“A voice a good deal undervalued is that of Paul Goodman,” wrote a reviewer in Book Week, roughly a decade ago—or precisely at the time when, far from being undervalued, Paul Goodman’s career was very much in the ascendant. Ten years ago Goodman was easily this country’s best-known radical thinker, a spokesman for all who wanted change in the United States, a prolific writer and lecturer, a man more than any other admired by the young. “Goodman is, quite simply, indefatigable,” our reviewer in Book Week continued. “How characterize him? The Pied Piper of the American Welfare State? Our St. Paul of the Inspiring Radicalism? The Intellectuals’ Martin Luther King, Jr.? In some loose sense Paul Goodman is all these things and more. He is an extraordinary man—decent, patient, incredibly learned—who has some extraordinary things to say about the way we in America live.” Was our bubbling reviewer perhaps being ironical, or was he altogether sincere in his enthusiasm? He was quite sincere, allow me to assure you, for I am in a privileged position to know, since I wrote the review.
I was about to complete that last sentence by writing, “since, to my chagrin, I wrote the review.” But I am less chagrined than amazed at what a decade will do to a body of writing such as Paul Goodman’s and to one’s own opinion of it. That review, of a book entitled Like A Conquered Province: The Moral Ambiguity of America, about which I can remember almost nothing, ends by announcing that Goodman is “a man whose life restores honor to the word ‘citizen.’ ” I believe that the book’s paperback edition carries that line as a blurb, along with blurbs from a few other enthusiasts. If truth-in-advertising laws were enforced in the publishing business, I should be, if not in jail, then under heavy fine, for the fact is I no longer believe anything of the kind about Paul Goodman.
How, then, account for all that gushing enthusiasm? I suppose there would be no public need to account for it at all, but that the possibility of a resurgence of interest in the work of Paul Goodman, who died in 1972, may be under way. Three collections of his essays and occasional writings—Drawing the Line, Nature Heals, and Creator Spirit, Come!1—have recently been published, edited by Professor Taylor Stoehr, who is also at work on a biography of Goodman. Yet a second Goodman biography is said to be in the works, this one by Raymond Rosenthal, the critic and translator from the Italian. Is it possible, then, that Paul Goodman’s career might be gaining not its second but indeed its third wind?
One speaks of Goodman’s career gaining not its second but indeed its third wind because the period of his greatest prominence, the 1960’s, marked something of a comeback for Paul Goodman. After what looked to be a promising beginning as a literary man (critic and novelist, poet and playwright) and social theorist (psychologist and city planner, philosopher and anarchist), Goodman’s career suffered its first serious reversal when, during World War II, the principal editors of Partisan Review, to which Goodman had contributed frequently, could not accommodate his conscientious objection—indeed active opposition—to the war. According to Professor Stoehr, Goodman “regarded the loss of Partisan’s backing as fatal to his literary career,” and came to believe that the magazine’s editors, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, froze him out of other places of literary prestige and power.
If Paul Goodman’s politics were troublesome, his sexual activities were scarcely less so. Technically, Goodman was a bisexual—he was married and the father of two children—but as with most men who call themselves bisexual, much of his energy seemed to be engaged in the pursuit of younger male lovers. Such at all events was the aggressiveness of Goodman’s homosexuality that it caused him to be fired from jobs even at such morally flexible institutions as the University of Chicago during the early years of Robert Hutchins; the Manumitt School, an offshoot of A. J. Muste’s Brookwood Labor College; and Black Mountain College. When Goodman was a strong Reichian, which in some respects he always remained, Wilhelm Reich himself claimed that Goodman was giving “Orgonomy” a bad name. Reading about Goodman’s homosexual escapades, or hearing anecdotes from people who knew him, one is reminded of no one quite so much as the minor character in Clancy Sigal’s last novel who was “expelled from Summerhill for behavior offensive to A. S. Neill.”
Politically difficult, sexually impossible, Paul Goodman nevertheless plowed on. He collaborated with Fritz Perls on the book Gestalt Therapy, saw patients as a lay analyst, wrote his ambitious if not very readable novel, The Empire City. But generally, as he recorded in Five Years, the journal he kept from 1955 through 1960, Goodman felt frustrated, purposeless, out-of-it. Five Years carries the subtitle, “Thoughts During a Useless Time.” In one of his journal entries, remarking that he did not leave Partisan Review but that it left him, Goodman notes: “I have never left anybody who has access to a printing press!” He had in the mean-time written a book, purportedly about juvenile delinquency, entitled Growing Up Absurd, for a publisher who rejected the completed manuscript. The story has it that the book went the rounds of sixteen different publishers till it was picked up by Norman Podhoretz, the newly appointed editor of COMMENTARY, who then ran large segments of it in the magazine while also persuading Jason Epstein of Random House to bring it out in hard covers. Published in 1960, Growing Up Absurd was to prove a book of considerable importance for the decade ahead; it was also to provide the ass upon which Paul Goodman would ride into the Jerusalem of a popularity greater than any he had hitherto known, or even possibly dreamed of.
