John Judis

“The Relevance of Paul Goodman”

by John B. Judis

Six years ago, I was in Cupertino, California writing a story about John Sculley, who was then the CEO of Apple Computer and was about to bring out the Newton, a handheld information device that he hoped would revive the company, whose stock was infree fall. Apple had arranged for me to interview someone who had worked on creating the Newton. The most important thing about the Newton, he breathlessly informed me, was not the device, but the software for it, which could be used to power other devices. The most important of these was the television remote control. With Apple’s software, someone watching TV could select items on the screen for purchase instantly. “With home shopping the idea is that you wouldn’t have to pick up the phone, but that everything would be controlled by the television remote”, he explained.

The Newton subsequently flopped, but the idea behind it survived in the Palm Pilot and similar gadgets. Like other computer innovations, it refined and extended our faculties. But for my guide at Apple, this meant, above all, enabling TV viewers to spend more money more easily on the Home Shopping Network or the Quality Value Channel. And his enthusiasm was typical of the young techies that I interviewed for that story or that I have talked to subsequently. They were fascinated by the sheer power of the technology, but oblivious to the value of the various uses to which it could be put. Was the end purpose, the final justification of Kilby and Noyce’s semiconductor chip, being able to shop until you drop?

Fifty years ago, Paul Goodman raised exactly this kind of question about what Americans of this time were making. Goodman, poet, novelist, psychologist, social critic, and political activist best know for Growing Up Absurd, lived when the automobile and suburb were transforming the nation’s landscape and when Americans were being urged to find satisfaction not in what the did, but in what they could buy. He was among the first and the most articulate critics of the new consumer society. He questioned not merely the value of the goods produced, but the value of the work that went into them. “Is it possible, how is it possible, to have more meaning and honor in work? To put wealth to some real use? To have a high standard of living of whose quality we are not ashamed? To get social justice for those who have been shamefully left out? To have a use of leisure that is not a dismaying waste of a hundred million adults?” These questions, which he asked in 1956, are perfectly relevant to the present world of ecommerce and theme parks.

Since he died in 1972, Goodman’s star has dimmed. Growing Up Absurd and Communitas are still taught in college courses, but few people read Goodman on their own or know about his life. One reason for this is that since that time, Americans have turned away from the kind of concerns he voiced Ð first out of fear of economic decline and then out of fascination with the fruits of economic success. Like Henry Thoreau, Thorstein Veblen and other critics of America’s commercial culture, Goodman had been consigned to the library shelves. But Goodman needs to be revived Ð not only to reacquaint Americans with the power of his thought and the novelty of his experience Ð but as a way of asking of our era the kind of question that Goodman asked of his.


Goodman is often grouped with the social and literary critics known as the “New York intellectuals.” There is good reason to do this. Goodman knew well and worked with Daniel Bell, Norman Mailer, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Podhoretz, C. Wright Mills, Mary McCarthy, Lionel Trilling, and Philip Rahv. His writings appeared in Partisan Review, Politics, The New Republic, Commentary, The New Leader, Dissent and The New York Review of Books. But Goodman was also at odds with many of the New York intellectuals, and his career followed a far different trajectory from theirs. During the postwar years, when many of them were enjoying success and recognition, Goodman labored in anonymity and lived in what he described as “decent poverty.” While many of his most impressive works were written then, including Growing Up Absurd, Communitas (with his brother, architect Percival Goodman), Gestalt Therapy (with F.S. Perls and Ralph Hefferline) and the novel, The Empire City, he only achieved fame and fortune in the 1960s when he became a guru for the new left.

Goodman’s preoccupations were also different from many of the New York intellectuals. He was never (at least more than momentarily) a Trotskyist of Communist. Philosopher Lewis Feuer, a childhood acquaintance who later turned against Goodman and the new left, scornfully recalled that Goodman “had taken no part … in the student politics of his class of 1931 at the City College of New York.” When Goodman came to politics in the late 1930s, it was a blend of anarchist, pacifist, and communitarian. He denounced American participation in the war against Germany and Japan and urged avoidance on the draft, leading to his being barred from the pages of the Partisan Review, the most prestigious literary journal of its time.

After World War II, when many of the New York intellectuals turned to liberalism – and some like James Burnham or Will Herberg to conservatism – Goodman remained a quirky blend of anarchist and communitarian. Unlike later libertarians, he was not enamored with laissez-faire capitalism and Adam Smith’s invisible hand. He was not so much against government as against what he saw as unnecessarily centralized authority. As a social critic, he was most concerned with work, leisure, sexuality, education and psychotherapy – concerns that were far more typical of the later rather than earlier twentieth century and of the new left rather than the old. His frame of reference was the PTA, the neighborhood, and the school and college rather than the labor union and the political party.

