group, however small, neither academic nor political. With a few individuals, yes, I have known it, but with groups however small, no. . . . And the plain truth, so far as I know, is that I do not cry for it." "Intellectually and culturally I am as 'self-made' as it is possible to be," he declared. His "direction" was that "of the independent craftsman"--"craftsman" was one of his favorite words. "I am a Wobbly, personally, down deep and for good. . . . I take Wobbly to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat." In the midst of his activist pamphleteering, he could still write: "I am a politician without a party" or, to put it another way, a party of one.

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