The incredible shrinking legacy of a 1960s culture hero
By Kerry Howley
Almost everything written about Paul Goodman refers to him as a “man of letters,” a designation interesting only in that it indicates a terrific triumph of self-branding. Goodman very much enjoyed calling himself a man of letters, or sometimes an “old-fashioned man of letters,” so stated with an air of declinist resignation, and could be counted on to complain if described as anything less. He produced essays with titles like “The Present Plight of a Man of Letters,” the gist of which was that the plight was rather taxing, and that they don’t make ’em like Paul Goodman anymore.
Perhaps they don’t. Few today would call themselves playwright, poet, novelist, urban planner, media critic, classicist, activist, and primary-education expert, though it is Goodman’s insistent sexuality that places him so singularly in the 1960s. Too disruptive to be long attached to any university or institution, Goodman is principally remembered as the author of Growing Up Absurd (1960) and as a cantankerous Jewish intellectual of the New Left. There was a time when he was everywhere, often as one among many in some literary salon, occasionally playing the role of leading man. On a 1966 episode of Firing Line, a deadpan Bill Buckley introduced Goodman as an “a bisexualist, a poverty cultist, an anarchist.” Shrouded in ribbons of pipe smoke, ruffled like a runaway child, he objected—mildly—to “poverty cultist” before proceeding to argue for the abolition of public schools.
I saw that Firing Line bit in a trailer for a 2010 documentary called Paul Goodman Changed My Life, produced by Jonathan Lee and populated with reverent souls who feel he has been unjustly forgotten. The man did, after all, hang around plenty of people—Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Grace Paley—better served by historical memory. Susan Sontag called Goodman “our Sartre,” though he was unfailingly rude to her, civility never having been his strong point. The anarchist Dwight Macdonald reports that at parties Goodman would scout the crowd for “young fans” and “bathe in their naïve adulation,” while spurning the company of everyone his own age.
Gracious guest or otherwise, Goodman was someone you invited to your party, just as you sought his presence at your protest and asked him to speechify at your sit-in. To consort with the author of Growing Up Absurd was to suggest that you, too, were your own person, beholden to no convention, tied to no tired establishment consensus. Said to be the only book regularly quoted by UC Berkeley protesters during the free-speech movement, Growing Up Absurd inspired fierce gratitude in university students of the ’60s, who took the attack on the “organized system” to be an intellectual defense of their rebellion. To the charge that disaffected youth simply needed better socialization, a fifty-year-old Goodman asked, “Socialization to what?” To ten hours a day with a sloganeering team of corporate puppets? To participation in the “world-wide demented enterprise” known as the American military? Having failed to justify their ways to young men, Goodman argued, grown-ups had cultivated the very anomie they so loudly lamented.
Students eventually turned on Goodman, perhaps because they made the mistake of actually reading, rather than simply quoting, Growing Up Absurd
and found its normative view of a meaningful life unduly constrained.
But what they initially saw, and quite rightly admired, was a man who
refused to accept life’s choices as they were given. Asked to choose
between a war-addicted democratic establishment and Soviet Communism,
Goodman chose anarchism. Asked to choose between men and women, he
elected to marry twice—while continuing to proposition attractive young
men. Asked to give a talk to the National Security Industrial
Association in the State Department auditorium, a forum in which even
most antiwar types might begin with some pretense of courtesy, Goodman
chose to address his crowd as “you people”:
You people are unfitted by your commitments, your experience, your customary methods, your recruitment, and your moral disposition. You are the military industrial of the United States, the most dangerous body of men at the present in the world, 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. Most likely the trends you represent will be interrupted by a shambles of riots, alienation, ecological catastrophes, wars, and revolutions, so that current long-range planning, including this conference, is irrelevant.
As a libertarian in unlibertarian times, Goodman feared war, bureaucracy, and what he called “acquiescence to the social machine.” Process is a verb one comes across frequently in Goodman’s writing. Governments process full-bodied humans into soldiers; corporations process them into personnel. Public schools process children into obedient cogs. Individual initiative, he believed, was nearly always wasted, and technocracy threatened to waste it ever more expeditiously in the service of the state. The town meeting championed by Thomas Jefferson and the kind of mutual exchange championed by Adam Smith were, in his view, beautiful instances of human flourishing, but both the market and the government had become so complex that individuals were lost, squandered, processed. Everything, Goodman was fond of saying, had sprawled beyond “human scale.”
Goodman had a lot of ideas, dozens and dozens of books full of ideas, about how to reclaim human life from the haze of bureaucratic abstraction. Many of these verged on the crackpot—though when Goodman gave up prescribing and stuck merely to describing, he could articulate a clear-eyed vision of a life well lived. Somewhere he describes a decent community as one in which a crazy old lady can wander the neighborhood without fear of being put away, which is as good a description as I have read. He longed to replace process with emotion: more fistfights, more orgasms, more draft cards lit afire in a show of public rage. Most everyone, he thought, could benefit from more casual sex, especially adolescents, who suffered from “excessive stimulation and inadequate discharge.”
In service of this point, he regularly seduced his male students and proudly admitted as much. He would, as the composer Ned Rorem tells it in the film, make “passes at literally everybody. I mean everybody—men and women and people’s mothers and the president of the university.” The essay “Being Queer” is, if anything, more subversive today than it was in 1969 when Goodman wrote it, declaring that the teacher-student relationship is inherently erotic in character and that anonymous sex is a healthy pursuit. “Although I wish I could have had my parties with less apprehension and more unhurriedly,” he writes, “yet it has been an advantage to learn that the ends of docks, the backs of trucks, back alleys, behind the stairs, abandoned bunkers on the beach, and the washrooms of trains are all adequate samples of all the space there is. For both bad and good, homosexual life retains some of the alarm and excitement of childish sexuality. It is damaging for societies to check any spontaneous vitality. Sometimes it is necessary, but rarely; and certainly not homosexual acts which, so far as I have heard, have never done any harm to anybody.”
