Mark C. Smith

MILLS, CHARLES WRIGHT (1916–1962). Charles Wright Mills, sociologist, social critic, and cultural analyst, son of Charles Grover and Frances Ursula (Wright) Mills, was born at Waco on August 28, 1916. He was raised a Catholic but reacted permanently against Christianity in his late adolescence. He graduated from Dallas Technical High School in 1934 with some interest in architecture and engineering, then attended Texas A&M unhappily in 1934–35. In 1935 he transferred to the University of Texas, where he soon developed into an exceptional student. Under David L. Miller and George Gentry in philosophy, Clarence E. Ayres in economics, and Carl Rosenquist and Warner E. Gettys in sociology, Mills developed a philosophical perspective of sociology based largely upon the pragmatism of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. After receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy in 1939, he went to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied Max Weber under the German scholar Hans Gerth. He received his Ph.D. there in 1941. The subject of his doctoral dissertation was pragmatism; his interests lay in the issues of social stratification and the moral role of the intellectual as described by Weber. He was also influenced by the works of Charles S. Peirce and William James.

Mills's first academic position was at the University of Maryland in 1941. In 1945 he joined the Columbia University Labor Research Division of the Bureau of Applied Social Research (1945–48). In 1946 he was made an assistant professor at Columbia and was advanced to full professor in 1956. Mills wrote an ambitious trilogy about stratification in America. In The New Men of Power and America's Labor Leaders (1948), he compared the newly emerging leaders of American labor to contemporary business leaders. In White Collar and the American Middle Classes (1951), he analyzed insecurities of the rapidly expanding middle class. Finally, in his best-known and most controversial work, The Power Elite (1956), Mills described an elite class composed of members of corporate, political, and military circles who made the important decisions in American life. In addition to his work in sociology Mills wrote on political philosophy and the role of the intellectual. He believed that "the political calling of the intellectual [lay in] the unmasking of lies which sustain irresponsible power." Essays published in numerous left-wing publications were collected posthumously in Power, Politics, and People (1963). Mills was especially critical of his own profession in The Sociological Imagination (1959) for what he saw as excessive reliance on quantitative methodology and lack of interest in real-world problems. Later in his life he described Castro's Cuba as an alternative to American Imperialism and Soviet hegemony in the book, Listen, Yankee; The Revolution in Cuba (1960). He called for young intellectuals to develop a more pragmatic leftist ideology than the Marxism-Leninism which he vocally derided and detested.

Personally as well as intellectually Mills remained a maverick. Although he publicly dismissed his Texas roots, he retained his Texas drawl and was invariably described as a Texan in publications. He married Dorothy Helen James in 1937; they were divorced in 1940, remarried in 1941, and divorced again in 1947. He and Ruth Harper were married in 1947 and divorced in 1959. In the latter year he married Yaroslava Surmach. Mills had a daughter with each of his first two wives and a son with his last wife. He was a member of the American Sociological Society and served as its vice president in 1947–48. He died on March 20, 1962, in Nyack, New York, of heart disease and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in New York. A work written in 1945, Sociology and Pragmatism, was published in 1964. His other works include The Puerto Rican Journey: New York's Newest Immigrants (1950), Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions (1953), The Causes of World War Three (1958), and Images of Man (1960).

G. William Domhoff, C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968). Irving Louis Horowitz, C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian (New York: Free Press, 1983). Charles Wright Mills Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Howard Press, C. Wright Mills (Boston: Twayne, 1978). Rick Tilman, C. Wright Mills: A Native Radical and His American Intellectual Roots (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1984). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Who Was Who in America, vol. 4.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Mark C. Smith, "MILLS, CHARLES WRIGHT," accessed September 16, 2019,

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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