Paul Goodman

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Goodman, Paul (Vol. 2)

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Goodman, Paul 1911–1972

American novelist, playwright, poet, and (most notably) social commentator and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)

Goodman emerged from the war years a pacifist, and a communitarian anarchist. He was also one of the very few American intellectuals at all connected with the Establishment who was part of the main stream of international modernism—in life attitude, in philosophy, in literary style. He was a social philosopher, a political analyst, a devoted pedagogue, a poet and dramatist, and a novelist and short-story writer. Twenty-five years after the war the Old Left was still complaining that the New Left was without theory, strategy, tactics, or objectives, and this charge was largely true, except for Paul Goodman, who had continued as the only comprehensive and systematic philosopher in the United States of the libertarian revolt and the secession into an alternative society which was to be the dominant tendency of the second post-war world.

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, p. 134.

Any reader of Paul Goodman's earlier books will know in advance that his latest [Speaking and Language] is just learned and personal enough to be most interesting for neither its learning nor its quirkiness. Of course it often parades both these qualities with Goodman's characteristic offhand flashiness: the names, the theories, the occasionally sentimental confessions, the repetitions, the surprising quotations and misquotations are all there. By now Goodman can probably take his own verbal mannerisms for granted like facts of history, and there is no reason why his reader shouldn't also, especially since "how people actually speak"—Goodman's being as good an example of actual speech as any—is what this book is about. Poetry, he adds, is improved common speech, although I think that this is only partly true. The special formality of writing is not always the equivalent of speaking out. Nevertheless the reasons he prefers speaking to linguistic theory as an adequate description of verbal behavior are impressively demonstrated.

Edward W. Said, "A Good Man Against Theories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 20, 1972, pp. 21-2.

The weakness in this book [Homespun of Oatmeal Gray] is a weakness of craft; many lines are flat, many poems simply fall into endings that shrug. Unlike Robert Frost, Goodman has not been able to make himself stand for a multitude of others. The reader is too often alienated by a feeling that Goodman takes it for granted we are intensely fascinated by whatever he does and thinks. Goodman talks too much, and is too impressed with his own standard insights in these poems to bring the reader fully into his world. We feel for him but, in these poems at least, Goodman has not made us feel through him.

Dick Allen, "Shifts," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1972, pp. 235-45.

Among modern writers no one quite equals the breadth of [Goodman's] interests. One thinks, for comparison, of Tolstoy, whose writings on education, politics, and literature Goodman's work resembles. Yet as anarchist and pamphleteer, he most obviously resembles another Russian prince, Peter Kropotkin. In America his closest counter-part was the social and literary critic Randolph Bourne….

In the midst of his life as a literary radical, as reigning and perpetual faculty adviser to the student movement of the...

(This entire section contains 2649 words.)

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1960's, Goodman always regarded himself as a traditionalist, a child of the Reformation (Luther and Milton) and the Enlightenment (Kant and Jefferson) and even as a Classicist. Such a prodigious and impressive patrimony might seem pretentious when claimed by most men. But Goodman wore the mantle lightly, and he made his immense learning available, useful, and exciting to anyone who wished to share it….

Goodman thought of himself principally as a poet…. Literature, its form and structure were a major preoccupation. But much as I admire his poems, I can only regard his major contribution in a more personal way: the books I find most original are the ones on education which, in the early 1960's, after the horrors of graduate school, made education seem a possible and community a desirable goal….

The kind of society that Goodman envisioned is constantly in the making, a place for poetry and politics; for him, the two were related, both potential means to full citizenship.

Michael True, "Death of a Literary Radical," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 8, 1972, pp. 480-82.

Paul Goodman's voice is the real thing. There has not been such a convincing, genuine, singular voice in our language since D. H. Lawrence. Paul Goodman's voice touched everything he wrote about with intensity, interest, and his own terribly appealing sureness and awkwardness. What he wrote was a nervy mixture of syntactical stiffness and verbal felicity; he was capable of writing sentences of a wonderful purity of style and vivacity of language, and also capable of writing so sloppily and clumsily that one imagined he must be doing it on purpose. But it never mattered. It was his voice, that is to say, his intelligence and the poetry of his intelligence incarnated, which kept me a loyal and passionate addict. Though he was not often graceful as a writer, his writing and his mind were touched with grace.

