Grist for Mills

In his controversial books White Collar and The American Middle Class and The Power Elite, sociologist C. Wright Mills used his Texas upbringing to turn the nation's understanding of democracy upside down.

March 2001By Comments

Too many social scientists write incomprehensible articles on inconsequential topics for journals that no one reads except their own colleagues. (The lead article in the March 2000 issue of the American Journal of Sociology is titled “The Instability of Androgynous Names: The Symbolic Maintenance of Gender Boundaries.”) But there have been notable exceptions—from Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey to John Kenneth Galbraith—who have sought a wider audience and embraced a broader purpose in their work. C. Wright Mills was one of these. Born in Waco in 1916, educated at Dallas’ Technical High School and at Texas A&M and the University of Texas, he taught sociology in the fifties at Columbia University. Perhaps no sociologist in the past half century has had so much influence over how Americans think—or aroused as much ire from his colleagues.

Mills wrote in a time of popular apathy but great intellectual ferment. Along with David Riesman, Dwight Macdonald, and William F. Buckley, Jr., Mills understood that America had turned a corner in its history. It had inherited global responsibility and had become a country of big government and big business, many of whose citizens no longer worked on their own farms or for small businesses, but in large glass office buildings. While Mills’s academic colleagues often dwelt on the effects or symptoms of change, Mills, whose motto was to “take it big,” wanted to know what it all meant. Half a century later, his answers continue to resonate.

As Mills’s motto suggests, his intellectual approach clearly bore the traces of his Texas upbringing, but because he was often characterized as a provincial by his critics, he was loath to discuss his Texas roots publicly during his lifetime. But now, with the publication of C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, edited by his daughters Kathryn and Pamela Mills, we can learn in Mills’s own words how profoundly his upbringing in Texas contributed to his later life and work.

Mills, who died of a heart attack in 1962 at age 45, wrote two books that are still widely read: White Collar and the American Middle Class, which came out in 1951, and, better known, The Power Elite, which was published in 1956. A third, The Sociological Imagination, is treasured by academics who, like Mills, don’t fit their profession’s stifling mold. He also wrote two books on foreign policy, The Causes of World War Three and Listen, Yankee, that, to the benefit of Mills’s reputation, are no longer available in bookstores, except perhaps in Havana.

The Power Elite turned the high-school-civics-class view of American political power on its head. Mills argued that American politics was ruled not by citizens controlling their government by the power of the vote but by an “intricate set of overlapping cliques” that occupied the “command posts” of the country’s great economic, military, and political institutions. He called them the “power elite.” “In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them,” Mills wrote. His theory was hotly debated, but many of its essentials are now conceded: how on a critical international issue, such as permitting China to enter the World Trade Organization, the top leaders of business and finance will suddenly close ranks with the upper echelons of the State and Treasury departments, many of whom came from the same circles.

In White Collar, Mills subverted the prevailing fifties view of America as a Horatio Alger land of farms and factories. Instead, he portrayed an America shaped by a new white-collar class—from secretaries and schoolteachers to salesmen and accountants. The rise of this new class defied the Marxist prediction that America and other advanced capitalist countries would be increasingly divided between a large and potentially revolutionary blue-collar working class and a small and corrupt ruling class. But it also defied the American dream that every citizen could expect, on his or her merits, to rise from worker to owner. “The twentieth-century white-collar man has never been independent as the farmer used to be, nor as hopeful of the main chance as the businessman,” Mills wrote. “He is always somebody’s man, the corporation’s, the government’s, the army’s; and he is seen as the man who does not rise.” Mills called him “the new little man in the big world of the twentieth century.” His critique of American democracy and his vision of a white-collar America would endure. They still remain the radical guideposts, the “con” of the pro and con, in the continuing debate over political power and economic opportunity in America.

