Law professor Charles Reich, author of ‘Greening of America,’ dies at 91
Photo: Roger Ressmeyer / Getty Images
Half a century ago, Yale law school professor Charles Reich wrote a million-seller book that had the country talking.
It was called “The Greening of America” and it was full of history and philosophy and predictions about America’s future, all wrapped up with something that Reich called Consciousness I, II and III.
The book was a sensation. In December 1970, it was the best-selling book in the country. A long excerpt ran in the New Yorker magazine. The engaging, brilliant and popular law school professor who loved nothing so much as a quiet walk in the woods suddenly found himself a national phenomenon.
That the work is little known or remembered today puzzled the author’s many friends and left Reich, who moved to San Francisco four decades ago, bemused and at least as philosophical as anything in his book.
Reich died June 15 in San Francisco of natural causes following a period of declining health. He was 91.
“He was brilliant, and he was respectful and warm, in a positive way,” recalled retired Stanford Law School professor Michael Wald, his longtime friend and former student. “It was a real treat to be in his class. Almost every day, at the end of class, his students stood and applauded.”
Another friend and former student, California Court of Appeal presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline, said Reich had an “inquiring mind and was a bit of a skeptic.”
He devoured books on any subject, from the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rock music.
“The key to his creativity,” said Kline, after thinking the matter over, “is that he was not vested in conventional verities.”
In “The Greening of America,” Reich declared that Consciousness III was represented by the counterculture of the 1960s, its free lifestyle and its use of recreational drugs. It replaced the earlier two “consciousnesses” represented by 19th century America and by the New Deal.
The cover of his book carried a five-sentence summary in large type — unusual for any book before or since — that proclaimed a coming revolution “will originate with the individual and with culture ... and will not require violence to succeed.”
Another friend, San Francisco environmental lawyer Trent Orr, called Reich “really smart and really fun, with some fairly out-there ideas that he wasn’t afraid to put out there.”
A native of New York City and a graduate of Oberlin College and Yale law school, Reich served as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and became a close friend of Justice William O. Douglas. He taught at Yale from 1960 to 1974.
At Yale, Kline recalled, the young Reich was assigned to teach a course in property law, about which he complained he knew little. He threw himself into the subject and became an internationally known authority, writing a highly cited law review article on the changing notion of property rights and maintaining that property included not only real estate but such institutions as welfare benefits and professional licenses.
Among his other Yale students were a pair of ambitious idealists named Bill and Hillary Clinton.
In 1974, he moved to San Francisco and taught at University of San Francisco law school. He enjoyed the outdoors, books and long talks with friends.
“He was a complicated guy,” Kline said. “He became a celebrity, but becoming a celebrity was never something he aspired to.”
Of his book’s fall from popularity, Wald said, Reich had little time or inclination to be sad.
“The book had a big impact, and then the world changed,” Wald said. “It moved in a different direction.”
In a 2010 interview with CBS News, Reich mused on how the changes he foretold didn’t play out as he predicted.
“The things that troubled young people in the ’60s and the things that trouble young people today seem quite different, in the sense that the troubles today are mostly material trouble — I can’t get a job; I can’t support a family. Whereas the complaints in the 1960s were more spiritual — I don’t feel like a real person, or something like that,” he said.
“However,” he added, “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. That’s the link between ‘The Greening of America’ and the way young people are feeling today.”Reich is survived by his nephew, Dan Reich, of Baltimore and by his niece, Alice Reich, of Philadelphia. A private memorial gathering was held in San Francisco.
Steve Rubenstein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @SteveRubeSF
ERIC ED110384: The Future of Work and Leisure. ERIC Publication date 1975
Collection ericarchive; additional_collections
Earlier projections of labor supply and speculations about the impact on values and lifestyles on work, leisure, and work-leisure relationships are reassessed in light of current events. Previous projections were the basis for three alternative scenarios of possible work-leisure relationships. The first examined some of the implications of arguments developed by Charles Reich in "The Greening of America." The second was developed as an antithesis to the first and traced the implications of a renewed commitment to full employment and the preservation of the traditional meaning of work. The third depicted a blending of the values and life styles of the first two. Upon examination after four years time, the elements which induced a preference for the third alternative require modification based on the increasing economic activities of women, the aging of the baby-boom, and the potential resource scarcities and recession. The emerging trends appear to suggest a shift from the third scenario to the second. Projections over the next quarter century and their implications are discussed. Footnotes and tables are included. (Author/KSM)