Paul Goodman

By: Brian Berger
September 9, 2011

Writer, social critic, educator, urbanist and anarchist, PAUL GOODMAN (1911-1972) was many things to few people until 1960’s Growing Up Absurd made him an unlikely youth-culture avatar. A native of upper Manhattan, Goodman was educated in the streets, libraries and museums of New York before attending City College and the University of Chicago, from where he departed in 1939 following various bi-sexual improprieties. Back in New York with his common-law wife Sally and the first of three children, Goodman published prolifically, including Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways (1947), a classic of 20th-century utopianism written with his architect brother Percival. Meanwhile, Goodman also wrote first-rate poetry and short stories. While neither earned much money (he needed to teach for that), his work deeply impressed keen younger readers like Denise Levertov, Ned Rorem, Jonathan Williams, and Gilbert Sorrentino — the last of whom, in his novel Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971), challenged dull editors to explain “What is uniquely excellent about Paul Goodman’s fiction?” The masterpiece of Goodman’s literary career — and perhaps the lost mid-century American novel — is 1959’s The Empire City. While it shares some qualities with that other great war tetralogy, Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End (1928), its many thematic and structural pre-echoes of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow are equally hep. Once a star, he’d lecture tirelessly, lust for young cock, fight bad politics and later, the feeling of Nixon-era obsolescence. Indeed, by 1977, how many filmgoers recognized Annie Hall’s line “Is that Paul Goodman?” to answer it?


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What do you think?

  1. Are you sure that Sorrentino’s “What is uniquely excellent about Paul Goodman’s fiction?” isn’t ironic?

  2. Larry,

    It’s definitely not ironic. Remember, Gil published Goodman’s poetry– including the terrific “Handball Players”– in a couple #s his 1950s little magazine “Neon” and elsewhere he spoke highly of Goodman’s fiction.

    If the length of “The Empire City”‘ is perhaps daunting, check out some of Goodman’s short stories, collected in four volumes by Black Sparrow, the last two, “Facts of Life” and “The Galley of Mytilene,” together covering 1940-1960, especially. Like nearly any “collected” there are greater and lesser works there but also much that is indeed excellent.

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