Paul Goodman

Paul Goodman (1911–1972) was an American author and public intellectual best known for his 1960s works of social criticism. Born to a Jewish family in New York City, Goodman was raised by his aunts and sister and attended City College of New York. As an aspiring writer, he wrote and published poems and fiction before attending graduate school in Chicago. He returned to writing in New York City and took sporadic magazine writing and teaching jobs, many of which he lost for his outward bisexuality and World War II draft resistance. Goodman discovered anarchism and wrote for libertarian journals. He became one of the founders of Gestalt therapy and took patients through the 1950s while continuing to write prolifically. His 1960 book of social criticism, Growing Up Absurd, established his importance as a mainstream cultural theorist. Goodman became known as "the philosopher of the New Left" and his anarchistic disposition was influential in 1960s counterculture and free school movement. His celebrity did not endure far beyond his life, but Goodman is remembered for his principles, outré proposals, and vision of human potential.

Paul Goodman
Born(1911-09-09)September 9, 1911
DiedAugust 2, 1972(1972-08-02) (aged 60)
Alma materCity College of New York, University of Chicago
OccupationWriter, teacher
Years active1941–1972
Known forSocial criticism, fiction
Notable work
Growing Up Absurd, Communitas, Gestalt Therapy


Paul Goodman was born in New York City on September 9, 1911, to Augusta and Barnette Goodman.[1] His Sephardic Jewish ancestors had emigrated to New York from Germany a century before the Eastern European wave.[2] His grandfather had fought in the American Civil War[3] and the family was "relatively prosperous".[2] Goodman's insolvent father abandoned the family prior to his birth, making Paul their fourth and last child, after Alice (1902–1969) and Percival (1904).[1][4] Their mother worked as a women's clothes traveling saleswoman, which left Goodman to be raised mostly by his aunts and sister in New York City's[1] Washington Heights with petty bourgeois values.[2] He attended Hebrew school and the city's public schools, where he excelled and came to identify with Manhattan.[1] Goodman performed well in literature and languages during his time at Townsend Harris Hall High School and graduated in 1927. He started at City College of New York the same year, where he majored in philosophy, was influenced by philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen, and found both lifelong friends and his intellectual social circle. He graduated with a bachelor's in 1931, early in the Great Depression.[1]

As an aspiring writer, Goodman wrote and published poems, essays, stories, and a play while living with his sister Alice, who supported him.[5] He did not keep a regular job,[1] but read scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[6] and taught drama at a Zionist youth camp during the summers 1934 through 1936.[1] Unable to afford tuition, Goodman audited graduate classes at Columbia University and traveled to some classes at Harvard University.[7] When Columbia philosophy professor Richard McKeon moved to the University of Chicago, he invited Goodman to attend and lecture.[7] Between 1936 and 1940, Goodman was a graduate student in literature and philosophy, a research assistant, and part-time instructor. He took his preliminary exams in 1940,[1] but was forced out for "nonconformist sexual behavior", a charge that would recur multiple times in his teaching career.[7] Goodman was married and an active, out, and open bisexual by this part of his life.[1]

Homesick[5] and absent his doctorate degree, Goodman returned to writing in New York City,[7] where he was affiliated with the literary avant-garde. Goodman worked on his dissertation, though it would take 14 years to publish. Unable to find work as a teacher,[5] he reviewed films in Partisan Review and in the next two years, published his first book of poetry (1941) and novel (The Grand Piano, 1942).[7] He taught at Manumit, a progressive boarding school, in 1943 and 1944, but was let go for "homosexual behavior".[8] Partisan Review too removed Goodman for his bisexuality and draft resistance advocacy.[7] (Goodman was deferred and rejected from the World War II draft.[8]) His exploration of anarchism led him to publish in the libertarian journals of New York's Why? Group and Dwight Macdonald's Politics.[7][8] Goodman's collected anarchist essays from this period, "The May Pamphlet", undergird the libertarian social criticism he would pursue for the rest of his life.[7]

Gestalt therapy

Aside from anarchism, the late-40s marked Goodman's expansion into psychoanalytic therapy and urban planning.[9] In 1945, Goodman started a second common law marriage that would last until his death.[8] Apart from teaching gigs at New York University night school and a summer at Black Mountain College, the family lived in poverty on his wife's salary.[5] By 1946, Goodman was a popular yet "marginal" figure in New York bohemia and he began to participate in psychoanalytic therapy.[8] Through contact with Wilhelm Reich, he began a self-psychoanalysis.[5] Around the same time, Goodman and his brother, the architect Percival, wrote Communitas (1947). It argued that rural and urban living had not been functionally integrated and became known as a major work of urban planning following Goodman's eventual celebrity.[10]

