Goodman, Paul 1911–1972
American social commentator, novelist, playwright, and poet, Goodman is the author of Growing Up Absurd. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
Goodman, after making a stir in the avant-garde literary world of the 30's, suffered a long period of neglect,… [but] he has now become (not altogether comfortably) "a well-known author." His early books—which include fiction, poetry, drama, and literary and social criticism—are gradually coming back into print, and since 1960 new works have been pouring from his extraordinarily prolific pen at the rate of more than one a year. With Goodman, then, the case is one of a writer sticking stubbornly to his guns until the times catch up with him….
Goodman's work is informed by the idea that we betray ourselves and "play along with the forces that are senseless" by settling for anything less than a society that provides the conditions under which every individual can develop his own grace and fullness of being. The nobility of such an ideal can hardly be disputed; its viability, however, can be and has been endlessly disputed. Goodman, of course, has never doubted its viability for a moment. Since he is convinced that it stems logically from the truth about human nature and from an accurate analysis of the process of human growth, he can simply blame the failure to create the ideal society on the venality of the powerful, the timidity of the wise, and the helplessness of the many. To be sure, there is something exasperating about Goodman's unruffled certainty that he is in possession of the Truth and that only bad will or moral inadequacy prevents everyone else from seeing the truth as well and acting on it. (To make matters worse, he will not even allow villains their villainy or cowards their cowardice: villains and cowards, in Goodman's system, are sick and therefore to be mentioned in patronizing tones of therapeutic compassion.) Yet however unfortunate his tone can occasionally become, it seems to me that Goodman is performing an immense service in showing that the optimistic ideals of the liberal-radical tradition are still capable of holding their own against all comers on the theoretical plane, and that they still supply far and away the most illuminating criteria by which to judge present realities.
Norman Podhoretz, "Masses, Classes, & Social Criticism" (1962), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 94-101.
The main effect of Goodman's work has been to break through the constraints of the narrow "realism" in which our minds most securely operate, to make a little space in our heads for the operation of free inquiry, to hold up a model of society organized for human ends rather than of humans organized for the ends of social rationalization and control. In so doing, Goodman has provided fresh motive and material for the doctrines of humanism, a creed that has been living off its heritage for a long time now, like a well-bred rentier cultivating his garden in a neighborhood that has become a slum.
Theodore Solotaroff, "Paul Goodman: The Pursuit of Paradise" (1967), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 211-16.
Against [the] impasse of history, [Goodman's novel The Empire City ] performs the miracle of renewing our hope. It does this not only by granting us the freedom and exuberance of the comic spirit but by showing us the increments of...
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change and renewal in history—in the course of the generations. And most significantly, it does this in a way we might not, on reflection, find wholly acceptable: by transforming our view of social reality, by making background what, in a novel likeU.S.A., had been figure, in this way unfixing "society" at the same time as its objectivity is denied. Instead of dramatizing the individual vs. society in terms of such institutional issues as class and power, the novel demonstrates by means of social weather the fact of organism-environment. Hence the preponderance in it of psychological, therapeutic, and educational materials, and its firm grounding in the world of natural satisfactions. It gives us paradise (we know it, for it has put us in touch with ourselves and our experience) but at a price in repudiation we may not be willing to pay. Nevertheless this organic view of man sustains the author's sense of possibility and rare feeling for the occasions of being, and it may explain why a novel of alienation and loss recovers our joy.
Sherman Paul, "Paul Goodman's Mourning Labor: The Empire City," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 4, Autumn, 1968, pp. 894-926.
Paul Goodman's preface to his book of plays [Tragedy & Comedy: Four Cubist Plays] sounds misleadingly pedagogical. So do the schematic titles he gives them: Structure of Tragedy, after Aeschylus; Structure of Tragedy, after Sophocles; Structure of Pathos, after Euripides; and Little Hero, after Molière…. You would never guess … how immediate, and emotionally saturated, the plays are. Yet the theoretical outworks are essential to their peculiar feeling, that of a living intelligence in action, coping with personal, political, and historical tragic consciousness and with the psyche's well-known absurdities. Goodman knows that the language of pure idea is not inert but actively alive. His "cubism" presents a dramaticpoetic mode virtually neglected since Yeats….
Goodman's real concerns are the deep political and psychological ones of contemporary life, including the re-emergence of barbaric archetypal terrors to confuse our whole sense of reality.
His originality in these works is extraordinary. One misses his sort of necessary intelligence of the developed modern mind, at once contemplative, perplexed, defiant, and compassionate, in much of our poetry.
M. L. Rosenthal, "Plastic Possibilities" (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), in Poetry, November, 1971, pp. 99-100.