Studies in Midwestern History

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C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), remembered primarily for his 1956 book, The Power Elite, and for his 1960 essay “Letter to the New Left,” which helped launch the rising New Left in the America of the 1960s, was a major American sociologist, but he also had much to teach historians. Although he focused his research on national and global subjects, students and scholars of regionalism can also learn much from his wide-ranging, critical approach. Like all good sociologists, Mills always assumed that historical context was an essential element of any adequate analysis of society, economics, and politics. Born in Texas, educated at the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin, Mills spent most of his career as a professor at Columbia University. His distinctive mantra as a teacher and writer was “Take it big!” His dozen or so books and many articles were both influential and highly controversial. Beyond thinking historically, Mills encouraged his students and followers to focus on big problems, connect personal problems to social structure, do comparative work, connect work and life, develop an organized system of notes, write simply and directly, and utilize multiple perspectives. In practice, he always took a pointedly critical approach to his subjects.

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