Goodman was also a non-conformist among Bohemians. He was married twice and raised two children, but he was always attracted to men, including his students. He would be fired from college teaching jobs for refusing to desist from sleeping with his male students. His sexuality was a variation on the Freudian theme of man seeking a virgin and alternatively a whore. He was a monogamous heterosexual and a promiscuous homosexual. He was remarkably open and seemingly guiltless about his homosexuality, which he chronicled in his novels and in a published diary, Five Years. Goodman’s open homosexuality would contribute to his being spurned by more conventional parts of the New York intelligentsia, which, if anything, were either highly conventional or (like Mailer) militantly heterosexual.


Goodman was born in New York in 1911. His mother was a several generation German-American Jew. His father was a successful antique dealer and Goodman’s older brother and sister were raised in luxury, but right after Goodman’s birth, his father ran off with a mistress to Buenos Aires, and Goodman’s mother had to raise him in straitened circumstances with the help of his older sister. Goodman attended CCNY, where he studied under Morris Cohen, a follower of John Dewey, and became part of a small group of future critics and philosophers, dubbed the Wadsworth Terrace Social and Literary Circle. After graduation he could not afford to attend graduate school. He lived with his sister and wrote criticism, poems, plays, and a novel, The Breakup of our Camp, based upon his experiences teaching drama at a Zionist’s boy’s camp in Vermont. He also audited philosopher Richard McKeon’s classes at Columbia, and when McKeon went to become Dean of Liberal Arts at Chicago in 1936, he took Goodman along as a teacher and graduate student in the university’s experimental Committee on Social Thought. It was the heyday of Robert Hutchins’ revival of classical education, and McKeon himself, a noted Aristotelian, was the center of it. Much of Goodman’s views of education would be an attempt to reconcile Dewey’s experimental approach, which he learned from Cohen, with McKeon’s and Hutchins’ more traditional views.

Goodman was fired at Chicago in 1939 for seducing his students and moved back to New York, where he would remain, except for summers in New Hampshire, for the rest of his life. Until 1960, he would be unknown to general public, but well known and highly controversial within New York’s intellectual circles. He had an impact there that went well beyond conventional politics. Goodman had, for one thing, a lifelong interest in Freud and psychoanalysis. He was an early American supporter of Wilhelm Reich (though not of Reich’s later theories of orgone energy) and went to Reich himself and one of Reich’s followers for analysis. In the late 1940′s he edited a psychoanalytical journal, Complex, and in 1950, he collaborated with German émigré Frederick S. Perls in developing a new school of psychoanalysis called Gestalt Therapy. Goodman’s contribution was to marry Perls and his insights into anger and aggression with the work of gestalt psychologist Kurt Goldstein and of John Dewey. During the 1950′s, Goodman served as a lecturer and therapist with the Gestalt Institute of New York. Many of his friends and followers like Dennison or Judith Malina of the Living Theater were also his patients.

Goodman was always deeply in educational reform. He was initially close to A.S. Neill and Summerhill, but broke with him over Neill’s support fir Reich’s orgone experiments. Some of his closest followers like Dennison and Elliot Shapiro made their mark as educators. Goodman himself was active in the PTA and later served on the school board. In the mid-60′s, he collaborated often with Ivan Illich, he was the patron saint of the free university movement (which was inspired by his book, The Community of Scholars) and prodded New York’s Mayor Lindsay into undertaking community control of schools in New York, which led to the disastrous clash over Ocean Hill-Brownsville. He continued to write novels, poems, and plays (primarily for the Living Theater), as well as literary criticism and theory. The Empire City was praised by Mailer and W.H. Auden, but never achieved significant sales until after the publication of Growing Up Absurd.

Goodman also had a lifelong interest in architecture and city planning, which he shared with his older brother Percival, a professor of architecture at Columbia and, during his time, the foremost designer of synagogues. Goodman’s first published works in 1932 were on architecture in James Burnham’s journal Symposium. He worked with Percival in designed synagogues and in 1947, they published Communitas – a stirring defense of city planning and a critique of the way that the automobile was creating an unhealthy division between work and home and father and family. It was conceived and written a decade before the Eisenhower administration’s highway program would transform the American landscape. The Goodman’s proposal to ban automobiles from Manhattan well predated those of environmentalists. Communitas was little noticed at the time (except for Lonely Crowd author David Riesman, who was equally ahead of his time), but was republished in slightly revised form in 1960 to considerable acclaim.

