Charles Reich, the author and Ivy League academic whose The Greening of America blessed the counterculture of the 1960s and became a million-selling manifesto for a new and euphoric way of life, has died.
Mr. Reich’s nephew, Daniel, said he died on Saturday after being briefly hospitalized. Mr. Reich, a long-time resident of San Francisco, was 91.
Mr. Reich was a popular Yale University professor and 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 two million copies, making Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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 U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s solicitor-general, scorned Mr. Reich’s “fascination with anything that will procure novelty on the cheap.” On the left, activists disparaged Mr. Reich’s faith in painless change. Around the same time Greening was published, the Black Power movement was at its height and anti-war activist Tom Hayden was advocating a countrywide network of “liberated zones,” in constant battle with government forces.
But young people – and some older ones – were inspired by Mr. 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 Mr. Reich as “Professor Green” for his Doonesbury comic. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner would credit Mr. 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,” Mr. Wenner wrote of the 1972 meeting with Mr. Garcia. “God knows, Charles ‘Consciousness III’ Reich Meets Jerry ‘Captain Trips’ Garcia could turn into something of its own.”
Many lives were changed by The Greening of America, including Mr. Reich’s. Uncomfortable with fame, he left Yale in 1974 and moved to San Francisco. He let his hair grow longer and began having relationships with men. In his 1976 memoirs The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, he wrote that he had sensed he was gay since childhood.
“I think I feared most the discovery and exposure of my secrets,” wrote Mr. Reich, who leaves his nephew and a niece, Alice Reich.
Mr. Reich was born in New York in 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, Mr. Reich enrolled in Yale Law School after a family friend convinced him that the legal profession was a path to public leadership.
Mr. 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 centre, 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 v. Kelly that gave welfare recipients the right to a hearing before the government could cut off their benefits.
In 1967, anxious for new experience, Mr. Reich acted upon a friend’s suggestion and spent the “Summer of Love” in Berkeley, Calif. The shy college professor at first resisted, but gave in to a feeling of “enchantment” with the “humour, happiness, high spirits and FREEDOM” of the long-haired youth. Back at Yale, he began teaching in a more informal style, smoked cannabis 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 prophesied 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. Mr. 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, saying 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.”
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