There is a terrible, mean American resentment toward someone who tries to do a lot of things. The fact that Paul Goodman wrote poetry and plays and novels as well as social criticism, that he wrote books on intellectual specialties guarded by academic and professional dragons, such as city planning, education, literary criticism, psychiatry, was held against him. His being an academic freeloader and an outlaw psychiatrist, while also being so smart about universities and human nature, outraged many people. That ingratitude is and always was astonishing to me. I know that Paul Goodman often complained of it….

I would hardly have wished for Paul Goodman the kind of media stardom awarded to McLuhan or even Marcuse—which has little to do with actual influence or even tells one anything about how much a writer is being read. What I am complaining about is that Paul Goodman was often taken for granted even by his admirers. It has never been clear to most people, I think, what an extraordinary figure he was. He could do almost anything, and tried to do almost everything a writer can do. Though his fiction became increasingly didactic and unpoetic, he continued to grow as a poet of considerable and entirely unfashionable sensibility; one day people will discover what good poetry he wrote. Most of what he said in his essays about people, cities, and the feel of life is true. His so-called amateurism is identical with his genius: that amateurism enabled him to bring to the questions of schooling, psychiatry, and citizenship an extraordinary, curmudgeonly accuracy of insight and freedom to envisage practical change.

Susan Sontag, "On Paul Goodman," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), September 21, 1972, pp. 10, 12.

Paul Goodman should have lived a hundred and fifty years. And then some. We needed him and there is no one to take his place. But, if he had to die on us in August of 1972, it is one of fate's kindnesses that so deeply personal and so elegiac a work [Little Prayers and Finite Experience] should be his final word. It is a collection of little prayers he had composed over the past 35 years together with a minor-keyed meditation on his conduct of life—"my way of being."…

Certainly [Goodman's] work seems all of a well-wrought piece to me. True, there is no one book that puts it all together, but the unmistakable Goodman first principles of organicism, community, art, moral right are never far below the surface of any of his discussions….

There was always a coarse-grained Hassidic magic about Goodman's stories, novels and poems. As with Buber, his peak moments were events that happened between people and in community. The Gestalt group work pioneered by Goodman and Perls is really a therapeutically ritualized search for Buber's I-Thou experience—with a heavy admixture of Reichian body mysticism to give it an even greater earthiness and weight. Like Buber, too, (and like the Taoist sages who are so similar to the Hassidic mystics) Goodman had a shrewd eye for how miraculously transfigured the commonplace substance of life might be—if only for one zany instant—if only to be followed by the business as usual of benight—edness, folly, nastiness and failure.

Theodore Roszak, "Portrait of a Tolerably Unhappy Man," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 15, 1972, pp. 3, 10.

All [of Goodman's] work, poetry and prose, was full of vital energy and courage and love for good craft, "healthy speech," the natural world and the human body. Goodman was one of those few contemporary poets for whom there was no apparent split between himself and nature—in his own person he did not seem to suffer from that division, although he certainly suffered from and struggled with its effects on politics and the social order. His sensuality—at least as I read it in his poems—seems all of a piece: grass, water, a Cape Cod beach, city streets, the embrace of another body, the taste of food, are parts of one whole for him, much as they were for Whitman. Like Whitman, he seems to have come by this wholeness through bisexuality (though I think of Whitman as a more truly feminine nature). Whether he was as capable as Whitman of respecting wholeness in others, I do not know….

Paul Goodman's poetry was as intensely personal as anyone's I can think of, yet it is so much more than personal: the voice of the good American, who must necessarily be the angry, the frustrated, the despairing, but also the unshakably caring American. His anger pre-visioned the anger of the young in the 'Sixties, who were first to find in him an ally and father-figure, later to forget about him. He shared their impatience with time and process, he desperately wanted to see his country begin to redeem itself in his own time. (In Homespun [of Oatmeal Gray] the poems about his son's early death seem closely linked with the poems that come out of his loss of relation with the newest young generation.)