Returning to our enthusiastic reviewer, I had read Paul Goodman in Dissent and other magazines, but it was in the pages of COMMENTARY that I first came upon Growing Up Absurd. The year was 1960, I was a year away from having taken a B.A. at the University of Chicago, and was an enlisted man in the U.S. Army stationed in Arkansas. Even now I can recall reading those COMMENTARY pages in a sweat of approbation: yes; yes; yes; exactly; yes; yes; yes; perfect! Most of us take from books and articles that which we need, or want, leaving the rest, often including the author’s intentions, behind. While Growing Up Absurd was chiefly about the young Spanish and black kids of New York slums and the Beat generation of San Francisco, and how social arrangements worked to exacerbate rather than alleviate their conditions, I read into the book the message that there was no honorable work for the young in America. To be sure, this was one of the book’s principal points. But I, who wanted no part of graduate or professional school, and who had been trained into a rather easy contempt for business, took it for the book’s reigning point, and applied it to myself. I wished to earn my living writing, but had serious doubts about being able to bring it off. If I were to fail, as I had every reason to believe I would, I could then contend, as I no doubt would have done, that there was no honorable work in America.
Surely not everyone put this rather special construction upon the pages of Growing Up Absurd. A less personal reading of the book was certainly possible, one linking it to its time, of which it was very much a part. Consider that time: the late 1950’s, toward the end of the second Eisenhower administration. The great sociological tracts of the day were The Organization Man, which attacked the corporations and the suburbs; The Lonely Crowd, which pointed up the deadly new conformity among the young; The Affluent Society, which scolded a rich country for its misarranged priorities. In intellectual circles, most political argument was then about foreign policy, and chiefly about whether anti-Communism had run its course. Domestically, nearly everyone claimed to be Left, at least after a fashion, though what being Left meant, apart from being for civil liberties and civil rights and a more planned economy, was less than clear. Along came Paul Goodman, whose indictment of American life, radical though without the taint of Marxism to it, was pretty near complete yet had nothing vindictive about it. Holding out the possibility of alternative social arrangements, he seemed to rouse the discussion about domestic policy again after long intellectual slumber. He wanted a more humane, a less repressive society—one, as he kept repeating, less wasteful of human resources, built more to human scale. That there was some truly hideous writing in Growing Up Absurd, or that there was what seemed perhaps an undue emphasis on sex, could be let pass. This man cared about the young, about America, about mankind. Or so it then clearly seemed.
How seems it now? Not quite the same, it turns out. Fish and visitors, said Franklin, begin to stink after three days; radical writing dependably rots after a decade. Right off there is, as one rereads it today, an odor of datedness about Growing Up Absurd: “. . . the problems I want to discuss in this book,” Goodman writes in his opening chapter, “belong primarily, in our society, to the boys: how to be useful and make something of oneself. A girl does not have to, she is not expected to, ‘make something’ of herself.” Perhaps one cannot blame Goodman for not including the women’s movement in his vaticinations. One can blame him, though, for the tremendous jumble of his book. So many statements in it are made ex cathedra. (Of modern marriages, for example: “We are all in the toils of jealousy of our own Oedipus complexes, and few of us can tolerate loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned.”) Frequently Goodman will clinch an argument with a quotation from the earlier work by that noted authority—Paul Goodman. Arguments often lead nowhere; subjects founder in obscurity, as when, talking about the community culture of the Beats, Goodman writes that they would do well to ponder, as a model, “the Balinese dances.” As befits its anarchist author, Growing Up Absurd may be one of the few books organized along anarchist lines; that is to say, without any organization at all.
The language of Growing Up Absurd was a compound—compost?—of the purest psychobabble overlaid by sociological barbarisms. No one who so regularly cited himself as an artist ever wrote so poorly. “Depersonalized” was a big item in his vocabulary, as was “structure.” He could refer to one’s “own meant world”; “needs” were inevitably “felt”; and it nearly goes without saying that he was for “growth,” “dialogue,” and “feelingful sex.” True, such phrases were not then the clichés they have since become, but they served the same purposes, then as now, of evasion, obfuscation, and self-deception. But Goodman’s book contains clichés of thought as well as of language. “Community” was one he regularly fell back upon, as in this dubious statement in Growing Up Absurd: “ children of all classes are equally deprived of the human community.” (“With us,” he notes in his journal, “the Absurd has become so huge that I feel justified in the Arbitrary.”) He availed himself of the even more commonplace clichés of social criticism, complaining of freeways, suburbs, supermarkets; and at a higher level of generality, though certainly no deeper a level of penetration, of Wall Street and Madison Avenue and Hollywood.
