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Our abundant society is at present simply deficient in many of the most elementary objective opportunities and worth-while goals that could make growing up possible. . . . It is lacking in honest public speech, and people are not taken seriously. It is lacking in the opportunity to be useful. It thwarts aptitude and creates stupidity. It corrupts ingenuous patriotism. It corrupts the fine arts. It shackles science. It dampens animal ardor. . . . It has no Honor. It has no Community.
These words could have appeared yesterday on the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page, or in Mother Jones during the Reagan years. Instead, they come from a book published in 1960: Growing Up Absurd, by Paul Goodman. The book anticipated the coming critique of American culture. It became an instant bestseller and an iconic text of the ’60s peace and social justice movements.
Then, after a final run in 1973, Growing Up Absurd went out of print and, along with its author, was forgotten. I have yet to meet a person under 40 who recognizes Goodman’s name. Indeed, the promo for Jonathan Lee’s engaging documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life calls its subject “the most influential man you’ve never heard of.”
Now New York Review Books has reissued Growing Up Absurd, appropriately, in its Classics series. Following on the film’s release in 2011, Goodman’s centennial, this happy event provides an opportunity not only to introduce the book to new generations, but also to reconsider the life and work of the poet, novelist, essayist, anarchist, pacifist, social and political visionary, and—not parenthetically—personal fuck-up Paul Goodman.
Goodman wrote thousands of poems and dozens of books of fiction and nonfiction. He was prescient about city planning (in 1961 he and his brother Percival proposed banning cars from Manhattan), psychology (with Fritz and Laura Perls, he established Gestalt therapy in America), and education (with George Dennison and others, he pioneered the free-school movement). He was thinking globally and acting locally before it became a slogan. He was an out queer decades before gay liberation.
Goodman’s voice—colloquial and pompous, belligerent and disarming—was as vividly American as Whitman’s or Baldwin’s. “He is our peculiar, urban, twentieth-century Thoreau, the quintessential American mind of our time,” Hayden Carruth wrote. John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich admired his poetry; Ned Rorem set much of it to music. Susan Sontag called Goodman “quite simply the most important American writer” in her personal pantheon. Even William F. Buckley proclaimed that Goodman excelled at everything, except, “as far as I know,” basketball.
Yet after a promising launch in the 1940s—he was one of the original New York Intellectuals—Goodman struggled to publish. His fiction and plays, which he thought of as his best work, met the most resistance, and by the mid-1950s he’d all but given up. He called his collection of diary entries from 1955 to 1960 Five Years: Thoughts During a Useless Time. Even Growing Up Absurd was reportedly rejected by at least sixteen publishers before Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz rescued the manuscript by pressing it on Jason Epstein at Random House. Epstein’s first words: “Goodman? That has-been?”
Growing Up Absurdbrought Goodman the recognition he long deserved—overnight he became America’s Marcuse—but it may have been too late. Only months after Goodman’s death in 1972, Sontag lamented that he was already “being treated as a marginal figure.” Why?
• • •
Growing Up Absurdbegan as an assignment to write about “juvenile delinquency.” But Goodman could not slice the bad boys from their environment nor the boys and their environment from the whole of American culture. That was no major insight in a period of left-wing psycho-sociology—see David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd, Edgar Z. Friedenberg’s Vanishing Adolescent, and a host of lesser-known titles. But Goodman’s thesis went an important step further. He argued that the “Organized System” of corporations, government, advertising, media, and education produces both the conformist and the rebel, the company man and the car thief, the bureaucrat and the beatnik. Everyone, he explained, is a product of this system: those who use it, those who are used by it, and those who have no use for it.
The Organized System is hegemonic—Goodman’s metaphor is a “closed room” containing only “one system of values, that of the rat race.” There are few jobs that are “necessary or unquestionably useful; that require energy and draw on some of one’s best capacities; and that can be done keeping one’s honor and dignity.” Dropping out is no solution. The cost of living is high, yet workers on the margin are paid badly and treated worse. One ends up a slave and a schmuck. Alternative communities such as the Beats, lacking intercourse with the bigger world, grow self-referential; with only friends for critics, their artists become dilettantes. Even those denied the system’s rewards can’t muster a healthy resentment: “Our present poor are absolute sheep and suckers for the popular culture which they cannot afford.”
Everyone, Goodman said, is a product of the Organized System: those who use it, those who are used by it, and those who have no use for it.
Offering neither satisfaction nor escape, the system alienates successes and failures alike. Change feels impossible; cynicism is inevitable. The nation shrugs: “The next regime will be like this one.” The hopefulness of children born into this claustrophobia is soon suffocated. And if they grow up stupid or surly, unable to opt decisively in or out—that is, if they grow up absurd—they cannot be blamed: “The burden of proof, as to who is ‘wrong,’ does not rest with the young but always with the system of society.”
Growing Up Absurd is Goodman’s magnum opus, but it is not a great work. Its flaws are those of his whole oeuvre: it whipsaws between overgeneralization and nitpickery; it repeats itself (if you miss a good sentence in one essay, don’t worry, it will show up elsewhere); and, most glaringly, it dismisses women out of hand. “The problems I want to discuss in this book belong primarily, in our society, to the boys: how to be useful and make something of oneself,” Goodman announces. A girl has no such concerns: her career “does not have to be self-justifying,” for she will marry and have children. He notes only one female problem: If boys don’t grow up, where will women find grown-up husbands?
You can’t overlook this shortcoming. A man whose every breath pled for a world that recognized human desires could have done the same for half of humanity. But sexism was pandemic in 1960. Regard it as an anachronism, substitute “boys and girls” for “boys” throughout, read “manly” as “effective, meaningful, and powerful,” and Growing Up Absurd comes through fresh and buoyant. In its pages policyspeak sheds its heavy shoes and floats: “This is not a perfect educational program. It lacks grandeur and explosive playfulness. It lacks religious quiet.” Goodman’s aperçus charm (a car mechanic’s work is “careful and dirty at the same time”), his insults gratify (the military is “a world-wide demented enterprise”).
Rejecting jingoism, Goodman is patriotic. “For all their folly and conformity,” he says, Americans are “stubbornly” democratic, “often thrillingly sophisticated and impatient of hypocrisy.” And it’s not just his compatriots who win Goodman’s faith. Like all his work, the book expresses a kind of Rousseauian Marxism, a belief in the innate human potential to flourish, given the right circumstances. Indeed, Growing Up Absurd is a utopian document. Laced with practical fixes for intractable problems, it concludes with a list of “essential changes” involving everything from urban zoning to class struggle, little-magazine publishing to children’s sexual freedom—“all practicable, all difficult.” Goodman was that most American of creatures, a utopian who wanted to get things done.
Growing Up Absurdemboldened those who loathed the system and delivered a bracing dressing-down to those who loathed themselves for collaborating in it. Framing the mutual distrust of the generations as a structural problem, it helped adults forgive their maddening kids and explained to kids why they were so mad. It made its readers feel smart. “I have nothing subtle or novel to say in this book; these are the things that everybody knows,” Goodman avers.
In fact, with Growing Up Absurd, Goodman had written one of those books—like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—that articulate something on the tip of the culture’s tongue, something people know but cannot say, which as soon as it is said becomes so obvious that everyone thinks they thought of it themselves. This was one of Goodman’s “irresistible” gifts, according to his friend and literary executor Taylor Stoehr. “As if in a dialogue with Socrates, you felt you were in touch with your own wisdom, like a kind of memory, for the very first time,” Stoehr writes in the preface to Drawing the Line Once Again, a collection of Goodman’s anarchist writings. This gift may also be a reason Goodman got so little credit. But it was not the only reason.
Goodman considered himself a misunderstood and neglected genius. “Though I have faith that there is a world for me, I am foreign in it, I cannot communicate my needs, I do not share the customs, I am inept,” he wrote late in his life. Yet misunderstood and neglected geniuses are generally not cast out only for the untimely brilliance of their would-be contributions.
Goodman was a hard guy to like. Acquaintances described him as arrogant, self-absorbed, and sexually unremitting. When he wasn’t coming on—to women and men (mostly men); old and young (mostly young); sailors, waiters, and college presidents—he was talking about it. “He was so goddamn proud of his prick,” Grace Paley notes, visibly unimpressed, in Lee’s film.
Goodman longed for praise, yet could let no positive mention of himself pass without correction. “I am touched by Allen Ginsberg’s friendly notices of me in his Playboy interview,” began a typical letter to the editor. “I am not so happy, however, with some of my club-members in his lists of good guys.” When a letter arrived from CBS in 1963 proposing a documentary on him, Goodman thanked the producer for the invitation—then plunged into a screed on the corruptness of television. Unsurprisingly, no second letter from CBS, and no documentary, followed.
The modernist literary establishment welcomed him. In 1949 New Directions published his stories in a prestigious series alongside Nabokov and William Carlos Williams. Yet he was insensate to the art of his contemporaries (among his pans: Ginsberg’s “Howl” and jazz in general). He at first reveled in the attention of the young activists who sat at his feet—in 1958 he called them “my crazy young allies”—but by 1969, in New Reformation, he was slamming them: “They do not sound like Isaac Newton,” he wrote, “more a mob of monkeys.”
He could not even pull off an unambiguous plug for a friend. In an introduction to a book of essays by fellow pacifist, anarchist, and queer David McReynolds, Goodman praised the author’s “vigorous English” prose, his moral steadfastness, his refusal “to subordinate the embarrassing fact of his humanity [read: his homosexuality] to his societal role”—virtues that made McReynolds “a statesman, whereas most of the others are just politicians.” Goodman meant it all, but he had stinkier fish to fry: “There is plenty of lack of wisdom in the writing of Dave McReynolds.” Etcetera.
When CBS proposed a documentary on him, Goodman plunged into a screed on television’s corruptness.
It would be wrong, however, to see Goodman as simply a nasty and self-destructive neurotic. For one thing, he wasn’t only that. He was frequently generous to his friends, sweet to his lovers, and, in spite of his extramarital adventures, a devoted husband (his second wife, Sally, had other lovers, too). He was tender to his three children and took them seriously as people.
