Charles Reich, the lawyer, professor and author who provided the intellectual framework for the counterculture with his 1970 book The Greening of America, died Saturday, The New York Times reports. He was 91.
A cause of death was not revealed. Reich’s nephew and only survivor, Daniel Reich, confirmed his death.
Reich was a lawyer and law professor by trade, but The Greening of America proved to be a seminal work of sociology that sold over 2 million copies. In it, he traced the evolution of the American worldview, from “Consciousness I,” the self-sufficiency of rural life, to “Conscious II,” the institutional conformity of the New Deal, World War II and the Fifties,” to finally, “Consciousness III,” the counterculture’s embrace of personal happiness over material success.
While the book was met with plenty of criticism from across the political spectrum, it swiftly turned Reich into a counterculture icon. And as much as Reich was adored by the hippie generation, he too seemed enamored with its ideals, art, music and culture. The book was reportedly inspired by Reich’s time in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, and in the early Seventies, he teamed with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner to conduct a sprawling interview with one of Reich’s favorite musicians, Jerry Garcia (the interview was later published as the 2003 book, Garcia: A Signpost to New Space).
“Reich was obviously very up on [the Grateful Dead], knew all the lyrics and could quote and speak intelligently about them, and I knew their past history,” Wenner wrote in the introduction to the original story. “It would be a good combination, and God knows, Charles ‘Consciousness Three’ Reich Meets Jerry ‘Captain Trips’ Garcia could turn into something of its own.”
Reich came from a world far removed from the one he helped define: He was born in 1928, raised in New York City, went to private schools, earned an undergraduate degree from Oberlin, graduated from Yale Law School, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, worked at two white-shoe law firms and eventually returned to Yale as a professor (his students included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton).
As a legal scholar, Reich is best known for a 1964 article that made the case that welfare benefits should be considered property, and therefore receive more legal protections. The article was later cited in the 1970 Supreme Court case, Goldberg v. Kelly, which ruled that welfare recipients suspected of fraud deserved an evidentiary hearing before having their benefits taken away.
During his time at Yale, Reich began working on The Greening of America, but struggled to find a publisher for the book. His break came when his mother — an administrator at the nursery school of a top NYC private school — mentioned the manuscript to a parent, New Yorker staff writer Lillian Ross. Ross helped get the book to New Yorker editor, and her longtime partner, William Shawn, and an excerpt was eventually published in the magazine.
Reich left Yale following the success of The Greening of America (the book “did me in as far as academe was concerned,” he admitted in 2012). He settled in San Francisco, where he taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of San Francisco School of Law. He published an autobiography, The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, in 1976, and in 1995 published another book, Opposing the System.
As noted by The Associated Press, Reich gave an interview in 2010 about the legacy of The Greening of America and the way the freedom inherent in “Consciousness III” eventually came to be viewed as “something like a fantasy or a dream that people woke up from with a headache.” He also acknowledged that the present generation’s problems were far more concrete — such as the need to find a job — than the spiritual angst that defined the Sixties. But, he added, the two were related.
“Whether you’re complaining about spiritual emptiness or material emptiness, you’re ultimately complaining about the same system that’s creating both kinds of emptiness,” he said. “That’s the link between The Greening of America of 40 years ago and the way young people are feeling today.”