After reading an article by Goodman on Reich, Fritz and Lore Perls contacted Goodman and began a friendship that yielded the Gestalt therapy movement. Goodman wrote the theoretical chapter of their co-written Gestalt Therapy (1951).[5] In the early 1950s, he continued with his psychoanalytic sessions and began his own occasional practice.[8] He continued in this occupation through 1960,[8] taking patients, running groups, and leading classes at the Gestalt Therapy Institutes.[11]

During this psychoanalytic period, Goodman continued to consider himself foremost an artist and wrote prolifically even as his lack of wider recognition weathered his resolve.[5] Before starting with Gestalt therapy, Goodman published the novel State of Nature, the book of anarchist and aesthetic essays Art and Social Nature, and the academic book Kafka's Prayer. He spent 1948 and 1949 writing in New York and published The Break-Up of Our Camp, stories from his experience working at summer camp.[8] He also continued to write and published two novels: the 1950 The Dead of Spring and the 1951 Parent's Day.[8] He returned to his writing and therapy practice in New York City in 1951[8] and received his Ph.D. in 1954 from the University of Chicago, which published his dissertation, The Structure of Literature, the same year.[4] Throughout the late 1950s, Goodman continued to publish in journals including Commentary, Dissent, Liberation (for which he became an unofficial editor[12]), and The Kenyon Review. The Living Theatre staged his theatrical work. Goodman's epic novel, The Empire City, was published in 1959.[8] This work brought little money or fame.[12]

Social criticism

Goodman's 1960 study of alienated youth in America, Growing Up Absurd, established his importance as a mainstream cultural theorist and pillar of leftist thought during the counterculture.[4] The book of social criticism book assured the young that they were right to feel disaffected from growing up into a society without meaningful community, spirit, sex, or work.[13] He proposed alternatives in topics across the humanist spectrum from family, school, and work, through media, political activism, psychotherapy, quality of life, racial justice, and religion. In contrast to contemporaneous mores, Goodman praised traditional, simple values, such as honor, faith, and vocation, and the humanist history of art and heroes as providing hope for a more meaningful society. Goodman's frank vindications and outsider credentials resonated with the young. Throughout the sixties, Goodman would direct his work towards them.[13]

Goodman became known as "the philosopher of the New Left".[3] While he continued to write for "little magazines", Goodman now reached mainstream audiences and began to make money. Multiple publishers were engaged in reissuing his books, reclaiming his backlog of unpublished fiction, and publishing his new social commentary. He continued to publish at least a book a year for the rest of his life,[12] including critiques of education (The Community of Scholars and Compulsory Miseducation), a treatise on decentralization (People or Personnel), a "memoir-novel" (Making Do), and collections of poetry, sketch stories, and previous articles.[14] He produced a collection of critical broadcasts he had given in Canada as Like a Conquered Province.[14] His books from this period influenced the free university and free school movements.[15]

Goodman taught in a variety of academic institutions. He was the Institute for Policy Studies's first visiting scholar before serving multiple semester-long university appointments[12] in New York, London, and Hawaii.[16] While continuing to lecture, Goodman participated in the 1960s counterculture war protests and draft resistance,[14] including the first mass draft-card burning.[15] Goodman spoke regularly on campuses and discussed tactics with students.[12] He flew out to Berkeley at the start of the Free Speech Movement, which he identified as anarchist in character,[12] and became the first San Francisco State College professor to be hired by students.[15] Goodman's son, a Cornell University student, was also active in draft resistance and was under investigation by the FBI before his accidental mountaineering death in 1967,[17] which launched Goodman into a prolonged depression.[14]

Towards the end of the decade, Goodman used his media stature to encourage Americans to reclaim Jeffersonian anarchism as their heritage. Radical vanguards, who interpreted this as an attempt to stifle their revolutionarism, began to heckle and vilify Goodman. This reaction didn't affect Goodman (who normally thrived in polemics) as much as the movement's turn to insurrectionary politics, with which he disagreed.[17] In the early 70s, Goodman wrote works that summarized his experience, such as New Reformation and Little Prayers & Finite Experience.[18] His health began to fail due to a heart condition, and he died of a heart attack in New Hampshire on August 2, 1972. His in-progress works (Little Prayers and Collected Poems) were published posthumously.[14]

