Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in an Organized Society
By Paul Goodman
Foreword by Casey Nelson Blake
New York Review Books, Classic Series, 312 pages, $17.95
Reading Paul Goodman’s reissued 1960s classic “Growing Up Absurd” may make you nostalgic for a past you never lived. The author’s uncomplicated idealism evokes an earlier decade of American history, as well as your own carefree youth. Remember when you were in your 20s and all your friends lived in the West Village? You stayed up too late talking; no one had to go to work in the morning; everyone smoked a lot of cigarettes, drank too much coffee and talked about how they could save the U.S. from corporate greed and spiritual desolation. The talking was not hushed, polite or tentative. Nothing mattered but ideas. This is the world of Paul Goodman.
It sounds like fun, except “GUA” has always had a fatal flaw: Goodman insists that only males confront the emptiness and desolation of their culture. Because for females “hav[ing] children is absolutely self-justifying,” Goodman believed that they were safe from the sickness ripening in males. Even Susan Sontag’s eulogy for Goodman (included in this new edition) tells us “that Paul Goodman really didn’t like women as people.”
Before 1960, Goodman had already published three well-received books: “Communitas,” on city planning, still used in classrooms; one on Gestalt therapy (for which he was one of three authors), and what is considered by literary critics to be his best novel, “Empire.” Still, few outside the New York circle of intelligentsia recognized his name. A novelist, a poet, a Ph.D. in literature whose dissertation, “The Structure of Literature,” was published by University of Chicago Press, a practitioner and public advocate of bisexualism and a lay psychologist, Goodman believed his ideas needed to be heard by a larger swath of the American public. “GUA” would find him the large audience that he sought.
Criterion Books, a small press in New York City, offered Goodman a $500 advance to write a book on “juvenile delinquency” (a term that was gaining increasing currency in the ‘50s). The manuscript he offered them, and they turned down, was a multipronged attack — not on these hapless youths that had become delinquents — but on the American values that they had been weaned on. Eighteen other presses turned it down before Norman Podhoretz serialized three chapters of “GUA” in Commentary magazine. Soon after, Vintage published the entire book. It sold 100,000 copies in three years. “It struck a chord with the times,” writes Casey Nelson Blake in his foreword to the new edition.
According to Blake, “GUA” became one of the bibles of the New Left. Along with Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and Norman O. Brown’s “Life Against Death,” among others, “GUA” was “a fixture in the libraries of aspiring intellectuals.” Jonathan Lee, the creator of the 2011 film “Paul Goodman Changed My Life,” similarly claims that you could not walk into a dorm room at Berkeley without seeing a copy of “GUA.”