The Magazine

The Graying of the "Greening of America"

Charles Reich's famous book turns 35, but seems as juvenile as ever.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By DAVID SKINNER
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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.