During his lifetime, Mills’s critics would frequently attribute his political heresies or methodological transgressions to the impediment of having grown up and gone to college in Texas. An acerbic reviewer of The Sociological Imagination conjured up an image of Mills as a “burly cowpuncher on the long, slow ride from the Panhandle of Texas to Columbia University, carrying in his saddle-bag some books which he reads with absorption while his horse trots along.” Mills was enraged by this kind of ad hominem attack. He wrote the editor of the American Sociological Review, which had published the article, “I haven’t been in Texas for twenty years, except to lecture once or twice; I am rather frightened of horses and certainly wouldn’t attempt to ride one.” In 1960 he wrote in a letter to the publisher Carl Marzani, “I am not ‘a Texan’ any more than I am ‘a New Yorker.’ In fact there are several places where I feel much more ‘at home’ than either, all of them outside the USA.”

But in his correspondence and unpublished autobiographical writings, some of which take the form of letters to an imaginary Russian friend that he called Tovarich, Mills fully acknowledged how important his Texas roots were. He believed that he could see America more clearly because he came from a region that was still experiencing the changes that had already occurred in New York or Chicago. What was hidden to others by its very ubiquity was still witnessed by him as a vital process. In a letter to Tovarich, he wrote, “I was in an outlying region—Texas. . . . I sometimes think that during the thirties I was living in the twenties, and that during the early forties, I was living in the thirties.” He described himself as one of those “outlanders who came late in life to big cities and ‘discover them.’”

Growing up, Mills experienced the conflict between the older ideal of frontier independence and the emerging reality of white-collar America. Mills’s grandfather on his mother’s side was a rancher and a cattle driver, a large brawler who was killed in 1922 in an altercation with one of his ranch hands. Mills’s mother married Charles Grover Mills, who had arrived in Texas in 1910 from Florida and who traveled as an insurance agent for Banker’s Life of Des Moines, Iowa. Banker’s Life not only required Mills’s father to be constantly on the road but also shuffled him from one branch office to another. As a result, Mills moved around the state during his childhood, living in Waco, Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Sherman, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas, where he went to high school. Mills admitted later that he first got the idea for White Collar when “I was ten years old and watched my white-collared father getting ready for another sales trip.”

Mills also got his metaphor of the “little man” from his father, who was of medium height but slight compared to Mills, who was built like his grandfather, well over six feet tall and two hundred pounds. Mills was raised by his mother and older sister, and he described himself as a “sissy boy until my first year of college.” He cared far more for books than for sports. But if Mills didn’t get into physical fights, he got into battles over ideas, even at an early age. He was a lonely, rebellious child. Having discovered Clarence Darrow’s atheism, he rose up against his Catholic mother and fundamentalist Texas. During high school, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Dallas Morning News denouncing a local fundamentalist for his rejection of science, causing embarrassment to his family when friends assumed that his father was the author.

According to Mills, his father sent him to Texas A&M “to make a man of me.” It pretty much had that effect, although not in the way that Mills’s father seems to have intended. It strengthened Mills’s resolve to go his own way and also endowed him with an aversion to military life. During World War II, Mills’s unwillingness to enlist stemmed as much from his memory of Texas A&M as from opposition to the war itself. “What did World War II mean to me?” he later wrote. “In threatening personal terms, it meant the rural idiocy and militarism of Texas A&M.”

When Mills attended Texas A&M, students were required to wear uniforms and obey strict military discipline. Freshman, who were called Fish, were severely hazed. Mills was called Fish Tarzan because of his size. He later recalled one incident. “I was reading when three heads appeared in the door. ‘How do you do,’ I said. ‘What the hell do you mean—listen bastard, when sophomores walk in this god damned room, you get up. When juniors pass by, you get up damned quick, and when you see a senior a block off, get up and stay up until they’re a block past—now get up.’ Then the three beat my butt.” Later in the year, Mills was ostracized by his classmates after he accidentally injured another student in a wrestling match. The school decreed that Mills receive the silent treatment, after which only one professor would talk to him.

Mills fought back with words. He wrote a series of letters, signed “A Freshman,” to the school newspaper, the Battalion, attacking A&M’s ways. “What effect has the overbearing attitude of the upperclassman on the mind of the freshman?” Mills asked. “Does it make the freshman more of a man? Most assuredly not, for there can be no friendship born out of fear, hatred or contempt; and no one is a better man who submits passively to the slavery of his mind and body by one who is less of a man than he.”

