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Free Radical

The documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life profiles the forgotten, prolific, and bisexual New York Intellectual who inspired the 1960s New Left

Jacob Silverman
October 19, 2011
Paul Goodman in New York.(Sam Falk for the New York Times; from Paul Goodman Changed My Life)
Paul Goodman in New York.(Sam Falk for the New York Times; from Paul Goodman Changed My Life)

In the 1940s and ’50s, the writer Paul Goodman struck a peculiar figure in the world of the New York Intellectuals. With a corncob pipe, horn-rimmed glasses, ever-furrowed brow, mop of brown hair, and sharp iceberg of a nose, he didn’t look to be much out of place. (Geoffrey Rush could play him in a biopic.) But Goodman was also openly bisexual, a fiercely independent spirit whose commitment to democratic values and sympathy for young people’s concerns made him an oracle to the New Left. Though largely forgotten today—most of his more than 40 books are out of print—Goodman was not only a seminal figure in 1960s radicalism but also one of the country’s most galvanizing social critics, a minor celebrity, a novelist, poet and avant-garde dramatist, and a stirring orator. He may also have been a kind of genius.

This year marks the centennial of Goodman’s birth. And while a few of his books have trickled back into print, there will be little fanfare to commemorate the life of one of the 1960s’ most important cultural-political figures. That’s why Paul Goodman Changed My Life, a documentary directed by Jonathan Lee that begins a two-week run at Film Forum in New York on October 19, is a welcome event.

Lee’s film is an attempt to restore Goodman’s place in the public consciousness. Its title reflects the formative influence Goodman had on figures ranging from Grace Paley to Michael Walzer. It also indicates that this film is intellectual history with a human face. Like its subject, Paul Goodman Changed My Life makes little distinction between the personal and the political; rather, it finds that the two can be intimately connected, sometimes with doleful consequences.

Born on Sept. 9, 1911, in Greenwich Village, Paul Goodman was the last of three children. His father had run off to South America with another woman before Paul was born. At home, Goodman’s father was never spoken of—there wasn’t even a photograph—and his departure left the family destitute. Still, Paul proved a good student, attending Hebrew school and later graduating first in his class at Townsend Harris High School. Afterward, he enrolled at City College, then becoming known as the “Proletarian Harvard,” where he memorized the work of Catullus and studied with the pragmatist philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen.

In 1936, following a stint as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp, Goodman enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. (The summer-camp experience provided inspiration for his novel The Breakup of Our Camp, which would later be praised by Susan Sontag.) He was kicked out of Chicago three years later, reportedly because of problems with his sexuality. Goodman, openly bisexual in a time when such things were rarely tolerated, much less spoken of, was omnivorous in his sexual appetites. He remained married to his wife, Sally, for many years, but “he made passes at everybody,” as we’re told in Paul Goodman Changed My Life. After Chicago, Goodman was fired from his next two teaching jobs, for similar reasons.

The film is particularly astute on the subject of Goodman’s sexuality. We are given a portrait of Goodman as both sexually liberated and personally flawed. His simultaneous devotion to his wife and his search for fleeting liaisons among working-class men made for a complicated identity. As in other aspects of his life, this defiant individualism—grasping for experience wherever it might be found—left him between two stools.

Goodman wrote in nearly every form—poems, plays, novels, short stories, nonfiction—and on numerous subjects, including sociology, urban planning, psychology, linguistics, education, Jewish theology, and literature. Even his poems were remarkably diverse, ranging from sonnets to haiku, prayers to verse drama. (In the documentary, several noted writers, including Edmund White, read from Goodman poems.) A committed generalist, he liked the title “man of letters” or the loftier “artist-humanist,” and he often devoted himself to wildly divergent projects. In 1947 he published both a volume of literary criticism, Kafka’s Prayer, and a book about urban planning, Communitas, which he co-wrote with his older brother, Percival Goodman, who eventually became perhaps the most prominent architect of synagogues in the United States.

Goodman knew all the New York Intellectuals—though some, owing to his politics or sexuality, resented him—and wrote for their periodicals: Dissent, Commentary, The Nation, Partisan Review, and the like. He socialized with Frank O’Hara and Wilhelm Reich, James Baldwin and Harold Rosenberg. In his later years, he split his time between New York and a farmhouse in New Hampshire.

Despite his prolific output and eminent associations, Goodman, perhaps because he shied away from most universities—he hated bureaucratic, centrally managed organizations—spent most of the 1940s and ’50s in near-poverty, struggling to support his wife and children. For 10 years, he worked as a therapist, founding a new discipline, gestalt therapy, which he developed with Frederick S. Perls, a German-born psychiatrist, in a book that they co-wrote.

Although he wrote and published widely during this time, it wasn’t until 1960 that Goodman found a foothold in popular culture. That was the year that he published Growing Up Absurd, an attack on public education, corporatism, government, and the growing disaffection of American youth, primarily young men. With its subtitle, “Problems of Youth in the Organized System,” and its respectful attitude toward the concerns of young people, Growing Up Absurd became a bible for the nascent hippie generation, a work that was passed around college dorms as a kind of sacrament.

Growing Up Absurd brought Goodman firmly into the public eye—Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan—and back from the brink of impoverished despair. Finally, his ideas began moving from the more cloistered world of intellectual journals and into the wider realm of public discourse. He was in demand as an activist, speaker, and commentator on any number of topics, appearing alongside figures like Stokely Carmichael and Allen Ginsberg.