Besides, Goodman was not just a private person. He was a public intellectual, and in public his best self shined. In photographs and film clips he is tousled and intense; he listens, he is learned but plainspoken—a boyish wise man. Qualities that could make him a repellent person, moreover, made him a compelling writer and thinker.
If he acted the know-it-all, it is because he was a true polymath: literary critic, city planner, psychologist, educator, political activist. In an era of circumscribed disciplines and modest reforms, Goodman strove for radical change—in everything.
His inability to shut up, a thorn to his friends, was a bayonet against deserving enemies. Asked to address the National Security Industrial Association in Washington in 1967, the same week Vietnam War protesters marched on the Pentagon, he refused to play the gracious guest. Instead, he delivered a long, furious excoriation. “You are . . . the most dangerous body of men at present in the world,” he told his hosts, “for you not only implement our disastrous policies but are an overwhelming lobby for them, and you expand and rigidify the wrong use of brains, resources, and labor so that change becomes difficult.” On his assigned subject, planning, he offered this advice: “The best service that you people could perform is rather rapidly to phase yourselves out.”
Goodman’s moral purity was no doubt tiresome to those who were its targets. “If you play the game, go to the right parties, talk to the right people and review books in the right way, then you get the patronage,” he told Victor Navasky of the New York Intellectual circle in 1966, implying that if he had no patron it was because he would kiss no one’s ass. But his integrity extended to far more important things than his own career. A pacifist, Goodman declared his conscientious objection to World War II, which probably spelled the beginning of the end of his place in that circle. By the 1950s many of his old comrades were turning rightward; some became apologists for McCarthyism. Goodman would have no part of it. When “bourgeois” became an epithet among the young ’60s radicals who lionized him, Goodman extolled the “old-fashioned” virtues. In Growing Up Absurd he even puts in a brief for shame. And again his commitment to nonviolence alienated him from would-be allies: far-left calls for armed revolution repulsed him.
Call it rigidity. It was also spine. “Although he was often eccentrically dogmatic,” Friedenberg wrote, “Goodman was usually right.”
So Paul Goodman was full of himself, he wouldn’t take yes for an answer, and he propositioned everyone who crossed his path. Nu? Overweening self-regard, combativeness, and sexual opportunism practically defined the male Jewish intellectual of Goodman’s generation. (I know: my father was one.) He was also among the most original, expansive political thinkers of his generation. Why did he suffer so long in obscurity and emerge so briefly?
Not to oversimplify, but what finally did Goodman in may have been the one thing he could not have compromised even had he wanted to: his sexuality. Like plenty of other professors—he had gigs at Black Mountain College, the University of Chicago, and other institutions—he slept with his students, but his student lovers were boys, so he got fired for it, three times. His queerness obviously made his straight colleagues nervous, or worse. In a 1978 Commentary article revising his earlier admiration of Goodman, the cultural critic Joseph Epstein not only discredits the writing but also reviles the sexual life. He quotes at especial length the sexual passages of Five Years, refers to “the aggressiveness of Goodman’s homosexuality” and his “homosexual escapades,” and sums him up as “politically difficult, sexually impossible.” Epstein was an outspoken homophobe and by this time a conservative, like his editor, Podhoretz. But could such intimate slander have seen print had the subject been straight? And this was 1978. How did these men feel in 1958? Here’s a hint: in an adoring tribute, also published in 1978, the educator and writer Michael Rossman confesses ruefully that decades earlier he’d found the “forthrightness about homosexuality” in Goodman’s novels “unsettling . . . an extraneous aberration.”
Queerness pushed Goodman to the edges, and, for that reason, queerness was at the core of his politics. His democratic sexual tastes made him reject aristocracies of any kind. Police harassment confirmed his libertarianism. His deepest, most vital self trivialized at best, hated at worst, he was the visceral brother of all who were oppressed. His utopianism was erotic: he believed sexual freedom begat a good society and vice versa. Had Goodman lived longer, I like to think, he would have come to embrace that other sexy utopian movement, feminism.
“As a rule I don’t believe in poverty and suffering as a way of learning anything, but in my case the hardship and starvation of my inept queer life have usefully simplified my notions of what a good society is,” Goodman wrote in 1969, in one of his most personal, beautiful essays, “The Politics of Being Queer.”
As with any other addict who cannot get an easy fix, they have kept me in close touch with material hunger. So I cannot take the Gross National Product very seriously, nor status and credentials, nor grandiose technological solutions, nor ideological politics, including ideological liberation movements. . . . I have learned to have very modest goals for society and myself: things like clean air, green grass, children with bright eyes, not being pushed around, useful work that suits one’s abilities, plain tasty food, and occasional satisfying nookie.
All practicable, all difficult. He never gave up desiring any of it.
A utopian is by definition always failing, a radical always marginal. A queer worth his salt has no use for normalcy. Paul Goodman’s refusal to be acceptable made him difficult to love. It also made him dear and necessary. He felt himself a foreigner everywhere, yet cleaved passionately to the world. “The society I live in is mine,” he declared, “open to my voice and action, or I do not live there at all.” It is past time to let him in.
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
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