“The Graying of The Greening of America” by David Skinner
THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, Charles Reich’s book The Greening of America arrived like a tidal wave in the already roiled waters of American public debate. Published as a 25,000-word essay in the September 26, 1970, New Yorker, it elicited from the magazine’s 463,000 readers more mail than any single article before it ever had. The issue quickly sold out, while copies of the much longer book were scarce, though it eventually went through over 20 printings. The New York Times alone published about a dozen articles on the subject, two of them by Reich himself, a few more commenting on the cultural changes heralded by The Greening of America, and several others taking issue with the book.
Widely panned by reviewers, it nonetheless found some well-known boosters. Critic Dwight Macdonald compared it to prominent bestsellers like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd. Nicholas von Hoffman of the Washington Post put in a good word for Reich’s take on modern society. Where the book really struck a chord was with readers. The paperback edition gave over three pages to blurbs from people like Mrs. Frederick Anderson of Pipersville, Pennsylvania: “Thank you for such a remarkably perceptive and brilliant explanation of the United States my husband and I are trying to understand and feel so frustrated about most of the time.” Even Reich’s critics conceded it an “extraordinary literary and political event.”
Reich, a previously little-known faculty member at Yale Law School, became famous–too much so for his taste. “Being a celebrity,” he later wrote, “meant having my days and nights filled with unceasing demands, questions, attacks, interruptions.” He soon retreated from New Haven to San Francisco, where he has lived ever since. Within a few years, the “new consciousness” that his book exalts had, even Reich conceded, “gone into hiding.” Reich published a couple more books, a memoir in 1976 that was mostly ignored and marked the end of his status as a commentator of note, and the other, almost twenty years later, a monotone screed against the modern state that caused no stir at all. Greening remains a classic example of the big-think book that captures the popular imagination, though its message–that a new era in human history was upon us–like its author, soon faded into obscurity, to be remembered rarely and then mostly to be ridiculed.
But among the overheated, overreaching, radical books of the late ’60s and early ’70s, The Greening of America stands out, not only for its sweeping ambition and meteoric popularity, but also for its winning, energetic style. Greening distilled much of the radical literature that preceded it, from Karl Marx to the beatniks and the alienated New York intellectuals, with a naive joy and earnestness all its own.
And it had this interesting angle: Reich was no overgrown hippie, but a former Supreme Court clerk, an Ivy League professor, a presumptively serious person. He was also an adult, 42 when the book was published, which reinforced his credibility with adult readers to whom he ventured to explain the behavior of the young–in many cases, the readers’ own children. With the young themselves, Reich had less credibility, for he chronicled the new generation and its psycho-social-sexual-political revelations not as an insider, but as a self-appointed spokesman and enthusiast. He was a fan of the long-haired, dungareed kids he met on campus, and he believed they were onto something big.
THE GREENING OF AMERICA argued that the United States was in the midst of an all-consuming spiritual and political crisis, for which the only cure was a new kind of revolution, “a revolution by consciousness.” War and poverty, uncontrolled technology and the destruction of the environment, the Corporate State and bureaucracy, the artificiality of work and culture, the absence of community–all had conspired to produce the most “devastating” impoverishment of all, the “loss of self, or death in life.” Yet there was hope, for the crisis was calling forth its own antidote: a movement to reclaim “a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual.” That movement–which Reich predicted would eventually grow to include all Americans–was none other than the youth culture of the 1960s.
Reich’s most original and catchy contribution was his invention of three levels of consciousness. ConsciousnessI, formed in the 19th century, was “the traditional outlook of the American farmer, small businessman, and worker . . . trying to get ahead.” By the second half of the 20th century, this survived as the heartless, pre-New Deal, free-market individualism of the right. Consciousness II, formed in the first half of the 20th century, represented “the values of an organizational society,”–institutions, logic, meritocracy, conformity–which covered over the alienation of the individual with a phony, Kennedyesque, Great Society reform spirit exemplified by East Coast liberalism. Consciousness III, “just emerging,” was the spirit of the student movement, which epitomized the most free, the most authentic, the most egalitarian, and the most evolved generation America had ever seen.