Goodman was not active in Eisenhower era politics. He published most of his political writings in little pacifist journals like Mcdonald’s Politics and Why? (which changed its name after the war to Resist) and lent his support to David Dellinger, Bayard Rustin, A.J. Muste and other war resisters. In the late 1950s, he became active in the growing peace movement. He was on the editorial board of Dellinger’s new journal, Liberation, and worked with Malina’s organization, the General Strike for Peace, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that he gained a reputation as a political activist.


After he returned to New York, Goodman resided for most of the rest of his life in a loft on West 23rd Street with his second (common-law) wife and two children. By the early 1950s, he had difficulty getting his books and articles published by mainstream presses. He had to publish The Dead of Spring, the third volume of The Empire City, on the press at David Dellinger’s pacifist commune in New Jersey and sell it by subscription to his friends. During the 1950s, he made a meager living primarily as a Gestalt therapist and lecturer. Hew roamed the New York streets looking for men and boys to seduce. By the second Eisenhower administration, he had hit the bottom. He and his wife were considering splitting up. Newly adopted New York state licensing laws denied him the right to practice as a therapist (he had to sell his services as a “career consultant”). And his daughter was crippled by polio on the eve of her entering college. But in those last years of the 1950s, he began to pull his life back together and to ready himself for what would be a final sprint.

Goodman began to get scattered assignments to write from magazines like Esquire. After a trip to Europe, he came back and revived his marriage and stilled his compulsive urge to roam the streets. In 1959, under urging from Podhoretz and others, a publisher brought out The Empire City, which received glowing reviews, but not sales. Then he was commissioned by another publisher to do a study of juvenile delinquency. He produced a book in 1959 that had a novel thesis. It showed how the rise in juvenile delinquency, the emergence of the beatniks and the neuroses of the Organization Man were different sides if the same phenomenon — representing protests against diminished opportunities for self-respecting work and guiltless play in an increasingly bureaucratized society.

Goodman’s publisher decided not to bring it out, and it was turned down by eighteen other publishers. He finally gave it Podhoretz, who had just become the editor of Commentary, for which Goodman had written for fifteen year – on Jewish culture and theology, among other things. Podhoretz was enthusiastic about the manuscript and advised Jason Epstein at Random House to publish it. According to Podhoretz, Epstein’s first reaction was, “Goodman, that has-been?” But after reading it, Epstein decided to publish Growing Up Absurd, and Podhoretz excerpted it in his first issues as editor, establishing both Goodman’s reputation as a social critic and his as an editor.

In the Sixties Goodman became what he had, perhaps, always aspired to be – not merely New York’s but the country’s village philosopher, consulted on everything from shopping malls to the nuclear test ban treaty. He stopping writing novels and plays and devoted himself entirely to what he called “Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals.” He was a leader in the anti-war movement and in the movement for educational reform on campuses, which is where I met him briefly. He was active in the Institute for Policy Studies, which was founded in 1963 by two refugees from the Kennedy administration. He was a model to a new generation of critics like Susan Sontag. “There is no living American writer for whom I have left the same simple curiosity to read as quickly as possible anything he wrote on any subject,” Sontag wrote of Goodman.


Growing Up Absurd and Goodman’s essays from the 60′s spoke directly to a new political constituency, but Goodman had introduced many of the key ideas decades earlier in Communitas and in his writings on Freud, Reich, and Gestalt Psychology. There were two insights that framed Goodman’s early social thought and made it relevant for decades to come. The first was his view of human nature, which he clearly articulated in and exchange published in Politics in 1945 with C. Wright Mills. Mills held what was the common view of human nature on the Marxist left and liberal center: that it was infinitely malleable and reflected social institutions in which people were brought up. Thus, under socialism, a “new man” would be possible. Against this view, Goodman argued that there was a biological and social human nature, depicted in part by Freud’s theory of instinctuality, but also by the classical and early Marxist conception of man as seeking self-realization in his labor. Goodman argued that the society of his time represented an “outrage” against this human nature by repressing adolescent sexuality and subjecting men to routine work to produce useless (or less than fully useful) objects and services. Goodman’s radical stance was later adopted by Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, and it provided the theoretical underpinning for Growing Up Absurd. It was also adopted by the early new left, but it was abandoned by the lefties of the late 60s who became enchanted with the Cuban and Chinese paeans to a new “socialist man.” It remains a critical, but largely forgotten, standpoint, from which to evaluate our society today.

