Charles Reich, the author and Ivy League academic whose “The Greening of America” saluted the counterculture movement of the 1960s and early 70s and became a million-copy-selling manifesto for a new and euphoric way of life, has died.
Reich, a longtime San Francisco resident, died Saturday after being briefly hospitalized, his nephew Daniel Reich said. He was 91.
Reich was a popular Yale University professor, whose students included both Bill and Hillary Clinton, and a respected legal scholar when a 39,000-word excerpt from “The Greening of America” ran in the New Yorker in September 1970, generating a massive volume of letters. The book was published a few weeks later and sold more than 2 million copies, making Reich a middle-aged hero for a rebellious generation despite scorn from both conservatives and liberals.
“The Greening of America” expanded upon such critiques of conformity and consumerism as David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd” and Vance Packard’s “The Status Seekers” and presented American history as an evolution of consciousness, a three-part story with a surprise ending. Consciousness I, dating back to the country’s beginnings, reflected a Jeffersonian society of individualism, virtue and suspicion of government. Consciousness II, which matured in the 20th century, believed in the “organization,” in technology and government and big business. “Insanity, artificiality and untruth are the commonplace stuff of the Corporate State,” Reich wrote.
The uprisings of the 1960s marked the dawn of Consciousness III, the triumph of compassion and imagination, an awakening enabled by sex, drugs and rock music. Best of all, Reich concluded, violence and mass protest were unnecessary. Consciousness II was so stagnant, so helpless “once it loses the ability to create false consciousness,” that acts as simple as refusing a promotion at work would hasten its collapse.
“This is the revolution of the new generation,” he wrote. “It is both necessary and inevitable, and in time it will include not only youth, but all people in America.”
The establishment thought him a fool. Newsweek’s Stewart Alsop called the book “scary mush,” while Harvard academic Charles Fried, who later became President Reagan’s solicitor general, scorned Reich’s “fascination with anything that will procure novelty on the cheap.” On the left, activists disparaged Reich’s faith in painless change. Around the same time “Greening” was published, the Black Power movement was at its height and antiwar activist Tom Hayden was advocating a nationwide network of “liberated zones,” in constant battle with government forces.
But young people — and some older ones — were inspired by Reich’s book, with one fan letter reading, “Right on. You’ve managed to put into words what we have known for a long time.” Garry Trudeau introduced Reich as “Professor Green” for his Doonesbury comic. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner would credit Reich with persuading him to collaborate on an interview with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
“I thought his enthusiasm a little ... naive, but, what the hell,” Wenner wrote of the 1972 meeting with Garcia. “God knows, Charles ‘Consciousness III’ Reich Meets Jerry ‘Captain Trips’ Garcia could turn into something of its own.”
“I think I feared most the discovery and exposure of my secrets,” wrote Reich, who is survived by his nephew and a niece, Alice Reich.
Reich was born in New York City on May 20, 1928, an awkward child who grew up in an affluent household, attended progressive private schools and graduated from a top liberal arts college, Oberlin University. Idealistic but unfocused, Reich enrolled in Yale Law School after a family friend convinced him that the legal profession was a path to public leadership.
Reich’s 20s and 30s were a giant step from Consciousness II to Consciousness III. A gifted legal thinker, he became editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal, clerked for (and idolized) Supreme Court Justice Hugh Black and was hired by a top Washington firm, Arnold, Fortas & Power. In Washington in the 1950s, he was part of “a world which all of us believed to be at the center, and yet typical, of American life.”
But he remembered himself as a “spy” inside “a city with almost no authenticity,” a restless spirit bound up in a Brooks Brothers suit. His liberation began in 1960, when he returned to Yale. He felt more relaxed and loved the classroom, which would include such future leaders as Hillary Rodham (“a most exceptional student”) and Bill Clinton (“quite an absentee student”). His legal article “The New Property” helped influence the landmark 1970 Supreme Court decision in Goldberg vs. Kelly that gave welfare recipients the right to a hearing before the government could cut off their benefits.
In 1967, anxious for new experience, Reich acted upon a friend’s a suggestion and spent the “Summer of Love” in Berkeley. The shy college professor at first resisted, but gave in to a feeling of “enchantment” with the “humor, happiness, high spirits and FREEDOM” of the long-haired kids. Back at Yale, he began teaching in a more informal style, smoked pot with the students and let them call him by his first name. He had been thinking of writing a book about the country’s decline, but instead prophesized a golden age.
“The Greening of America” became a highlight of the era, and eventually an artifact. For years, the book was out of print, until an abridged e-edition came out in 2012. Reich acknowledged the tenacity of Consciousness II, but never gave up on reaching the next stage.
“It could still be reality but at the moment it’s viewed as something like a fantasy or a dream that people woke up from with a headache,” he said in 2010, noting that young people in the 21st century were more likely to worry about having a job.
“Whether you’re complaining about spiritual emptiness or material emptiness, you’re ultimately complaining about the same system that’s creating both kinds of emptiness. That’s the link between ‘The Greening of America’ and the way young people feel today.”
Hillel Italie writes for the Associated Press