The anarchist-friendly publisher PM Press has reissued a number of books authored by Goodman—an indiscretion that his fans have long feared. “Certainly,” wrote critic Kingsley Widmer in his 1980 book on Goodman, “a complete collected works could only be an embarrassing exposure before entombing.”
Either more or less kindly, Mailer compared “the literary experience of encountering Goodman’s style” to “the journeys one undertook in the company of a laundry bag.” Judging by New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative (1970), Drawing the Line Once Again: Paul Goodman’s Anarchist Writings, and The Paul Goodman Reader, plodding through Goodman is considerably less fun than that. When he comes across an interestingly subversive thought, he takes it prisoner, interrogates it endlessly, and tortures the joy out of its expression, leaving it so disfigured as to be unrecognizable to all but the most patient reader. Out of concern less for Goodman’s reputation than for the future of American letters—bad prose is catching—I cannot recommend cracking a single spine from among these works, which include plodding, bafflingly structured essays, tin-eared poetry, and didactic plays. Better to read others on Goodman—rarely in history has such a long list of luminaries come together to apologize for a single body of work.
“Though he was not often graceful as a writer,” Sontag observed in tribute, “his writing and his mind were touched with grace.”
The opening essay in New Reformation takes as its subject the perversion of scientific discovery by government, for example in the Manhattan Project. By turns maddeningly vague and pointlessly specific, the piece begins with a dry description of some then-recent university protests, proceeds to the surprising observation that “for three hundred years, science and scientific technology had an unblemished and justified reputation as a wonderful adventure,” identifies technology as a “branch of moral philosophy, not of science,” and goes on to demand that technologists get into the business of telling people when to renounce their infatuation with technology, as with the overabundance of cars. Space exploration is encouraged (“It must be pursued”). “A complicated system,” we learn, “works most efficiently if its parts readjust themselves decentrally”—though then again, “usually there is an advantage in a central clearinghouse of information about the gross total situation.” All told, “the most efficient use of Big Science technology for the general health would be to have compulsory biennial check-ups”—though more tonsillitis cases, it is suggested, should be treated in the home. Also: “A question of immense importance for the immediate future is: Which functions should be automated or organized to use business machines, and which should not?” The remaining third of the essay draws a painful analogy to the Protestant Reformation, with tangential references to the “dissident young” and their inability to focus on “the underlying issues of modern times.”
Goodman’s most passionately held positions—his distrust of the “hidden government” composed of the CIA and FBI, his refusal to trust any party when it came to waging war or safeguarding civil liberties—have, in the abstract, held up very well. But in their execution, his arguments are strangely mimetic of his greatest anxiety—the dissolution of good will under conditions of unmanageable complexity, the ever-growing distance between good intentions and their consequences. The aforementioned essay wants to make a point about the simple romance of human discovery and the way sclerotic institutions pervert that romance. Instead of gently bringing life to the idea, Goodman lurches forward and processes the thought out of existence. He comes across a sun-burnished clementine, disappears into his office, and emerges with a lukewarm glass of SunnyD.
New Reformation records Goodman’s break with the student movement—he found college kids increasingly ignorant and ideologically brittle, and they found him excessively bourgeois. But the views he expresses in the book are little different from those he belabored a decade before in Growing Up Absurd. He was never so much supporting university students as psychologizing them, attempting to diagnose what he took to be their monstrous alienation from modern life. In various works, he describes Beat poetry as incompetent, On the Road as artless, and hipsters as the detritus of a civilization bereft of meaning. (If today’s student population can learn anything from reading Goodman, it’s that hipster-hating precedes them by many years.) In New Reformation, he refers to the students’ music as “terribly loud.”
Is this the Goodman who mattered? That he was never the genius some took him to be is obvious from a look at any one of these works. He was a guy who wore a lot of tweed, smoked a corncob pipe, and played the part of a serious man. His rumpled outline and earnest demeanor met with some notion of how a public intellectual ought to look, how he ought to behave, what dark soulful depths he ought to plumb while staring meaningfully into the distance. And for a number of people, several of them interviewed for the documentary, Goodman’s thoughts converged with their own vague misgivings and validated their refusal to accept the world as it was given them. “I was living in a small Texas town,” says a Goodman admirer named Jerl Surratt as he recalls his first encounter with the man’s work. “And if I stayed in Texas it just wasn’t going to work for me, I had to break away. Paul Goodman was someone who helped strengthen that resolve in me, that ambition.” By the time Goodman died, Surratt was already in New York: “I’d read that there was going to be a memorial service. And to be sitting there with his family and people who had also known him intimately, who were men, was a very moving experience, and reinforced for me that I’d made the right decision. I was in a city where these things were possible. Where a life like this could be led.”
The sentiment is not Surratt’s alone. The most rewarding bit of Drawing the Line Once Again turns out to be editor Taylor Stoehr’s introductory reminiscence. Stoehr relates how he found in Goodman a man who had found “another way to live,” a man whose refusal to conform could shock a young mind back into its best instincts. Here was “an attitude toward life and the world” that got “into your own bones” and left you transformed. “As if in dialogue with Socrates,” he writes, “you felt you were in touch with your own wisdom, like a kind of memory, for the very first time.”
Socrates, you will recall, never wrote anything down, while Goodman, in lieu of electing a Plato from among his admirers, spent a lifetime anxiously asserting himself as a writer first and an eccentric second.
It is no small thing to have been so consistently contrary to the social and intellectual sweep of one’s time. But if it is simply as a man of letters that we must remember Goodman, we won’t remember him at all.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor of the literary magazine Defunct and an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa.