Paul Goodman (1911 - 1972)- Gay Jewish Jeffersonian Anarchist

     Where would you anthologize the work of a Jewish poet and novelist with a literature PhD who was married with children and openly and unabashedly queer in the 1940s and who went on to co-found Gestalt Therapy and practice as a psychotherapist until he wrote one of the most influential works of social criticism for the Student Left of the 1960s (which skips over his books on philosophical aesthetics, education reform, and city planning)? Was he an artist, an academic, a therapist, or a political pamphleteer? It’s easy to imagine someone wearing two of those hats, but all four feels excessive, even dilettantish (a criticism that would haunt Goodman throughout his career). One lifetime hardly seems long enough to master any one of those occupations, let alone all four. Goodman would probably be the first to say that didn’t master any of them, that mastery was never the point. The point was to read and think about concrete experience such that reading and thinking (and writing) were part of an intimate organic engagement with life as it is, neither airily academic nor narrowly pragmatic. He considered himself a “Jeffersonian anarchist” and a “man of letters,” which only complicate the labeling problem. Can you imagine the author of a book published today who was as ready to reference conversations he had with the poor, marginalized, and uneducated as Augustine, Abelard, Comte, Kropotkin, Longinus, Matthew Arnold, Thoreau, and Artaud? Would that person be a conservative, a liberal, or a lunatic? 

     His most famous work, Growing Up Absurd (1960), brought him to national attention as a caring and articulate critic of American culture through an analysis of what was then referred to as juvenile delinquency. Goodman argued the underlying problem was not that the youth lacked discipline but that American adulthood offered no meaningful occupations to give them direction and self-regard, that their inarticulate rebellion came from an innate appreciation of mainstream culture’s inability to provide paths to dignity and esteem.

     Coming as it did on the eve of the youth movements of the 60s, the youth took up his book with tremendous zeal and Goodman found himself for several years something of a counter-culture celebrity. He was invited to speak at anti-war rallies and student gatherings. The publishers who had grown wary of his work after decades of poor sales began putting out several titles a year. Goodman would publish roughly fifty books in his lifetime. 

     I share Susan Sontag’s belief that Goodman’s voice, his “familiar, endearing, exasperating,” “direct, cranky, egotistical, generous American voice,” is what makes his work so powerful (1). He is not infrequently wrong, even spectacularly so. No one can deny that despite his queer credentials he had conservative beliefs about gender. Curious about her lukewarm reception by Goodman at several parties, Sontag was told that he did not see women as people. And yet Sontag, after hearing of Goodman’s death, still believed that “for twenty years” (that is, before he was famous and long after she stopped trying to befriend him) “he has been to me quite simply the most important American writer” (1). 

     One of my favorite stories about Goodman comes from George Dennison’s memoir in the introduction to Goodman’s Collected Poems. Goodman walked into a party and was immediately disheartened by how cliquish and closed off everyone seemed. When the house’s german shepherd trotted up panting and pawing with childish enthusiasm Goodman bent down and gave the dog a kiss on the mouth. The dog began licking his face and Goodman licked back with equal gusto until everyone in the room was staring at the sloppy love fest. They thought he was mad and disgusting but he only cared that he found someone who shared his delight at being alive.

     His poetry and novels are sometimes written off for being too disorganized and passionate, even mawkish, too lyrical to be prose but not focused enough to be poetry. But whether his characters are dancing mad love though the streets of New York City or weeping as they place flowers on the grave of their son, it is the voice that redeems the scenes from mere sentimentality, an honesty and hope that each of us may someday know the exquisite pains of life overflowing. I don’t mean to say that all his literature takes place at that fever pitch. More often his characters are too occupied with the problems of daily life to see the tremendous possibilities glittering at the margins. Part of the magic of Goodman’s voice is that it unites the mundane and the exalted without changing registers. This tension between the two worlds - banal and blessed - is the force behind his stories, the question he hopes to answer in all his work, perhaps the only question anyone asks - how we make do with this terrible wonderful world. 

     I don’t read Goodman because I think he has figured out any solid answers about life or society. I read his work because he has a preternatural sense of what the important questions are, a discerning eye, and a love for knowledge and mankind that, combined, give voice to a true and resonant humanism.

Where to Begin?

     Watch the two-minute trailer for the recent film Paul Goodman Changed My Life (I haven’t seen the movie, though it looks good)

     If that doesn’t convince you to go looking for one of his books, you might consider watching Goodman discussing why public school curricula should be abolished on The Firing Line with William F Buckley Jr., which is also worth watching just to see how different TV interview programs were fifty years ago and to hear Buckley say the word “bisexualist” 

     As for the books, I recommend starting with The Paul Goodman Reader from PM Press for a wide-ranging selection of his poetry, prose, and political writing

     Creator Spirit Come! for a selection of essays on art and culture (teaser: he hates Hemingway, though I think he is also more than a little envious of Hemingway’s success)

     The Empire City - his thousand-page novel about New York City, the third book of which, The Dead of Spring, he considered his favorite of his own books (don’t be afraid to skip twenty pages if you’re caught in a slump)

for those more interested in his politics - Growing Up AbsurdLike A Conquered ProvinceUtopian Essays and Practical Proposals

education-reform - Compulsory Mis-Education

poetry - The Collected Poems of Paul Goodman

literary criticism - Kafka’s PrayerThe Structure of Literature

other places to read about Goodman:

Hayden Carruth’s essay “Paul Goodman and the Grand Community” in his Selected Essays and Reviews from Copper Canyon Press was the piece that ignited my interest in Goodman when I read it in the summer between my second and third years of college.


(1) Reprinted from "Under the Sign of Saturn" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980); first published in the New York Review of Books, September 21, 1972.

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