Paul Goodman was a radical critic of American society, an anarchist who believed that centralized power, whether government or business, was inherently oppressive. He traced his worldview to Pyotr Kropotkin, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Thomas Jefferson, and he wrote fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in support of his views.
Goodman was born in 1911, the fourth child of Barnett and Augusta Goodman. His father abandoned his mother while she was pregnant with him. His mother, a traveling saleswoman for women’s clothing, spent most of her time on the road and left the raising of young Paul to his aunts and his sister, Alice, who was nine years older than he. He graduated from Townsend Harris, a selective New York City public high school, in 1927 and went on to the City College of New York, from which he graduated with an A.B. in philosophy in 1931.
For the next six years, he concentrated on writing, living with his sister and having no regular employment (though he was briefly employed as a script reader by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). In 1936 he entered the University of Chicago as a graduate student in literature and philosophy. He passed the qualifying exams for a doctorate in literature but was asked to leave in 1940, probably because of his open bisexuality.
In 1938 he entered a common-law marriage with Virginia Miller. Their daughter, Susan, was born in 1939; the couple separated in 1943. In that year Goodman was employed as an instructor at Manumit School of Progressive Education in Pawling, New York, but he was fired the following year, once again because of his sex life. In 1945 he began another common-law marriage, with secretary Sally Duchsten. They remained together for the rest of his life. The following year, his son Matthew was born. (They would have a second child, Daisy, in 1963.) In 1947 he collaborated with his brother, architect Percival Goodman, to write what became one of his best-known books, Communitas, which recommended decentralized approaches to urban living. At around this time, personal problems and his interest in the theories of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich inspired him to enter therapy. One of his therapists was the well-known Reichian Alexander Lowen. Goodman moved on to Gestalt therapy with Lore Perls and wound up writing the second volume of Gestalt Therapy with her husband, Frederick Perls, and with Ralph Hefferline.
In 1954 Goodman completed his doctoral dissertation, The Structure of Literature, an atypical work of literary theory. Throughout the 1950’s he worked as a Gestalt lay therapist and wrote fiction, poetry, and essays, generally published by smaller, avant-garde publishers. In 1959 he combined four earlier novels into The Empire City, which achieved some critical notice.
Goodman’s breakthrough came in 1960 with the publication of Growing Up Absurd, a study of the problems of Puerto Rican youths in New York City that was immediately recognized for its radical assault on the accepted centralized, bureaucratic solutions to the problems of the young, the poor, and minorities. The following year, he and Percival published an article with the idea for which he became best known, “Banning Cars from Manhattan.” Goodman had a number of traits that blended well with the popular culture of the 1960’s, including his questioning of accepted authority, his belief in small, voluntary social structures, and his rejection of contemporary sexual mores.
For the next ten years, he was a popular and productive figure. The novel Making Do featured a protagonist much like its author. The educational studies The Community of Scholars and Compulsory Mis-Education challenged the public schools. His social critiques appeared in the essay collection Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals and the monographs People or Personnel and Like a Conquered Province, the latter a series of lectures he first delivered on the Canadian Broadcasting Company network. Five Years was a series of diary entries from the 1950’s, covering everything from political theory to homosexual cruising. He taught at Sarah Lawrence College (1960-1961), the University of Wisconsin (1964), and the experimental college at San Francisco State College (1966). As the Vietnam War heated up, he spoke out against it and joined the draft resistance movement.
His health, however, was starting to fail. The death of his son, Matthew, in a 1967 mountain-climbing accident plunged him into depression, and he developed cardiac problems. In 1970 he published his last book of social criticism, New Reformation, in which he looked at the 1960’s youth movement he had helped to create. He found much to admire but thought that popular resistance to authority had gone too far, to a rejection of any sort of expertise or professionalism, and he was bemused to find his own words and ideas quoted back to him as if they were ancient, anonymous folk sayings. During 1971 to 1972 he took a visiting professorship at the University of Hawaii. His health continued to decline, and he died of a heart attack at his home in North Stratford, New Hampshire, on August 2, 1972.
Posthumous collections of his poetry, stories, and essays were published in the 1970’s, but, like many other 1960’s celebrities, he suffered a precipitous fall from public favor in that decade. He remained an influence on anarchist, decentralist, and queer thought.