His poems moved from the most public intersections of self and country to the most apparently private, intimate events…. The lust in his poetry is honest, often sad, sometimes funny and occasionally transcendent; there is little male poetry of our time which contains as much recognition of the uses made of people, the closed-ended repetitiveness of lust, the divisions between love and sex in male consciousness. Yet Goodman never really acknowledged the connections that he must have suspected, between the masculine supremacy of the society he saw gone increasingly abstract and depersonalizing, with its automated battlefields and its loss of community, and the masculinist sexual assumptions which, even as a homosexual, he never really questioned….

Goodman felt that he was never taken seriously or cared about as a poet; yet his poetry was obviously at the core of his work. I love his voice on the page, especially in poems: what he called his "gaunt and fumbling style" was not fumbling but the work of someone equipped to draw on the most immediate American speech-patterns and on the oldest resonances of "our lovely English language." He has described the common language that all poets share as the language of people trying to deal with the same problems, trying to "live it through in words." For him any and all forms were there to be pillaged—sonnet, ballade, song, 19th century oratorical rhetoric, 18th century satire, the ode. Form to him was just another piece of costume, like the old velvets and fur-pieces and scarlets and bright patchwork that kids wear today, pulled out of this or that era and used, not as fashion-nostalgia, but for pleasure and because they exist. And he always made the song or the ballade sound unmistakably Paul Goodman. There is no sense in his poetry of a man arranging his facial muscles and assuming a Voice before he starts to sing or speak: his poems are conversations, or meditations, which suddenly begin to appear as pencil-strokes on a pad carried in the pocket and warm from the heat of his body. He had a beautiful ear, not obvious at first: he can lean on a syllable or a pause with great subtlety, and there is a rush and tension that is characteristic of him in a poem….

Adrienne Rich, "Caryatid: A Column," in American Poetry Review (copyright © 1973 by Adrienne Rich and reprinted with her permission), January-February, 1973, pp. 16-17.

By the time Paul Goodman died at 60 last August, he had moved through what for most people would have been several careers: poet, novelist, urban planner, psychotherapist, social, literary and educational critic. As he noted many times himself, specialists in each of the fields he touched complained that he spread himself too thin. But almost everything he did was worth attending to, and his career has the coherence of a life lived both passionately and intelligently. He trained himself to live as an outsider looking in, and apparently he could not be seduced by the kinds of rewards his talents might have earned him—though his moving journal, "Five Years" (1966), makes clear how deeply he longed for an audience. But even after the success of "Growing Up Absurd" in 1960, when he began to seem a kind of guru for the young who were dropping out or turning left, he retained his power both to be engaged and to criticize. And in the years just before his death, he was describing himself as a "neolithic conservative," almost as if to ensure that he might remain outside all parties….

Goodman's writing is touching because this faith in human possibility had always been manifest in its very texture. The writing is the faith because it is a kind of work—not the communication of a message, a means to an end, but a way of being in the world, an action. His prose has rarely been beautiful (it is striking how unbeautiful his fiction is), but the nonfiction has a life that grows from Goodman's almost physical sensitivity to the presence of his audience, and from an awareness of what he calls, in "Speaking and Language" (1971), the double life of words. Every speech must be ambiguous because it is almost impossible to tell "what of the meaning … comes from the experience and what meaning has been added" by the speaking….

In addition, like a good radical tory, Goodman had enormous respect for history, for language, for tradition, for science. In "Like a Conquered Province" (1967) he rejects the Ludditism of the fighters against technology. "Knowledge," he said, "must be pursued for its own sake, as part of the human adventure." His point has always been not that we should turn away from technological development, but that science and technology should be humanized….

Another aspect of his radical toryism was manifest in "Growing Up Absurd," which contains (though most of us must have missed it the first time around) the last praise of patriotism I can remember from a serious writer. The problem, Goodman asserted over and over again, is that the young, seeing that none of the traditions around them seem worthy of respect, find it difficult to believe that there ever were or could be any.

George Levine, "Paul Goodman, Outsider Looking In," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1973, pp. 4-6.


Goodman, Paul (Vol. 1)


Goodman, Paul (Vol. 4)