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
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.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.