Outside the Whale

Outside the Whale

C. Wright Mills, Letters and
Autobiographical Writings
ed. Kathryn Mills with Pamela Mills
introduction by Dan Wakefield
University of California Press, 2000
378 pp $34.95

In the nineteen fifties and early sixties, C. Wright Mills cut a wide swath through the intellectual and political terrain. A one-man show from the hinterlands—a rebel in an American vein—he raged against apathy and conformity. With White Collar and The Power Elite, he published two of the few sociological best-sellers in the post–world war years. He also co-edited a splendid Max Weber anthology, From Max Weber; wrote a tough-minded critique of the sociological profession, The Sociological Imagination; and, before he was struck down by a heart attack at age forty-six, brought out a series of hard-hitting booklets on American foreign policy such as Listen Yankee and The Causes of World War Three. His collected essays, Power, Politics and People, assembled after his death (and lamentably out of print) bristle with intelligence.

In 1960, he drafted a “Letter to the New Left,” originally published in the New Left Review. Its opening might have been written yesterday. “It is no exaggeration to say that since the end of World War II in Britain and the United States smug conservatives, tired liberals and disillusioned radicals have carried on a weary discourse in which issues are blurred and potential debate muted; the sickness of complacency has prevailed, the bi-partisan banality flourished.” The essay closed presciently, “We are beginning to move again.”

Not, however, soon or fast enough for Mills. He was a man in a rush. As he became more politically engaged he also felt more beleaguered, as if he alone carried the weight of the world. Despite his wide contacts and international invitations, he felt “very much isolated and alone”—and perhaps he was. His defense of the Cuban Revolution, his criticism of cold war policies, and his impatience with American intellectuals earned him few friends. After his first heart attack, and a year before his fatal one in 1962, he confided to his mother that he did not fear death in “the slightest”; he sensed “a big responsibility” to “tell the truth as I see it and to tell it exactly . . . and quit this horsing around with sociological bullshit.” “There is no hurry,” he wrote to Ralph Milliband, the English socialist, a year earlier “except I am in a hurry! . . . I’ve got four, yes four books bubbling inside me.” He complained to E. P. Thompson, the English historian, of the mounting “pressure” to defend Cuba. “I have to do it . . . because nobody else will stand up.”

Mills complained of exhaustion and the need to rest, but hardly slackened his pace. Perhaps he paid a price for coming to political maturity in the unpromising fifties. His sometime political compat...