John H. Summers: The Academic Who Claimed to Honor C. Wright Mills Betrayed Him

Roundup: Talking About History

[John H. Summers is editor of"The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills," to be published in 2008 by Oxford University Press. He lives in Andover, Massachusetts.]

[HNN Editor: Irving Louis Horowitz claimed to be the protector of the legacy of C. Wright Mills and wrote or edited numerous books about him. In this piece Mr. Summers argues that Horowitz mangled Mills's ideas and in places committed egregious scholarly mistakes.]

... From the first, Horowitz played fast and loose with facts. The first line of the obituary he wrote for the American Journal of Sociology misstated Mills's age at the time of his death. The preface to The New Sociology misstated the date of his death. In the introduction to Power, Politics, and People, Horowitz stated that Mills had finished his Columbia career as associate professor. In fact, Columbia College had promoted him to full professor on July 1, 1956, a month before he turned forty. This information anybody could have discovered by consulting his appointment card at Columbia or his entry in Who's Who in America.

"What do you suppose is going on here?" asked Robert Merton, in a letter to sociologist William J. Goode on October 22, 1970. Merton's curiosity was provoked by Alvin Gouldner's The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, a tract which turned Horowitz's error into a moral about success in the academy. "Is this merely unbelievably sloppy 'scholarship,'" Merton asked Goode, "or do you think that ideological commitments are really producing fantasies in the guise of 'facts'?"5 A little of both, surely.

The errors, slight in themselves, marred the introductory character of Horowitz's enterprise. The mistakes in the annotations for De Hombres Sociales y Movimentos Politicos must have thrown innumerable Mexican intellectuals off the trail. Other blocks of "non-facts" (as Merton called them) betrayed a definite ideological character. "With the exception of his election to Phi Beta Kappa, he did not participate in any of the usual extra-curricular college activities," Horowitz declared in the introduction to Power, Politics, and People, in spite of the fact that Mills had served, reluctantly but definitely, as president of his college's sociological society (8).

As chairman of the award committee for the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Horowitz reported the circumstances of Mills's election to Phi Beta Kappa. "The anomaly of the C. Wright Mills Award is that Mills himself never received such an award during his lifetime. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, but chose not to accept on the grounds that the Phi Beta Kappa principles foster elitist orientations in education. Twenty years later he finally chose to accept this award" ("Report" 233). That Mills had accepted his Phi Beta Kappa election in college was recorded on his college transcript and on every copy of his curriculum vita, as surely as it was recorded by Horowitz's introduction to Power, Politics, and People. How or why he came up with the idea that Mills had accepted the award "twenty years later" was impossible to say.

Impossible, literally, because Horowitz did not offer much evidence for his various contentions, and because most of the evidence to which he did point was laid away in letters and manuscripts privately held, unavailable to scholars and thus impossible to falsify in accordance with the ethical imperative of independent inquiry. The publication of Power, Politics, and People, The New Sociology, Sociology and Pragmatism, and De Hombres Sociales y Movimentos Politicos afforded him a first-run monopoly on Mills. He made ample use of all the rights and privileges assumed by the editorial function, composing prefaces, introductions, and bibliographies, each of them renewing his own invitation to interpret and comment. "The Unfinished Writings of C. Wright Mills," a 1963 article, drew from an unpublished journal of Mills's trip to the Soviet Union. The introduction to The New Sociology quoted extensively from unpublished manuscripts Mills had written toward a multivolume work on comparative sociology. Of the twenty-nine essays in the Mexico City collection, half had not been included in Power, Politics, and People. Most had never been published during Mills's life. Many are still not available in English....

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James W Loewen - 11/17/2007

Hm. Interesting article, but "betrayal?" I do hope it prompts folks to read some Mills, such as "The Promise" (of sociology). His intro. to Veblen's THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS might also persuade list members to read that classic, and it's a fine book.