Law professor’s hippie book made him an instant guru of the counterculture
Charles Reich, who has died aged 91, was a young Yale Law professor who shot to instant guru status in 1970 with a book entitled The Greening of America, in which he maintained that the United States was in the midst of an unstoppable, pot-smoking, love-making, bell bottom-wearing, non-violent revolution against the “corporate mindstate”.
The book traced the evolution of American society through three levels of consciousness: Consciousness I, the nation’s early selfreliance; Consciousness II, the conformism of the New Deal era; and Consciousness III, a new, non-materialistic culture that promised “a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual. Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty – a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land”.
Consciousness III, he wrote, “posits an extended family in the spirit of the Woodstock Festival, without individual ego trips or power trips” and involved the use of marijuana, “a maker of revolution, a truth serum”, which enabled people to visualise the world in new ways.
It also meant wearing bell bottoms. “Bell bottoms have to be worn to be understood,” he wrote. “They give the ankles a special freedom as if to invite dancing on the street.”
The Greening of America brought Reich (he pronounced that ‘‘ch’’ as ‘‘sh’’) rock-star style celebrity. Interviewers queued up; his classes at Yale were oversubscribed (students included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham) and he was commissioned to interview the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia for Rolling Stone magazine.
The book sold two million copies, but even kinder critics found it naive in its acceptance of the virtues of spaced-out hippie youth. And it was perceived as a joke by many of those on whom Reich showered adulation.
Moreover, by the time Reich predicted his Consciousness III revolution, Charles Manson and his “family” had committed a series of brutal murders that effectively killed the hippie dream, while the 1969 Altamont Festival in California had offered a violent counterpoint to Woodstock’s “Three Days of Peace and Music”.
In the ensuing years, as Reich’s peaceloving hippies grew into materialistic Yuppies, The Greening of America became a symbol for conservative writers of everything that “went wrong” in the 1960s.
Eventually the ridicule proved too much. In 1974 Reich resigned his professorship and retreated to San Francisco. “The Greening of America did me in as far as academe was concerned,” he said in 2012. “A little of this fame thing goes a long way if you don’t know how to deal with it. I was amazed at how
difficult it was to handle and how many mistakes you can make.”
Charles Alan Reich was born in Manhattan. His father was a haematologist, his mother a school administrator. After graduating from Yale Law School, he worked as a clerk for a Supreme Court judge and at a couple of law firms before returning to Yale in 1960 to teach.
Early on in his tenure he was required to teach a course on the law of property, about which he knew little. As he mugged it up, however, it occurred to him that statutory entitlements such as welfare benefits might also be considered property and so be entitled to stronger legal protection. He set out his thoughts in a 1964 article, “The New Property”; it would be cited in a landmark Supreme Court decision of 1970 which gave welfare recipients the right to a hearing before their benefits could be cut off.
In 1967, at the suggestion of a friend, Reich travelled to California, where he spent the “Summer of Love” and became smitten with the “humour, happiness, high spirits and freedom” of hippie subculture. Back at Yale, he adopted a more informal style, smoked pot with his students and embarked on The Greening of America.
After his move to San Francisco, he let his hair grow long, came out as gay, wrote a memoir, The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef (1976), and taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of San Francisco School of Law. He returned to Yale Law School from 1991 to 1995 as a visiting professor.
The Greening of America fell out of print for many years until an abridged e-edition came out in 2012. By then cultural critics had come to take a more benign view of the book, Thomas Hine writing in 2007 that it did not deserve the derision with which it was often remembered.
“Though much of his evidence for a cultural revolution proved to be fleeting, Reich nevertheless identified some important and lasting changes in society,” Hine wrote. “He saw that what emerged in America during the late 1960s was not, as many believed, a political movement, but a social and cultural one . . . The openness to experience and respect for differences that Reich observed became so much a part of the American ethos that, today, it’s obligatory to say you share such values, even if you don’t.”
“A little of this fame thing goes a long way if you don’t know how to deal with it.’’ Charles Reich on his success