After an extremely unhappy year—Mills would later dwell in particular on the effect that his classmates’ silence had on him—he decided to transfer to the University of Texas. It was a decision, he wrote later, that “made me into an intellectual.” Yet, as author Richard Davis Gillam suggested in an unpublished thesis about Mills’s early years, the year he spent at Texas A&M probably had a greater effect on his character that the four subsequent, and predominantly happy, years he spent in Austin. When Mills arrived at College Station, he was a solitary, angry teenager; when he left, he was no less angry but had adopted a protective shell to defend himself from the kind of hostility that he encountered there. For Mills, being an intellectual didn’t mean becoming engaged or activist but cultivating a critical detachment from the world. In a paper he wrote at the University of Texas, he produced a variation of Marx’s famous statement that the duty of philosophers is not to simply interpret the world but to change it. “In an intellectual world that stinks,” Mills wrote, “it is the business of the long-nosed philosopher publicly to hold his nose.”

Mills saw in the academic field of sociology (which at UT was still closely linked to economics, philosophy, and political science) a means of criticizing the world without becoming implicated in it. He threw himself into learning sociology. He read voraciously and excelled in his classes and was soon on a first-name basis with his professors; he became the president of a sociology honor society; and in his senior year, he had a paper accepted for publication in a prestigious academic journal. He subordinated everything to becoming a sociologist. When his parents expressed concern about a girl he was dating, he wrote back, “I’m building a sociological system of science and women have only such place as they themselves make in it.” This attitude would later contribute to three divorces.

Mills cultivated the image of the future professor. He smoked a pipe and wrote his letters home on sociology department stationery. But for him, sociology was still a means, not an end. He worried that the pretensions and limits of the discipline would prevent him from having his say. After he got married to Dorothy Helen “Freya” Smith in 1938, he wrote a journal entry: “There are so many people left that I’ve got to tell to go to hell. And so many of them have purse strings to choke and coerce young married men with radical tendencies.” When he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he initially wrote a letter declining the honor. “So far as I am able to determine PBK has no functional justification for its existence,” he wrote. But he decided to accept the award, because it would allow him to fool “old liberals who hold key positions in university chairs” into hiring him.

At UT, Mills was surrounded by politics and political activists. He himself did research for the New Deal’s National Youth Administration, whose Texas director was Lyndon Johnson. One of his roommates seems to have had some links to the Communists, another worked closely in Johnson’s 1938 congressional campaign, and Mills’s wife worked for the Young Men’s and Women’s Christian Association, a leader in racial integration and labor rights. But Mills did not participate in politics; instead, as he wrote his father about political and religious turmoil on campus, he viewed the turmoil as a “laboratory for sociologists.”

Yet Mills certainly did have political convictions, which were, if anything, reinforced by his years in Austin. Like many Texans born before World War II—from Dan Smoot (the right-wing conspiracy theorist who was Mills’s close friend in high school) to Ross Perot—Mills was steeped in the rhetoric of Texas populism. In the 1890’s populist politics had sunk its deepest roots in Texas and Kansas. For the next fifty years, if not longer, Texas politicians of the left and the right described themselves as the tribunes of the people against the “interests” and the “money power.” Mills grew up listening to these politicians and envisaging the fundamental divisions of society in populist terms, and in The Power Elite he would depict a society divided between the people and the establishment.

This Texas perspective was far removed from the intellectual climate at the City College of New York—the training ground for many prominent post-World War II sociologists. At CCNY, American populism and liberalism were seen as bygone faiths. The main texts were Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, and the main debate was between adherents of the latter two. Future sociologists like Seymour Martin Lipset and Daniel Bell saw America divided between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, not between the people and the economic interests, and the principal question they pondered was how soon, and on behalf of which brand of socialism, the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie.