Paul Goodman was famously eclectic, which seemed to give him the authority to speak out in several different voices. At one point, he spoke as a psychologist; at one point, as a literary critic; at one point, as a city planner (co-author, with Percival Goodman, of Communitas); and always as an artist (“Consider the case of the artist,” he writes, “my own.”). While the variety of Paul Goodman’s accomplishments seemed to make him more appealing in his role as a social critic, the harsh fact is that he was not a very incisive psychologist, an original city planner, an interesting literary critic, or a good novelist, poet, or playwright. That he did all these things is impressive, but as Samuel Johnson once said, “A horse that can count up to ten is a remarkable horse, not a remarkable mathematician.”
Although many of the notions in Growing Up Absurd anticipated those of the New Left later in the 1960’s, as Goodman’s vaporous language anticipated the therapeutic view of life still much in the air today, there remains a sense in which Paul Goodman was not himself conventionally doctrinaire. “I have felt the power of my disinterestedness,” he wrote, “since indeed I have no ax to grind and don’t want anybody’s money.” To come on as he did well above the ruck, all disinterest and deep feeling, was surely a great part of the appeal of Paul Goodman. After talking with a group of young men outside Hamilton, Ontario, for whom the future, because bereft of useful work, seems hopeless, Goodman, in Growing Up Absurd, writes: “I turned away from the conversation abruptly because of the uncontrolable burning tears in my eyes and constriction in my chest.” He was very good, in the same vein, at conveying the sense of squandered energies and their cost. Goodman had his voice, his characteristic tone, and when served up in an unadorned syntax, shorn of clotted language, it could be very winning. At the close of a New Republic piece on television, for example, after delivering the standard jeremiad against television, Goodman plaintively wrote: “This is too beautiful a medium to be thrown away like this.”
Allied to Goodman’s sadness at the prospect of waste was the Rousseauism that was one of the major motifs in everything he wrote. Almost everywhere in Paul Goodman’s work not men but institutions are at fault. In literary matters, to cite an almost comical example, Goodman felt that the problem with our novelists is not that they are inferior in understanding society but that society is not good enough for them: “The burden of proof is not on the artist but on society.” Who is to blame is always left rather vague in Goodman. “Writing Growing Up [Absurd],” he notes in his journal, “I rapidly sketched out an enemy, the Organization.” Sometimes he called this enemy the System, or the Organized System; sometimes the Establishment. “Of course,” he wrote, “I sometimes generalize outrageously for rhetorical effect; I assume the reader is not a moron and does not think that I am.”
Professor Stoehr, in his introduction to Creator Spirit, Come!, Goodman’s literary essays, remarks that “it would not be far afield to read through his entire work of the 1960’s as a kind of literary criticism applied to social problems.” Such a case can perhaps be made, but it leaves out a decisive aspect of Paul Goodman’s work—his hope, through that work, to dismantle, as Professor Stoehr puts it, “a hardened status quo.” Goodman’s method was to criticize existing arrangements, always making sure to suggest alternatives: decentralize here, organize from the bottom up rather than the top down there, change an existing law elsewhere. Some of his alternatives were interesting, some superficial, some silly. But were these alternatives made in the name of a large vision? Socialism, strictly speaking, was not the name of Paul Goodman’s desire. What, then, was?
In his brief foreword to Five Years, Goodman writes: “When I speak of ‘psychology’ I am speaking about ‘society.’” The two, for him, were interchangeable. When Goodman spoke of “repression,” he did not mean the word metaphorically, a borrowing from psychological discourse to be put to political or social uses. He thought that people were quite literally repressed, their natures twisted and thwarted by life in modern society. The roots of this repression were psychological, even if its consequences were political. D. H. Lawrence and Wilhelm Reich were his intellectual mentors. “Consult Your Deepest Impulse” was his working principle for his own behavior. Goodman’s own Deepest Impulse impelled him to extol freedom and despise constraint. He once told Professor Stoehr that, so hot did its ideas make him, he used to masturbate with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams open in front of him. Evidently no one ever suggested he take Civilization and Its Discontents with him into a cold shower.
