Searching for the magic fountain
In the last issue of WORLD each year we run a long obituary section. Then we wait for letters about how we missed famous actor Adonis Smith or faithful servant Lazarus Jones. We usually reply with apologies, not so much for omitting a notable (one of my favorite cartoons shows a man indignant to find himself in hell because he had a long New York Times obit) but for missing those likely to receive a “well done” in heaven.
We did not miss the death in 2019 of Charles Reich, but he had witnessed the death of his dreams. Reich was the one professor I had in college who wrote a New York Times No. 1 bestseller, The Greening of America (1970). Charlie partly wrote the book by sitting in college dining halls and listening to students advocating what he called “the revolution of a new generation” that would “change the political structure.” He said a new consciousness would overturn both Christianity and capitalism.
A young Houston journalist told me recently he wished he could live in Reich’s time, when demonstrations were much bigger than those last June after George Floyd’s death. Now that I’m an old guy, I told him how strange the late ’60s were: a time when professors sat at the feet of 20-year-olds and fawned over the purported pearls dropping from their (and, embarrassingly, my) lips.
That was an upside-down era, and today’s times are like it. The job of old folks upon hearing young ideas is to say That’s interesting, but wait a minute, have you thought of this? Sometimes, grown-ups should groan. Last summer, though, as in 1970, elders often acted like cheerleaders. Some who issued a fountain of praise for exuberant rants and chants seemed to be searching for a fountain of youth.
Current practice reminds me of one of my favorite children’s books, The Magic Fountain by Sadyebeth and Anson Lowitz, published in 1935. It has great drawings and scholarly analysis that begins this memorable way: “There once lived an old, old man who had nearly everything he wanted. His name was Ponce de Leon. … He had gold and jewels, soldiers and sailors, a palace and servants and beautiful clothes. … Yet he was most unhappy.”
You may remember the saga: Aging Ponce searches for a fountain of youth. He visits island after island, and then Florida, “but, alas, he never found a fountain that would make him young again. Nor, indeed, has anyone else.” Sad, maybe, but then we come to a delightful picture of old folks running full tilt past a sign announcing, THIS WAY TO THE MAGIC FOUNTAIN. The authors conclude that Ponce de Leon “must have been a very foolish man.”
Why? Because “if there ever were such a fountain, everyone would hurry to bathe in it and drink its sparkling water. Your grandfather and your grandmother … would all be just as young as you are. No one in the whole wide world would ever grow old and the earth would be filled with little children.” Here’s the great closing sentence, under a picture of a closed bank and an out-of-business toy store: “Who, then, would make our money or mend our clothes, cook our meals or read us stories, and who would buy us any toys?”
In 1970 I and other students with wealthy parents or (in my case) scholarships could still enjoy cooked meals, story time, and toys. Reich’s class was a wild ride in which we could hug libertine socialism and garner praise: I cut up pictures from old Red Sox yearbooks and received an excellent grade. Reich’s personal ride became harder: Four years later he moved to San Francisco, declared himself gay, and largely disappeared from public life.
In 2010 the Canadian Broadcasting Company tracked down Reich and asked whether he still drank from a fountain of young people’s hope. He complained that “at the moment it’s viewed as something like a fantasy or a dream that people woke up from with a headache.”
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