Charles Reich passed away on June 15th at the age of 91, one year shy of the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Greening of America, a monumental best seller in 1970-71. While the phrase “greening” has become part of our nomenclature (often associated with the environmental movement) the name of Charles Reich is far less well known. When The Greening came out in the fall of 1970 it created a momentous stir. Preceded by serialization in The New Yorker and excerpted on the op-ed pages of The New York Times the concepts presented in the book were familiar to the public before the hardcover edition was published by Random House --- and proceeded to sell 250, 000 copies within weeks! The book posited that United States history evolved by way of three distinct “Consciousnesses.” Consciousness I were those whose values emerged in the 18th century, with a strong belief in the individual (for good and evil). Consciousness II developed in the 20th century and was shaped by the Corporate State and large-scale government control/regulation (The New Deal). Consciousness III, which received the most attention (and is where many critics believed the book went off the rails), was a paean to the Youth Culture of the late 1960’s. When I learned of Reich’s death this week, I went back and re-read The Greening of America, as well as numerous articles written about the book starting 50 years ago.
My connection to Charles Reich (“Charlie”) began during my sophomore year at Yale in 1968-69. My future housemate, Karl Pavlovic, told me about Charlie (in some insightful, yet cynical way --- which is Karl’s style to this day) and introduced me to him. At that time Reich, a law professor, was teaching one undergraduate course, American Studies 36a – The Individual in America, which was already legendary on campus. Charlie spent a great deal of time in the Morse and Stiles dining halls, often observing and writing, but also striking up friendships with undergraduates (little did we know we were part of his research for The Greening). I took the course in the fall of my junior year and became friendly enough with Charlie that by the fall of 1970 (my senior year) I was a Teaching Assistant for AmStud36a. We all knew about The Greening but were skeptical when Charlie told us it was going to be “big,” predicting the book would have an impact when it was published.
There’s no doubt that Charlie had a romanticized view of the Youth Culture he glorified in The Greening of America. Basically the book was a literary version of John Lennon’s Imagine --- and it was its hopefulness that made it popular, as well as a target for criticism. As many noted at the time, we had moved from Woodstock to Altamont, students had been gunned down at Kent State before the book was published, and Hendrix and Joplin were dead. The book is still seen by right-wing critics as all that was “wrong” with the late-Sixties and its liberal/radical movements. Nonetheless, the book’s analysis of U.S. history and culture (Consciousness I & II) is wide-ranging and impressive --- and quite applicable today.
Charles Reich was an intellectual and The Greening of America demonstrates the breadth and depth of his thinking from the start. His command of history, politics, sociology, the arts & literature, as well as music is impressive page after page. The analysis of U.S. culture and society in 1970 remains accurate, illustrating the vise-like grip “rugged individualism” and the Corporate State have on our nation. By page 6 Reich enumerates the problems facing American society: #1. Disorder, corruption, hypocrisy, war. #2. Poverty, distorted priorities, and law making by private power. #3. Uncontrolled technology and the destruction of environment #4. Decline of democracy and liberty; powerlessness #5. The artificiality of work and culture #6. Absence of community #7. Loss of self. Certainly characteristics we can see all around us today. Reich also discusses “willful ignorance.”
Ignorance of existing injustices, such as the treatment of the black
minority, ignorance of social problems, ignorance of the world.
Americans . . . were willing to see the news about their government
come to them in the form of tabloid or television entertainment; they
tolerated ignorance and incompetence in high office; and when
something went wrong, it was childishly blamed on ‘them.’” (p.37)
Clearly, that could have been written in 2019.
Reich’s solution to the problems created by Robber Barons and the Corporate State was a transcendent “Consciousness” that he believed he saw in the Youth Movement of the late-Sixties. As Rodger Citron noted in a New York Law School Law Review article in 2007, Reich wrote “with the rigor of an intellectual and the enthusiasm of a teen-ager.” (p.388) I’d say that’s accurate. Charlie Reich was very much a wide-eyed innocent, even at the age of 42. He was, by his own description, “seriously deficient socially and emotionally” and “physically . . . clumsy and fearful.” (Citron, p. 390) You couldn’t hang around with Charlie and not see how inherently shy he was --- and how he reveled in the openness of the undergraduates around him. There’s no doubt his belief in those young people inspired the Consciousness III description in The Greening of America. Charles Reich naively and idealistically believed in the values of the Youth Movement of the late-Sixties and, like John Lennon said: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” The problem was, of course, that by 1970 the tide was turning. Very few young people, including my Yale classmates who were Reich’s most closely observed subjects, could escape the tentacles of the Corporate State and the Government. We were naïve as to how easily our “alternative lifestyle” could be co-opted to serve the Corporate State (Levi’s blue jeans, part of our “uniform” of rebellion quickly became a popular “product”). The music industry raked in billions, caring little about their artists (Reich’s analysis of the music of the era, with its comparisons to symphonic composing as well as jazz is pretty brilliant).
For all that, the Youth Movement of the late-Sixties did, eventually, end the War in Vietnam while fomenting societal change regarding women’s’ rights, civil rights, gay rights, and environmental protection, to name a few things. While the Baby Boomers may never have demonstrated the Consciousness resulting in the “revolution” Charles Reich predicted, there have been accomplishments that have made the society more “livable” --- which leads to one last Charlie Reich story.
As a Teaching Assistant for Charlie in the fall of 1970, I got a first edition copy of The Greening of America (we didn’t get any pay for the job!). When the box of hardcover books arrived we were all shocked to discover the title in RED LETTERS with a sub-title reading: “How the Youth Revolution is Trying to make America Livable.” Needless to say, Charlie was aghast and immediately made a call to Random House. They changed the cover (seen below), featuring the title in GREEN and using a quote from the text as its sub-title. That Random House would create a cover with the work “Greening” in RED reflected exactly the insensitivity of the Corporate State Reich describes in the book.
R.I.P. Charles Reich