The sexual element in Paul Goodman’s work was more than merely pronounced. He never hid it. His admirers—myself of a decade ago among them—simply never wished to recognize it. The fact that Paul Goodman was a roughhouse homosexual—“trade’s trade,” as he once described himself—was not in any case considered a fit topic for polite intellectual talk. Professor Stoehr claims that “More than any other single person, he [Goodman] helped make present-day honesty and the gay liberation movement possible.” Yet Goodman’s homosexuality was of a very different order from what one thinks of as characteristic of the gay liberation movement today. His was not homosexuality as a matter (as they say nowadays) of “lifestyle,” but rather as a pressing need. As Goodman himself envisioned it, there was something “manly,” or at least “comradely,” about his homosexuality. It was connected, if vaguely, with work, and with athletics. In his journals, he recorded his debt to homosexuality in relieving him of the burden of snobbery: “I think my homosexual needs, involving rough company, catch-as-catch-can chances, and dirty practices, got me out of a lot of snobbery, though homosexuality does not seem to have this effect on the tribe of uptown queens whose reaction against their drives makes them more squeamish and snobbish still.”
When, in 1966, Five Years was published, its pages rife with Goodman’s cruisings, his bathhouse and lavatory adventures—“my abject sexuality, quite beyond humiliation”—Goodman was praised for his candor. But he had always been candid in this regard. It was his readers who hid in the closet. Growing Up Absurd is filled with sexual references: “The fellows are interrupted in growing up as men; their homosexuality threatens them as immaturity. They are afraid of going backward to boyhood status, admiring the model penises and powers of their seniors and adults.” And so on. But somehow such stuff retreated to the background, lost in the attacks on President Eisenhower or the dreariness of life in corporations.
Goodman felt that his homosexuality gave him a certain edge as a writer. “As one grows older,” he wrote in an essay entitled “The Politics of Being Queer,” “homosexual wishes keep one alert to adolescents and young people more than heterosexual wishes do. . . .” He was also, to put it gently, sexually highly charged: “There have been few days back to my 11th year when I have not had an orgasm one way or another.” Among his admirers, there was a tendency to treat Paul Goodman’s homosexuality as peripheral, perhaps as imbuing him with a greater hunger for social justice, but otherwise not really central to his chief concerns. He was, in this view, a cogent critic of modern American life who happened to be homosexual.
“Do not practice what you preach,” Paul Goodman wrote, “preach what you practice.” Goodman practiced homosexuality, and as intensely as any man. “I have cruised rich, poor, middle class, and petit bourgeois; black, white, yellow, and brown; scholars, jocks, Gentlemanly C’s, and dropouts; farmers, seamen, railroad men, heavy industry, light manufacturing, communications, business, and finance; civilians, soldiers and sailors, and once or twice cops. (But probably for Oedipal reasons, I tend to be sexually anti-Semitic, which is a drag.)” Having practiced homosexuality, did Goodman preach it? Not explicitly, though he was an ambassador for sexuality generally. “Needless to say,” he wrote, “if we had better community, we’d have better sexuality too.” What is not needless to say, and what is implied in so much of Goodman’s writing, is that if we had better sexuality, we would have better community. Thus his young men in Growing Up Absurd are often violent as a result of repressed homosexuality. Everywhere the enemy is repressed sexuality. “Most sexual behavior would give more satisfaction and do lasting good, and would certainly result in far less damage, if any, if it were completely ignored by the police and not subject to any social disapproval qua sexual.” Again, on the subject of education, Goodman believed that what he termed “a functional sexuality” is probably incompatible with our mass school systems, and concluded: “This is one among many reasons why they should be dismantled.” For Goodman, the “coercive society” was one that not alone repressed sexuality but also failed to encourage it. The good society, for Goodman, started at the groin.
Many of the things Paul Goodman asked for in his essays and books of the 1960’s have now come about, and with rather pitiful consequences; and this as much as anything, when one rereads him today, diminishes his stature. In Growing Up Absurd, he complained, for example, that “the powerful interests have the big presses.” He should be alive today to read the New York Times and the Washington Post. In “Pornography, Art, and Censorship,” an essay first published in COMMENTARY in 1961, he complained about “the forbidden topic, the mockery of sacred public figures.” He should be alive today to read the novels of E. L. Doctorow and Robert Coover, the journalism of Garry Wills and Gore Vidal. He believed that if the legal restrictions were lifted from pornography, it would “ennoble all our art,” “humanize sexuality,” have “beautiful cultural advantages.” He should be alive today to walk the 42nd Street of every large American city. He believed in decentralizing everywhere, getting back to the land and artisanship. He should be alive today to see the squalor of youthful communalism, the triviality of boutique culture. One could go on. Many of the things Paul Goodman asked for have come about—and with the result that he now seems a voice a good deal overvalued in his own lifetime.
1 Free Life Editions, Drawing the Line, 272 pp., $11.95; Nature Heals, 259 pp., $11.95; Creator Spirit, Come!, 284 pp., $11.95.