An American Tragedy

Power, Politics and People

by C. Wright Mills, edited by Irving Louis Horowitz
Oxford University Press, 657 pp., $8.50

C. Wright Mills was a man who, in Malraux’s phrase, wished to “put a scar upon the map.” He had little charm and less loveliness; one could not easily imagine him relaxing into ease or wisdom. He was a man of power, an intensely personal kind of power, which came down upon one like a fist, hard and good-humred. Though himself a dedicated intellectual, he felt a certain contempt—mixed with uneasy admiration—toward most of the New York intellectuals, for what he wanted above all was that his opinions, his desires should matter in this world, and he had become convinced that most of the people writing for the serious magazines had surrendered the hope of power or influence and settled into a routine of brilliant display.

He left his scar upon the map. The sociologists he stirred to fear and anger by smashing their neat conceptual models and by insisting upon the wildness, speed, and passion of modern history; the intellectuals of the anti-Communist left with whom he worked for a time as a guerrilla ally but whom he turned against when he suspected them of resignation and defeat; the graduate students whom he excited into contempt for the trivialities of the academy—all responded not merely, perhaps not even primarily, to his writings but to his personal force. Even his enemies paid him that tribute. There has just appeared in the English Spectator a denunciation of Mills by a sociologist, Edward Shils, so ghastly in its venom that it serves, involuntarily, as evidence of Mills’s success in violating the pieties of the intellectual establishment in America.

For perhaps a decade I was a friend, or at least a steady intellectual collaborator, of Mills. I found him difficult, exhausting, and exciting, a man whose pressure of will seldom let up and often forced other people, even those who loved him as I could not, into the resistance of self-defense. But neither in our period of closeness nor later, when we quarrelled politically, could one doubt his strength, his thrusting energy and confidence. Everything he had—talent, personal life, restlessness, ambition—he threw into the effort to create for himself a unified style of life, one that would bring together thought and action, power and reflection, as few intellectuals seemed capable of doing.

Mills first became known in the intellectual world at about the time Dwight Macdonald was publishing his lively radical magazine Politics. At this time, directly after World War II and all the disillusionments that followed it, the intellectual left was beginning to fall apart. Old ideologies were shattered, new ones not in sight. Only Macdonald’s personal zest as editor of Politics created the possibility—perhaps the illusion—of preserving some sort of left-wing community. Into this depressing scene there suddenly barged the bear-like figure of Mills, a radical neither hardened by dogma nor softened by defeat, an American marvelously unscarred by history, an academic brilliantly equipped in his field yet also blessed with …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.