Paul Goodman described himself once as “an orphan who had had a home.” His father abandoned the family while Paul was still an infant. His older brother set out early on his own, and his mother, “a bourgeois gypsy,” was often away. He was cared for—through even his years in college—by his sister Alice, almost ten years his senior. The first book of The Empire City is dedicated to her.
Many writers speak of a lonely youth, a flight into books and the world of the imagination. Paul seems instead to have contrived a family of poets and philosophers. His great masters, his fathers, were Aristotle and Kant. If the many principled examples of Paul’s life were not well known, it would be difficult to make believable the simple earnestness with which he pursued the ideals conceived in obedience to these two.
I met him in 1948. He was then thirty-seven. I was studying with William Troy at the New School, and like several of my classmates was already a Goodman fan (The Facts of Life, Kafka’s Prayer, The Grand Piano, Parents’ Day, Art and Social Nature; two Noh plays at the 91st Street Y, a production of Faustina by some poets and artists in a loft on 8th Street).
Paul’s conversation was dazzling. He was bold and iconoclastic, and was much given to rearranging, or removing entirely, the accepted pillars of culture. Yet for all his high spirits and the spontaneity of his thought and wit, there was something about him that seemed willed, willed in exactly the style of an idealistic youth correcting himself continually toward some lofty goal. Ten years later the same thing was visible; and ten years after that.
Another trait was striking. Among his agemates (as one would say, in the egotism of one’s own generation) he was combative and arrogant, and could rarely abide to be opposed; but when he felt secure, as before us admiring younger ones who accepted him as a teacher, the egotist vanished, and there appeared instead a selfless, prodigious boy, an angel of mind whose feats of memory and analysis seemed like familiar descriptions of a much-loved home. (This kind of love, comradely, familial, and touched by yearning, appears also in a writer who otherwise doesn’t resemble him: Maxim Gorky.)
By his own count Paul wrote forty books. The apparent diversity of his work is actually the unfolding of one large underlying theme: the search for harmony of the life made by man, and the life not made, but given.
It was a theme that entailed many duties. We find him, for example—especially in the poems, and the autobiographical Five Years—speaking of the task of creating a self. (“Long have I labored to make me Goodman.”) It was such a self, however, as stands in contrast to the familiar persona of art (as a poet imagines a bardic figure and tries to live it), for it was the minimal …
Copyright © 1973 by the Estate of Paul Goodman
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