A beneficent shift in consciousness was under way, Reich announced, and it came to America courtesy of the kids, the hippies and radical students, the dropouts and rock ‘n’ rollers. They were showing the way forward not only with their refusal to join the power structure, but also with their music, clothing, drugs, and V-signs (the index and middle finger, signaling “peace”). The Greening of America lavished careful attention on blue jeans, organic peanut butter, the drug scene, the new music, even the sport of Frisbee, and all the other stand-bys of the Consciousness III lifestyle. Indeed, Reich’s book announced the triumph of the liberated “lifestyle” (a word newly in vogue at the time) over any “pre-existing system,” institution, or technology. It was not merely that the revolutionaries happened to prefer informal clothes, loud music, and food grown in communal plots. Rather, these were essential expressions of what was going to replace the rigid and repressive American system of government and the unnatural and deadening American way of life.
Reich’s claims for the new lifestyle were, to put it mildly, grandiose. “The present transformation,” he wrote in the book’s climactic chapter,
goes beyond anything in modern history. Beside it, a mere revolution, such as the French or the Russian, seems inconsequential–a shift in the base of power. Moreover, almost none of the [standard radical] views . . . recognizes the crucial importance of choosing a new lifestyle. This has been passed over as if it were no more than an indulgent product of affluence, a more tolerant form of ‘administered happiness.’ But choice of a lifestyle is not peripheral, it is the heart of the new awakening. What is coming is nothing less than a new way of life and a new man. [Italics in the original.]
For all the serious attention Reich received on the left, the reaction from moderate Democrats and almost everyone right of center was emphatic. The sociologist Nathan Glazer, writing in the New Leader, said his main difficulty with the book was that “the author’s view of existing reality is so different from mine.” Where Reich had pronounced the First Amendment moribund, for example, Glazer asserted that “the Bill of Rights has never been stronger,” noting that “appeals to revolution and violence and pornography flourish [in the press] as never before.” In Commentary, Roger Starr, longtime executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council in New York City, challenged Reich’s grasp of ordinary facts, from details of American history to housing policy.
Sparring over particulars did not interest some of Reich’s antagonists, who went straight for the knockout punch. “I feel as Dr. Johnson did about the plot of Cymbeline,” wrote the English essayist Malcolm Muggeridge, “that [The Greening of America] is beyond criticism because one cannot criticize unresisting imbecility.” R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., writing a few years later in his American Spectator, thought Reich a perfect symbol for all that was wrong with the left in the ’70s. The Greening of America was “not just moronic.” It was “pristine ritualistic liberalism.”
CHARLES REICH lives in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. More Mister Rogers than Angry Old Radical, he was wearing a big red sweater and Converse sneakers the day I saw him. His curly hair was white and mussy, much shorter than in his publicity shots from the ’70s. We sat in a front room of the townhouse where he lives–he rents the first floor–with an old-looking computer, a day bed, and walls hung with personal memorabilia and simple pieces of art. It was an unstylish interior reminiscent of countless apartments occupied by older, bookish people who have long stopped redecorating.
The protocol was simple: He talked, I listened.
The book started as a brief outline Reich wrote and Random House purchased. “Then it was simply ignored by the editorial people while I went ahead and wrote it. And then, at a very, very belated stage, someone looked at it and they absolutely hated it.” The title, the contents, everything. “And they made an institutional decision to kill it off. . . . They said, ‘We’re not even going to try to sell this book, we’re going to remainder it on Fourth Avenue.'” A tiny print run followed, with no accompanying publicity.
At the time, Reich’s mother was the principal at a fancy uptown nursery school in Manhattan, where one of the pupils was the child of New Yorker writer Lillian Ross and (though it was not then publicly known) New Yorker editor William Shawn. Reich’s proud mother mentioned to Ross that her son had written a book. Ross asked to see it and ended up showing the manuscript of The Greening of America to the legendary Mister Shawn.
“He simply read it as bedtime reading in his second home,” says Reich. “He had the same direct experience reading it that later readers did.” And it won him over. “He called me up immediately. He didn’t consult with any underling. . . . He just said, ‘We want it, right away. . . . Come to New York.'”
The enormous interest generated by the New Yorker‘s “Greening of America” boded well for book sales. By this time, however, Reich and Random House were no longer speaking to each other. Recalls Reich: “There’s a demand for fifty thousand, a hundred thousand of the books, and they don’t have any books to offer anybody. Their liberal snobbishness is in conflict with their capitalist inclinations.”