At UT, Mills was deeply influenced by Veblen, the Midwesterner who, in The Theory of the Leisure Class and other works, criticized the excesses of American capitalism with an ironic detachment that Mills sought to emulate. Veblen had largely been forgotten in many elite Eastern universities, but Mills learned economics from a Veblen disciple, economist Clarence E. Ayres. In the spirit of Veblen, Ayres wrote in The Divine Right of Capital: “The present order of society can be saved, and there is much to be said for saving it. But it can be saved only by the abandonment of capitalism as it is conceived by capitalists and their spokesmen, present and past,” which explains why the Texas Legislature kept trying to get him fired.

Mills’s combination of populist criticism and ironic detachment suited him well in the years after World War II, when the profession was dominated by arid academic jargon. Many of his ex-Marxist colleagues had to spend years unlearning the lessons of Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, while many of the newer sociologists who would graduate in the early fifties were schooled in what Mills called “statistical stuff and heavy duty theoretical bullshit.” Mills avoided both. His detachment and his perspective as an “outlander” prevented him from getting caught up in what he called the “American celebration” of the decade. He saw the threat to democracy and the American dream that was unfolding beneath the prosperity of the post-war years and that would soon contribute to a decade of tumultuous revolt.

After Mills left Austin, in 1939, he returned to Texas for only a few brief visits. He got his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, and after teaching at the University of Maryland during World War II, he joined the sociology department at Columbia. In the East, Mills displayed the curious ambivalence toward his upbringing that is often characteristic of Texas expatriates—at once denying its influence and defensively exaggerating it. He didn’t ride horses, he insisted—but he did ride motorcycles and would regularly make the trip from his house in the country (which he built himself) to Columbia on a BMW cycle. He didn’t wear cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat, but he arrived at Columbia in work boots and a leather jacket. He didn’t get into barroom brawls, but he got into verbal fights with almost all of his fellow sociologists. The Sociological Imagination was a book-length polemic against the “cloudy obscurantism” and “formal and empty ingenuity” that dominated sociology. As he lay recuperating from a heart attack in 1961, he got only one card from his colleagues at Columbia.

Mills understood the roots of his own unruly behavior. In his private musings, he acknowledged and made fun of the influence that his Texas past had had over him, characterizing its influence in terms of the movie westerns he frequented. He wrote Tovarich, “So my grandfather was shot and I did not grow up with cowboys on a ranch. For this I shall always be grateful. I do not want it, but still, late one night . . . I have thought about the cowboys of my native province. My God, what men they are. Or were. Or must have been. Or ought to have been. There is no movie like a cowboy movie.” In a letter to a friend, he parodied his own behavior toward his colleagues at Columbia, as if he were playing the hero in a western: “‘I don’t hate nobody,’ he said. ‘I’m just tired of the bullshit.’ He said it slowly so they’d all hear it good. Then he swung a couple of chairs into the bar, one following the other like one smash; knocking the bottom off a whiskey bottle and (the cameraman) moved in close.”

If there was a way that Mills’s Texas upbringing limited him that he didn’t acknowledge, it was in his understanding of the world beyond America’s shores. Still seething from his experience with Texas A&M-style militarism and patriotism, he adopted a kind of frontier isolationism disguised as left-wing internationalism. He opposed American participation in World War II. He characterized the war in a letter to his parents as a “goddamned bloodbath to no end save misery and mutual death to all civilized values.” During the cold war, he treated the United States and the Soviet Union as moral equals. The United States, he wrote, must acknowledge Soviet communism as “an alternative way of industrialization.” And in his last years, he championed Cuba’s Fidel Castro, insisting that “the Cuban revolutionary . . . is neither capitalist nor Communist.”

These were clearly shortcomings, but you can’t have everything in a social theorist. Some foreign policy experts—Henry Kissinger comes to mind—don’t seem to have the foggiest grasp of what is going on in their own countries. What Mills displayed in The Power Elite and White Collar was an uncanny ability to see through the fog that shrouded discussions of American democracy in the fifties. And much of the reason he was able to do so was because he saw the country as an “outlander.” Although he never would have acknowledged it to one of his colleagues at Columbia, Mills knew his own secret. When a correspondent asked him in 1952 how he had avoided the pitfalls of American “conformism,” he replied. “I am not really a regular American, but a Texan.”

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