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.’
Yet Gerth was famous in small circles. A compulsive reader with a photographic memory, he both dazzled and bewildered students. When I was at Madison in the sixties, Gerth was still teaching there, tolerated but hardly prospering. Most students avoided this brilliant but troubled mind, but a few of us followed him around. It was from Gerth that we glimpsed something of pure Geist; he thought with an intensity and range that could sometimes take our breath away. To be sure, he paid a price. He ignored not only pedestrian intellectual markers and categories, but class schedules and professional commitments. We would frequently have to remind him that his class had ended an hour earlier, and to chaperone him to his next obligation. Today he would surely be jobless.
To his credit Mills divined Gerth’s genius. After a virtuoso lecture by Gerth, moving at such intellectual speed that most students could take no notes, Mills decided that Gerth was ‘the only man worth listening to in this department.’ On his side, Gerth saw in Mills not only intellectual voracity and ambition, but no doubt too a savoir faire he lacked himself. The two men began to work together, and the improbable partnership of all-American go-getter and unworldly German scholar produced two books—a collection of Weber’s writings and a textbook on social psychology. To secure his precarious position in Madison, Gerth—who always found it difficult to put his thoughts on paper—was desperate for publications, increasingly the only coin of the American academic realm. Mills by contrast was a publishing dynamo, who was to write his way out of the Midwest to Columbia with a stream of articles and books, including two that became sociological best-sellers: White Collar and The Power Elite. Moving sharply to the left in his last years, he became a leading critic of American capitalism at home and abroad, greeting the early New Left with enthusiasm, and lambasting US policy towards the Cuban Revolution. His final book was a celebration of The Marxists. For a brief historical moment, Mills seemed to be everywhere in America: on television, the newspapers and best-seller lists. Yet he too paid a price. Living like a meteorite, he burnt out like one, dying after a series of heart attacks at the age of forty-six, in 1962.
Gerth, who survived Mills by sixteen years, never got over him. Nor have some other sociologists. For many staid professionals Mills always seemed too big, too political, too productive and too famous. If he does not loom large in the public mind today, he continues to disturb the sleep of the discipline. Mutterings against his memory are not new. A few critics have long grumbled that Mills exploited Gerth, since he knew little German and could therefore not have genuinely co-edited translations from Weber, while Character and Social Structure must have been written essentially by Gerth. These are the charges that Oakes and Vidich have now inflated into a small book. They present it as ‘a modest contribution to the history of academic ethics in our time’ that does not ‘take sides, settle scores, or reach conclusions concerning who was right’, but treats the relations between Gerth and Mills as a case study in ‘academic career management’ triangulated by ‘three parameters: cognitive standards, practical norms, and strategic controls’. The sociological jargon is a thin mask for the animus against Mills that drives the book. Towards the end Oakes and Vidich drop the pretentious argot and depict Mills as simply a manipulative hustler, a ‘big shot’ steeped in intrigue and deception.
What is their evidence? Drawing on letters between Gerth and Mills to reconstruct the contractual negotiations that led to the publication of Character and Social Structure, Oakes and Vidich believe that they have unearthed a shocking tale of villainy. The story that scandalizes them goes like this. In 1941 Gerth and Mills proposed to write a textbook on social psychology. Mills obtained a contract for it from D. C. Heath, with a nil advance. Eight years later, no progress had been made on the manuscript, and Mills had second thoughts about the contract. By now he had published another book and White Collar was in the press, so he wondered whether he could not strike a better deal. Reckoning that he and Gerth would have to take unpaid leave of absence from teaching to complete the book, he secured an offer from Harcourt Brace of an advance of $3,000, to be shared between them. Nowadays, of course, authors in this situation would have unilaterally cancelled the first contract. But the editor of the series who had originally signed the book was Howard Becker, a senior colleague of Gerth at Madison, and in those gentlemanly times they instead spent months requesting a ‘release’ from it, plying Heath with letters claiming they could not or would not do the book, and wanted out. Oakes and Vidich express astonished horror. Our authors ‘had no right to a release’, since this is a ‘publisher’s prerogative’. Imagine! Mills and Gerth were trying to extricate themselves from an eight-year-old contract in which not a single cent or manuscript page had changed hands. Oakes and Vidich summarize their transgressions in a tone worthy of Zola: ‘Gerth and Mills deceived James Reid at Harcourt Brace, leading him to believe he had purchased sole rights . . . They also deceived John Walder and Heath, who held a contract . . . Gerth deceived Becker . . . Mills deceived Walder concerning the lack of progress on Character and Social Structure . . . More generally Gerth and Mills deceived everyone’ (sic). The upshot? Gerth and Mills eventually got the release, cashed their advance from Harcourt and finished the book. So much for this sordid tale of corruption and deceit.