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New Left Review 2, March-April 2000

Russell Jacoby on Guy Oakes and Arthur Vidich, Collaboration, Reputation and Ethics in American Academic Life. The relationship between Gerth and Mills in the retrospect of orthodox sociology.



In 1940 a brash Texan student, C. Wright Mills, enrolled in the PhD programme in sociology at the University of Wisconsin where he met a German refugee professor. They could not have been more different. ‘I have never known anyone who fit my stereotype of the Texan better than Mills,’ recalled Gerth’s widow. He was ‘a big, burly man who gave the impression that the world belonged to him . . . Everything he did was on a large scale’. He married four times; built houses during his summers; roared about on a motorcycle. Gerth, on the other hand, was a scholar’s scholar, who never mastered American ways and byways. If Mills gave the impression he owned the world, Gerth seemed to be, and perhaps was, a perpetual visitor. Certainly he did not find a place in the US. He was not Jewish, and since he left Germany relatively late (in 1938), even the refugee community initially distrusted him. When he presented himself to the emigrés at the New School, Gerth later recalled, ‘they turned around and left. As far as they were concerned, I was a Nazi.’ Though he overcame this hostility, he remained on the margins of even the marginalized. Unlike George Mosse, who also taught at Madison, he never became a well-known expatriate authority. When he returned to Germany in 1971, after an unsatisfactory American career, he was greeted without enthusiasm. ‘I came back to Frankfurt, but they didn’t want me. I had not, after all, become famous.’

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Russell Jacoby, ‘False Indignation’, NLR 2: £3

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