With U.S. involvement growing in Vietnam, Goodman became a galvanizing presence at rallies and debates. With his son, Matthew, then a student at Cornell, he organized burnings of draft cards. (The documentary shows Matthew holding a sign touting the fact that he had never even registered for the draft.) Goodman eventually earned a reputation as a father of the New Left, although, in reference to his own refusal to be of any clique or party, he called himself “a Dutch uncle to the young.” Still, the SDS and the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley sought him out for counsel. He was, like others of his ilk, a target of FBI surveillance.

Goodman seemed to be everywhere—in journals and bookstores, in the streets and on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. (Buckley introduced him as “everything but a basketball player.”) His fans were legion, particularly among the intellectual class: Adrienne Rich admired his poetry; Grace Paley, who met Goodman through the Greenwich Village Peace Center, lauded his short stories; George Steiner called him “brilliant”; for Sontag, he was “hard to classify” but resembled Emerson; John Judis has compared him to Thoreau.

Beside his sheer industry, Goodman’s genius was best represented in his ability to combine a far-sighted utopianism with a concerted pragmatism. He was neither dreamer nor policy wonk but a bracing fusion of the two. He took pride in this amalgamated identity, titling one of his books Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals. When he argued for a radical reformation of New York City’s public schools—he proposed creating hundreds of 25-student schools, each one staffed by four teachers—he showed up at a Board of Education meeting with a detailed budget, including an explanation of how much money would be saved.

The proposal was radically quixotic, but that was the point: to both offer a fantastical re-envisioning of a broken system and to explain how it might be implemented in practice. Similarly, in a 1961 Dissent essay, “Banning Cars From Manhattan,” he and his brother, Percival, proposed just that, almost 50 years before Mayor Michael Bloomberg put forward his plan for congestion pricing. The essay mirrored ideas that the Goodman brothers had laid out 14 years earlier in Communitas.

The unusual dichotomy between the fantastical and the practical is essential to understanding Goodman’s politics. Unlike many of his colleagues, he did not identify as socialist or communist. He preferred the labels “Jeffersonian anarchist” or “community anarchist.” A committed pacifist, he cited the 19th-century Russian anarchist and polymath Pyotr Kropotkin as an important influence, along with Wordsworth, the Tang poet Du Fu, Freud, and Gandhi.

Goodman’s anarchism manifested itself in the promotion of small-scale, direct action. Seeing large organizations as inherently dehumanizing, he also had some of the atavism of classic libertarianism, arguing for policies that would protect and promote the freedom and health of the individual. There is, too, a transcendental strain in his utopianism, a call to envision greatly while working for practical, incremental change.

Despite all this, Goodman believed adamantly in community—in Paul Goodman Changed My Life the concept is cited as his central tenet—but in community divorced from centralized control, bureaucratic interference, or suffocating regimentation. To that end, while he saw education as essential—and wrote in defense of science, technology, philosophy, the whole of the “Western tradition”—most formalized schooling struck him as drastically misconceived, conformist, in thrall to corporations, and bourgeois.

Unlike many Marxists, he didn’t see capitalism as inherently damaging but rather argued that the American brand of capitalism could be reformed. In Goodman’s view, citizens should be asking ourselves how to make work spiritually meaningful and ethically sound, how to make sense of our overwhelming abundance and technological mastery.

Despite his central place in the tumult of 1960s politics, Goodman was no revolutionary, and his idiosyncratic attitudes and gadfly nature made it difficult for him to retain his place as a guru to the student movement. Warning against the seduction of abstractions, he argued for precision and concerted action, not the dreamy prospects of revolution. He also opposed drug use—he was more Tolstoy than Ginsberg—and was disturbed by the student movement’s increasingly violent behavior. Unlike some leftists of the time, he never endorsed Ho Chi Minh’s government, nor did he support Castro’s Cuba.

By the late ’60s, Goodman was being heckled at some events. In 1970, he published a volume of essays titled New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative. Some took its pugnacious title as a deliberate move to distance himself from the movements that had sprung, at least in part, from his own writings but that he could no longer identify with.

But the most consequential event in Goodman’s life during this time had little to do with politics. In 1967, while climbing a mountain in New Hampshire, Matthew Goodman, Paul’s only son, fell and died. Goodman was devastated by his son’s death—the documentary shows them as having a deep bond, if not an overtly emotional one—and he never got over it. His third heart attack killed him in 1972, at the age of 60.

Despite his emphasis on community, Goodman was haunted by feelings of loneliness. For years, he would write in the morning and then go cruising along the Manhattan waterfront—in his words, “looking for love where it cannot be found”—before returning to his family at night. His promiscuity strained his marriage. His outspokenness and refusal to compromise—Jonathan Lee called Goodman “a congenital critic”—pushed away natural allies. Although he had an active social life and knew many prominent writers and activists, he often wrote in his journal of feeling lonely.

Paul Goodman, like Moses, pointed the way to a profoundly envisioned promised land without ever seeing it himself. Although such a varied life cannot be fully represented in 90 minutes, Jonathan Lee’s soulful documentary makes for a fine point of entry. Paul Goodman Changed My Life testifies to the limits of Goodman’s brilliance and to the tragic ease with which our own culture dispenses with such unclassifiable figures.

Jacob Silverman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and book critic. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Jacob Silverman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and book critic. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.