Literary works

Though he was prolific across many literary forms and topical categories,[19] as a humanist, he thought of his writing as serving one common subject—"the organism and the environment"—and one common, pragmatic aim: that the writing should effect a change.[4] Indeed, Goodman's poetry, fiction, drama, literary criticism, urban planning, psychological, cultural, and educational theory addressed the theme of the individual citizen's duties in the larger society, especially the responsibility to exercise free action and creativity.[4] While his fiction and poetry was noted in his time, following Growing Up Absurd's success, he diverted his attention from literature and spent his final decade pursuing the social and cultural criticism that today forms the basis of his legacy.[4]


Regular themes in Goodman's work include education, "return to the land", community, civil planning, decentralization and self-regulation, civil liberties, and peace.[20] Goodman's oeuvre addressed humanism broadly across multiple disciplines and sociopolitical topics including the arts, civil rights, decentralization, democracy, education, ethics, media, technology, and war.[21] When criticized for prioritizing breadth over depth, Goodman would reply that his interests did not break neatly into disciplines and that his works concerned the common topics of human nature and community as derived from his concrete experience.[22]


External audio
Goodman's 1966 Massey Lecture on a decent society, useful technology, rural reconstruction, and American democracy

Goodman was most famous as a political thinker and social critic.[3] Following his ascent with Growing Up Absurd (1960), his books spoke to young radicals, whom he encouraged to reclaim Thomas Jefferson's radical democracy as their anarchist birthright.[3] Goodman's anarchist politics of the forties had an afterlife influence in the politics of the sixties' New Left.[12] His World War II-era essays on the draft, resisting violence, moral law, and civic duty were re-purposed for youth grappling with the Vietnam War.[12] Even as the United States grew increasingly violent in the late 1960s, Goodman retained hope that a new populism, almost religious in nature, would bring about a consensus to live more humanely.[17]

Goodman argued for decentralized counter-institutions across society to downscale societal organization. He wrote that decentralists, skeptical and unromantic by nature, believe that power must be deconcentrated because of human fallibility. He advocated for alternative systems of order that eschewed "top-down direction, standard rules, and extrinsic rewards like salary and status", rather than systems of no order. Goodman believed that youth would see contemporary ideology as empty and dehumanizing, either capitalist or communist.[15]

His political beliefs shifted little over his life. He observed his "peasant anarchism" as a disposition rather than dogma: that power worship, central planning, and ideology were perilous, while the small things in life (little property, food, sex) were paramount. He rejected grand schemes to reorganize the world.[18]


External video
Goodman discusses the role of public schools with William F. Buckley Jr. on Firing Line, 1966

Goodman doesn't offer a single definition of human nature, and suggests that it needs no definition for others to that some activities are against it.[23] He contends that humans are animals with tendencies and that a "human nature" forms between the human and an environment he deems suitable: a continually reinvented "free" society with a culture developed from and for the search for human powers.[24] When denied this uninhibited growth, human nature is shackled, culture purged, and education impossible, regardless of the physical institution of schooling.[24]

To Goodman, education aims to form a common humanity and, in turn, create a "worthwhile" world.[25] He figured that "natural" human development has similar aims,[26] which is to say that education and "growing up" are identical.[25] However, as outlined in Growing Up Absurd, a dearth of "worthwhile opportunities" in a society precludes both education and growing up.[25] Goodman contended that a lack of community, patriotism, and honor stunts the normal development of human nature and leads to "resigned or fatalistic" youth. This resignation leads youth to "role play" the qualities expected of them.[27]

In Compulsory Mis-education, Goodman explains "mis-education" as a process not on the spectrum of education, but rather a brainwashing process that advocates for a singular worldview, the "confusion" of personal experience and feelings, and the fearfulness and insecurity towards other worldviews.[28] Goodman's books on education extol the medieval university and advocated for alternative institutions of instruction.[15] He saw himself as continuing the work started by John Dewey.[29]

Personal life

While Goodman anchored himself to larger traditions—a Renaissance man, a citizen of the world, a "child of the Enlightenment", and a man of letters[21]—he also considered himself an American patriot, valuing what he called the provincial virtues of the country's national character, such as dutifulness, frugality, honesty, prudence, and self-reliance.[3] He also valued curiosity, lust, and willingness to break rules for self-evident good.[2]

