Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Charles Wright Mills
Charles Wright Mills "There are more men of knowledge in the service of power than men of power in the service of knowledge."

Charles Wright Mills (1916–62)
Faculty 1945–62

A public intellectual whose impact on sociology reverberates more than four decades after his death, C. Wright Mills turned a practiced eye on what he called the "big questions" of contemporary American society. Mills brought his views to the general public in popular books such as White Collar (1951), a provocative study of the American middle class, and the controversial The Power Elite (1956), a critique of the interlocking web of military, corporate, and political leaders. President Dwight Eisenhower echoed the latter book's conclusions in his 1961 farewell address, warning "against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex." Already derided by some for working outside traditional academic boundaries, in the late 1950s Mills turned his attention to even more explicit issues of the day: He tackled the threat of nuclear war with The Causes of World War Three (1958) and became interested in revolutionary Cuba following Fidel Castro's impromptu visit to Harlem in 1959. In 1960 he visited Cuba at Castro's invitation, returning to write Listen Yankee!, a polemical tract widely attacked in the American press. Mills soon toured the Soviet Union and Europe as well, returning home exhausted yet full of ideas for new projects. But he never completed them, felled by a fatal heart attack in March 1962. "C. Wright Mills was the most inspiring sociologist of the second half of the twentieth century," wrote Todd Gitlin, now a journalism professor at Columbia. "His achievement [is] 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."

Mills first came to Columbia on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1945, working closely with Paul Lazarsfeld, director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Mills was an "exhilarating teacher," recalled former student Dan Wakefield in New York in the Fifties (1992). "He stalked the room or pounded his fist on the table to emphasize a point." Mills was also handy with tools beyond the pen: he lived in Rockland County in a house he built himself and often commuted to Columbia on a motorcycle that he frequently tinkered with.




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