(A digression may be useful here on Reich’s relation to “liberalism.” Such is his scorn in The Greening of America for the well-off, class-conscious, right-thinking Democrat that one might be forgiven for concluding–were it not for all the America-bashing–that what the guy hated most was liberal establishment snobs. During our interview, Reich–once the darling of the quintessentially liberal New Yorker set–nevertheless spoke with contempt of the liberal grandees who would be given VIP treatment as they paraded around places like Yale, the “landed nobility” who were “the arbiters of what was correct behavior or demeanor.” One even suspects that some of his fans may have been moderately conservative types with a little Goldwater in their hearts. “Liberalism,” Reich says, “had acquired its own aristocratic tone by this time, its own pretentiousness, its own manners.” One effect of such a liberalism, says Reich, is that it “keeps most people quiet most of the time.”)
As Reich and Shawn wrapped up their business and took leave of each other, Reich recalls, Shawn said to him, “Well, we’re greatly indebted to you for this wonderful article. I wonder if there’s anything we can do for you.” Reich said there was and explained his problems with Random House. On the spot, Shawn telephoned Bennett Cerf, the head of Random House, who told Shawn to send Reich over.
“I got over there and I was presented to Mr. Cerf himself,” Reich remembers, “and the first thing he said was, ‘Why you’re a nice Jewish boy, why are they treating you so badly downstairs?'” Cerf took Reich to “21” for lunch and gave him the cover and subtitle he wanted and ended up selling a great many books.
One result of this unusual passage to publication was that the book “was never edited, ever.” Reich complains that the editing his work received at the New Yorker made the article’s opening passage sound far too sunny, only he didn’t want to complain because he was so grateful to Shawn.
Nor was the book marketed in today’s sense. Few New Yorker readers could have known who Charles Reich was, since he had published only a few articles before this and none in the New Yorker, which, in any case, in those days provided no information about its contributors except their names. About two months passed, then, between the publication of the excerpt and the printing of enough copies to address the sudden demand. And only after that did reviews begin to appear. The upside to these months of hubbub uninfluenced by any spin was that New Yorker readers and many book-buyers came to The Greening of America with few preconceived notions about the author or his politics.
This favored Reich in two ways. The absence of organized hype surely made Greening‘s enthralled account of the youth culture seem more striking and newsworthy. And it allowed Reich to catch his would-be naysayers unprepared. Shocking friends and enemies was a proven skill of his.
Years before The Greening of America, Reich had made a lesser but notable splash with an article for the New Republic. Published in 1962, it criticized President Kennedy for using mafia tactics to bully the steel industry into lowering its prices. The article caused such outrage that the New Republic gave over a whole section of a subsequent issue to criticizing it, with one respondent calling Reich’s piece “sheer poppycock.” (Years later, the New Republic did something very similar when it ran an excerpt of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve.) Here and in The Greening of America, Reich says, he unintentionally bypassed a kind of “liberal censorship.”
If so, the critics soon caught up with him. And they were no less tough for being slow off the blocks. Speaking for respectable liberals, the New York Times‘s book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt deflated Reich as the Norman Vincent Peale of youth culture. Herbert Marcuse, dean of the radical intellectuals, was less amused, calling Reich’s vision of effortless, nonviolent revolution “the Establishment version of the great rebellion.” And Reich’s fellow academics were pleased to twist the knife. Robert Brustein, then head of the Yale Drama School, complained to the Times about the “strain of sentimentality running through some members of the Yale faculty, a strain of general unworldliness, that takes its form in flattering students by all but becoming one.” And then: “It’s okay to hang around all of the time with students, as Charlie does, but this is the first time that anybody has ever tried to base an ideology on it.”
R. Emmett Tyrrell, of all people, agreed with Reich that liberals were out to get him–and get him to shut up. After The Greening of America, Tyrrell wrote, “Poor Charlie was entombed in a conspiracy of silence.” Why? Because “in the midst of the most lunatic discourse he would suddenly gain his composure, clear his throat, and launch a pious declaration.” Such as: “I cannot accept living in a country where people feel powerless to affect their lives. I am unwilling to overlook injustice, cruelty, and oppression. I cannot in good conscience live in a country that imprisons people, humiliates them, degrades them, or ignores their basic humanity.'”
This indeed was a tic of Reich’s. He was always bravely taking a stand against the most obvious offenses–as if the wrongness of oppression or injustice was a point of controversy. The problem with this habit is, to keep it fed, you need to accuse the powers that be of practically every crime in the book, which Reich more or less did–but which anyone who wants to remain a part of the American political mainstream cannot do.
