At a particularly edgy moment between husband and wife in Paul Goodman’s Five Years, a weighty journal of the lean Fifties when Goodman was already “over the hill” and “unwanted,” he shouts, “bitterly”: “You write twenty books and get the reception that I’ve gotten. Do you think it’s like putting on your hat?” During those dispiriting days, with at least two decades of social and literary activity behind him, spartanly supporting himself and his family on little more than a few thousand dollars a year, Goodman was shaken with the belittling thought that the most “expressive relation” to an America of “venality and folly,” “to that stingy world,” he could possibly manage was “to be spitefully Utopian, to bawl.” Still—and it is characteristic of his extraordinary career, characteristic of how we are swept in and out of fashion—lachrymose or not, wretched or not, he wrote. “Who speaks of victory?” asks Rilke. “Survival is all….”
A forgotten anarchist from the era of the patrician Roosevelt, Paul Goodman absurdly (and perhaps not so absurdly) at long last “arrives”—as, among other things, a guru of the young—during the era of the neopatrician Kennedy. Brave and beautiful (morally, not physically—among the many images of himself, probably the one Goodman most enjoys polishing is that of the Socratic seducer: what do these students and strangers see in “my tired face” and “missing teeth” and “near-sighted eyes,” he asks himself, and on occasion answers himself, too: “People say otherwise,/but lust is the magnet of beauty”), spikey and self-inflamed, Goodman is a public figure who, as he likes to say, “comes across,” a knight of the conference table, a pipe-smoking, problem-solving ideologue in the war of the pamphlets. Also a poet, no doubt here and there a crude one, no doubt nowadays even appearing a little addled, but still in God’s grace because he believes he has God’s message, a Jonah addressing Nineveh on the Hudson:
I have among the Americans
the gift of honest speech
that says how a thing is
—if I do not, who will do it….
In place of shining armor Goodman offers shining proposals, scribbles letters to the Times, lectures from campus to campus, scatters hectoring (if no less helpful) epistles on every subject, on psychology and sociology, pornography and technology, urbanism and education, on sex and ethics and aesthetics. Not surprisingly, the envious suspect him of being the thinking man’s Max Lerner. “It is true that I don’t know much, but it is false that I write about many subjects. I have only one,” he says, “the human beings I know in their man-made scene.”
Although a utopian and a communitarian, Goodman, nevertheless, has always been smitten with heroic “being in the world,” promiscuous pursuits, above all with America, not Imperial America, but with what he calls, “our beautiful, libertarian, pluralist, and populist experiment.” Thus he has—and it is one of the shrewder things about him—a …