Goodman’s second enduring insight was into the promise of American capitalism. At the end of World War II, when Paul and Percival Goodman were writing Communitas, many economists, and certainly most liberal and leftwing ones, feared that the U.S. was on the verge of another Great Depression. They worried about scarcity and unemployment, and the return of soup kitchens and either feared or hoped for the outbreak of violent anti-capitalist revolution. Goodman believed that the U.S. had permanently turned a corner and entered a new era of abundance where the main challenge that it faced was how to design work and leisure to achieve the greatest happiness and satisfaction for its people. The two Goodmans wrote, “We have an economy of abundance, a standard of living that is in many ways too high – goods and money that are literally thrown away or given away – that could underwrite sweeping reforms and pilot experiments. Yet our cultural climate and state of ideas are such that out surplus, of means and wealth, leads only to extravagant repetitions of the Ôair-conditioned nightmare,’ as Henry Miller called it, a pattern of life that used to be unsatisfactory and now, by the extravagance, becomes absurd.”

There were, of course, limits to Goodman’s understanding. Like Veblen, he tended to romanticize the work of the farmer and craftsman. Like Mailer and other contemporaries, he took a dim view of women’s claim to equality. But Goodman is nevertheless part of a vital American intellectual and religious tradition. Goodman’s view of human nature puts him in the line of American evangelicals and intellectuals – beginning with Jonathan Edwards and with the New England Transcendentalists – and going through Veblen and the Christian socialists who rejected the capitalist reduction of human nature to homo economicus. Like them, Goodman identified human nature with a purpose, a set of inherent objectives, from which he measured the achievements of society and found them wanting. Like them, Goodman’s outlook was, as he recognized, ultimately religious – based on an attempt to create the kingdom of God (what Goodman termed “paradise”) on earth.

What makes Goodman’s thought of more than historical interest is that he brought this idea of human purpose to bear on the new post-industrial capitalism that had first appeared in the 1920s, became visible in the 1960s, and is now widely acknowledged to have displaced the older America of factories and farms. In this new capitalism, Americans would be able to reduce the amount of labor devoted to sheer necessity and survival to a bare minimum, while devoting greater proportion of their lives to discretionary labor and to leisure. These labors could, in theory, be dedicated to increasing human happiness and fulfillment. But are they? That was the question that Goodman first asked in the 1940s and that remains a pressing question today in this time of hand-held computers and cable television.


In 1967, Paul Goodman’s son Mathew died in a mountain climbing accident. Mathew had been a promising biologist and a draft resister at Cornell. Goodman was devastated and never really recovered his joy in living. In 1970, he suffered an initial heart attack, and in 1972, while ensconced in the New Hampshire woods, suffered a second that killed him.

During these last years, Goodman became estranged from the new left and the counter-culture that had lionized him. He looked with dismay on the anti-scientific, irrational currents within the counter-culture that spurned work and learning. He also rejected the so-called revolutionary politics of the new left that emerged after 1967. Goodman began to describe himself as a “conservative.” His last book was entitled New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative. But his conservatism bore no resemblance to that of Barry Goldwater or William F. Buckley, Jr. Goodman argued that constructive change had to be piecemeal and gradual – the result of practical proposals that aimed to decentralize power.

Goodman rejected the new left’s revolutionary spirit as a religion disguised as politics. He wrote in New Reformation: “If we start from the premise that the young are in a religious crisis, that they doubt there is really a nature of thing and they are sure there is no world for themselves, many details of the present behavior become clearer. Alienation is a powerful motivation, of unrest, fantasy, and feckless action. It can lead.. to religious innovation, new sacraments to give life meaning. But it is a poor basis for politics, including revolutionary politics.”

Goodman’s conservative radicalism was also notably different from the incremental liberalism that is now popular among American Democrats. What distinguished Goodman’s thought was always the combination of utopian visions and practical proposals. Goodman’s critics regarded utopianism as a failing, but Goodman saw it as a means of articulating a higher purpose against which to gauge present efforts, including piecemeal reforms and practical proposals. It allowed him to explain the vague anxiety and unease in the face of prosperity and seeming good fortune that many American felt in the 1950s, but were unable to articulate or understand.

We are in a similar time now, and what is needed is not merely “bite-sized reforms,” as Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s former political consultant advised, but a larger understanding of what we are all about. Paul Goodman provided that for his time – and examining his life and works may be a way to begin providing it for ours.