Offering another instance of “liberal censorship,” Reich told me of a letter he received about his second book, The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, from someone he would identify only as “a liberal icon.” The Sorcerer was an interesting, though painfully frank, memoir of Reich’s transformation from young Washington lawyer to middle-aged spokesperson for the new consciousness. In describing his personal liberation, the hypersensitive Reich recounts how, as a 43-year-old virgin, he had his first sexual encounter with a young male prostitute. The letter from the “liberal icon” said, in its entirety, “You have told me more about your prick than I wanted to know.”
REICH SAYS he doesn’t understand why liberals took out after Greening of America with such gusto, but he believes it has something to do with blue jeans. “One element that unquestionably outraged” the right-thinking liberals, says Reich, was “the rather sensual description of blue jeans.” Indeed, one could go further and say that without its awestruck passages concerning the newly pervasive apparel, The Greening of America probably wouldn’t have been half as successful.
“Jeans make one conscious of the body, not as something separate from the face but as part of the whole individual.” Even better:
Bell bottoms have to be worn to be understood. They express the body, as jeans do, but they say much more. They give the ankles a special freedom as if to invite dancing right on the street. . . . A touch football game, if the players are wearing bell bottoms, is like a folk dance or a ballet. . . . The new clothes demonstrate a significant new relationship between man and technology.
Writers have always used real-life details to illustrate points about politics and society; Reich went further. He took the accouterments of self-indulgent youth and presented them with all the solemnity of a pothead describing his THC-induced illumination. Reich’s depictions of hippie life, which sugarcoat the drug scene, make sexual promiscuity seem noble, and offer radical politics as an unquestionably reasonable and constructive occupation for the educated and uneducated alike, are almost comic. He likens the psychedelic experience to “what happens when a person with fuzzy vision puts on glasses.” And so on: “Marijuana is a maker of revolution, a truth-serum.”
This uncritical acceptance of hippie cant was Reich’s central error. In market terms, however, it was a brilliant stroke of intellectual slumming, no less compelling for being sincere. Americans are willing enough to believe that even a man whose ideas seem indefensible should be given an honest hearing. Reich took his case for revolution and ran with it, piling assertion upon assertion, trying to win–and in commercial terms winning–by sheer boldness.
What lingers thirty-five years on is the sense that Reich’s investigative method was itself important to the way we write and argue today. Consciousnesses I, II, and III may have ultimately not caught on, but the search, undertaken by more and more serious writers and intellectuals, for truth about American culture in the idle choices of consumers, in this fall’s fashion lines, in the exact details of our latest materialistic obsessions, is a legacy partly from Reich (as well as from a brilliant contemporary he cites, Tom Wolfe). This way of telling the story of American society endures–think of David Brooks’s “comic sociology,” best exemplified by his Bobos in Paradise. It is, if anything, too much with us, from popular novels that take their titles from brand names to television characters who prove their wit by their fluency in retailspeak.
Reich’s unwarranted leap was in believing that profound changes in fashion presaged the transformation of the political order and the emergence of a “new way of living” and “a new man.” Today, rapacious capitalists wear, what else, blue jeans on casual Friday and lunch at restaurants that serve only the finest, freshest, local and seasonal ingredients. The approved, organic lifestyle of The Greening of America did signal a coming change in how Americans were thinking about food and jeans and music, but those were its rough limits. It hardly routed agribusiness or deprived today’s antiglobalization puppeteers–perhaps Reich’s truest heirs–of their favorite target in America-the-corporate-Satan.
And the rest was generational narcissism. Our eventual Boomer president may have been annoying (and law-breaking) in ways only a child of the ’60s could be, but he was no revolutionary. The Boomers grew to love meritocracy and started moving up through the great, hated Establishment. Most people agree that the attempt to elevate casual sex, drug use, and the new music scene to the status of a new Enlightenment turned out to be a major intellectual and cultural mistake that even the Boomers, now well into middle age, are struggling to redress.
The most important words in The Greening of America were “lifestyle” and “revolution.” “Spreading this lifestyle is the revolution,” wrote one of Reich’s defenders, Joel Kramer, in the Village Voice, combining in one fatuous declarative sentence the linguistic and intellectual slovenliness that has turned us all into close-readers of lifestyles but left us ready to declare a revolution at the turn of the television dial.
And then there’s “greening.” Reich likes to point out that the phrase “greening of America” must be one of the most mimicked in all of journalism. Surprisingly, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines “greening”–as in “book by C. Reich”–as “becoming more mature and less naive.” But what Reich did was actually the opposite. All these years later, it’s hard to see that he was up to much in his forgotten bestseller beyond gushing over the kids and raising radical clichés to the status of profundity.