Both of Goodman's marriages were common law;[30] neither state-officiated.[5] Goodman was married to Virginia Miller between 1938 and 1943. Their daughter, Susan (1939), was born in Chicago.[5][1] Between 1945 and his death, Goodman was married to Sally Duchsten. Their son, Mathew Ready, was born in 1946.[8] They lived below the poverty line on her salary as a secretary, supplemented by Goodman's sporadic teaching assignments.[5] With the proceeds from Growing Up Absurd (1960), his wife left her job[12] and Goodman bought a farmhouse outside of North Stratford, New Hampshire, which they used as an occasional home.[8] His third child, Daisy, was born in 1963.[14]

Throughout his life, Goodman lost jobs for reasons related to his sexuality.[7] By the time he was in Chicago and married, Goodman was an out, open bisexual who cruised bars and parks for men.[5] He was fired from his teaching position there for not taking his cruising off-campus.[5] He was dismissed from the Partisan Review,[5] the progressive boarding school Manumit, and Black Mountain College for reasons related to his homosexuality or bisexuality.[8]

Reception and influence

Writing on Goodman's death, Susan Sontag described his intellect as underappreciated[31] and his literary voice as the most "convincing, genuine, [and] singular" since D. H. Lawrence's.[32] She lamented how "Goodman was always taken for granted even by his admirers", praised his literary breadth, and predicted that his poetry would eventually find widespread appreciation.[33] Sontag called Goodman the "most important American writer" of her last twenty years.[33]

Harvard University's Houghton Library acquired Goodman's papers in 1989.[34] Though known for his social criticism in his life, Goodman's literary executor Taylor Stoehr wrote that future generations would likely appreciate Goodman foremost for his poetry and fiction, which are also the works for which Goodman wished to be known.[22] Writing years later, Stoehr thought that the poems, some stories, and The Empire City would have the most future currency. Though Stoehr considered Goodman's social commentary just "as fresh in the nineties as ... in the sixties", everything but Communitas and Growing Up Absurd had gone out of print. Goodman's strange celebrity was tied to his physical presence, not the charisma of his platform or gadfly personality. While his celebrity left public circulation as quickly as it came, his principles and outré proposals retained their stature as a vision of human potential.[18]

Selected bibliography


    1. Widmer 1980, p. 13.
    2. Stoehr 1994b, p. 510.
    3. Stoehr 1994c, p. 21.
    4. Smith 2001, p. 178.
    5. Stoehr 1994b, p. 511.
    6. Smith 2001, pp. 178–179.
    7. Smith 2001, p. 179.
    8. Widmer 1980, p. 14.
    9. Smith 2001, pp. 179–180.
    10. Smith 2001, p. 180.
    11. Stoehr 1994b, pp. 511–512.
    12. Stoehr 1994b, p. 512.
    13. Stoehr 1994b, p. 509.
    14. Widmer 1980, p. 15.
    15. Stoehr 1994b, p. 513.
    16. Widmer 1980, pp. 14–15.
    17. Stoehr 1994b, p. 514.
    18. Stoehr 1994b, p. 515.
    19. At the time of his death, his work spanned 21 different sections of the New York Public Library.[4]
    20. Pachter 1973, p. 60.
    21. Stoehr 1994c, pp. 21–22.
    22. Stoehr 1994c, p. 22.
    23. Boyer 1970, p. 41.
    24. Boyer 1970, p. 54.
    25. Boyer 1970, p. 39.
    26. Boyer 1970, p. 37.
    27. Boyer 1970, p. 52.
    28. Boyer 1970, pp. 37–38.
    29. Boyer 1970, p. 40.
    30. Widmer 1980, p. 13, 14.
    31. Sontag 1972, p. 276.
    32. Sontag 1972, p. 275.
    33. Sontag 1972, p. 277.
    34. Stoehr 1994c, p. 20.


    • Boyer, James (1970). A Philosophic Analysis of the Writings of Paul Goodman and Edgar Z. Friedenberg: Critics of American Public Education (Ed.D.). Wayne State University. OCLC 7486740 via ProQuest.
    • Pachter, Henry (Fall 1973). "Paul Goodman —A 'Topian' Educator". Salmagundi (24): 54–67. JSTOR 40546799.
    • Stoehr, Taylor (1994b). "Paul Goodman". In DeLeon, David (ed.). Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 509–516. ISBN 978-0-313-27414-5.

    Further reading

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