The year is 1959. In a Manhattan apartment, Paul Goodman sits down to write. The product of a single-parent Jewish family, he is lean and sloppily dressed, making his living from a mixture of teaching and freelance journalism.
From his window, he can see a city that is booming, both materially and culturally. Consumerism has just taken off but there is also a thriving creative community, in which an aspiring Jewish writer, who feels himself exiled from mainstream, middle-class WASP society, can, he hopes, find a home and thrive. At loft parties, Goodman has met fellow intellectuals and artists, amongst them Susan Sontag, who finds him boastful, rude, "cold and self-absorbed" -- a view that others would also share. His personality is difficult, born from a sense of grievance and the growing need to declare his homosexuality in a society that was still in the grip of 1950s conventionality.
Goodman had written before, but this book -- Growing up Absurd -- would make his name and become one of the most influential books of the approaching turbulent decade of political questioning and civil protest. Before its appearance, he had earned an insecure income from a mixture of university teaching and freelance journalism. Afterwards, he could devote his energies full time to writing and the pursuit of his sexual interests.
Publication, however, did not go smoothly. Rejected by its commissioning publisher and by a host of other firms, it was only accepted after it was serialized in Commentary, one of the major New York cultural magazines. In spite of its inauspicious entry into the world, however, it soon sold over 100,000 copies and was adopted by the student movement, which shared Goodman's passionate anxieties about the state of American society.
Goodman wrote with a library-acquired knowledge of the political and sociological theories that circulated in late-'50s intellectual New York. He read the relevant texts, and kept up to date with the latest explanations of juvenile crime and theories on urban planning. But he also knew the city's streets, and its offices and schools and homes. While he wrote, his sense of the pulse and texture of these places coloured and drove his arguments forward as much as the ideas to which he was vigorously reacting. Continuously and forcefully, Goodman sought to penetrate the surfaces of the city to uncover the reality of what lay beneath -- beneath, for example, the tough mask of the gang member, or the smooth facade of the corporate office worker.
Goodman picked up the murmurings of unease that would soon feed the protests of the '60s. His starting point was a relatively simple one: society should reflect the realities of human nature rather than the other way round. Those who had trouble conforming to the rules should be respected for their willingness to reject the false and artificial system in which they grew up, rather than be reformed. Turning on its head the still-dominant professional way of framing the relationship between the individual and their society, with which social workers, teachers and probation officers try to persuade disaffected young people to adapt to their surroundings, he argued instead that we should recognise the validity of this disaffection.
While Goodman's wish to value the poorly socialised individual may be viewed as naive or even dangerous today, Goodman's message is a warning against overly simplistic solutions to a variety of social and educational problems -- solutions that refuse to accept the legitimacy of the client's or the student's perspective.
Nor is Goodman's argument merely relevant to those labelled as deviant or non-conformist. Office and factory employees alike, he argued, lead stunted lives due to a lack of worthwhile employment -- employment that is both useful and properly engaging, rather than meaningless, because of its disconnection from the company's planning and decision-making processes. Jobs in sales or advertising mirror, in their emptiness, jobs in car manufacturing or repairing.
As Goodman records, in 1960, a group of young people on a New York street corner talking about what they would like to do after school, there is little sense for contemporary readers that much has changed in the half-century since the book's publication. Arguably, the work of bank clerks or call-centre operators today seems just as unreal and detached from reality to them as it did to their predecessors.
Also of continuing relevance is Goodman's insistence on the need to attend to the reality of people's behaviour and expressed needs. Society and its official representatives shouldn't pretend, for example, that youthful male sexuality isn't a fact of life, or that young people don't wish to be successful in the real world. We have to take everyone "seriously," Goodman argues, including those who seem deviant, so as to ensure that the system "accommodates itself to all its constituent members."
As it is, however -- both then and now -- the reverse is the case. Many in society are compelled to live on the margins, either because of poverty or because they cannot subscribe to the surrounding materialistic values. Goodman writes vividly and forcefully about various kinds of "outcasts" -- the poor, the delinquents, the eccentrics, the Beats and, most interestingly, the role-playing conformists -- "hipsters" -- who only play lip-service to what society requires of them; they may dress the part of the efficient office worker but their hearts and minds are elsewhere. Alienated from the modern world of big cities, in which local neighbourhoods are disappearing fast and in which giant impersonal corporations dominate the physical and metaphoric skylines, Goodman's book is a kind of elegy for a lost and more human place in which to grow up and live.
Obviously, there is the risk of such a work getting bogged down in nostalgia. Then, as now, critics decry the idea of a golden age and talk up the benefits and attractions of the present. However, what they say might carry more weight if it were not for the powerful and sustained nature of the case that Goodman makes against the way in which things are organised. Few groups or individuals escape his angry but reasoned criticism -- from political leaders who exploit the Cold War with the Soviet Union (our equivalent is Islamic terrorism) to justify repression at home and military aggression abroad, to left-wing academics who betray their beliefs and their students when their careers are at stake.
Mixing insights from sociology, psychology, moral philosophy and urban studies, amongst other disciplines, Goodman portrays a society that has lost its soul, in which "places have no shape," and human creativity is regarded less highly than mere efficiency. Writing in the late '50s, he foresaw the world of shopping malls and multi-national corporations that have colonised the old city-spaces that were built to a human scale and which provided "an open margin to grow in."
As he harks back to the American pioneering myth of individual self-fulfilment, Goodman laments the development of authoritarian and over-bureaucratised organisations, whether private or state, that seek to control every part of life, including the seasons -- "for in the Supermarket there is no sequence of food and flowers." Prophetically, just around the corner of the book's vision are the surveillance camera, the identity card and an "aimless" culture in which a society founded on empty consumption -- of products and images -- has replaced one based on vocation and "human-centred community."
Of course, Goodman can be accused of romanticism and over-statement. Nevertheless, his voice, although rarely smooth and elegant, is forceful -- "a generous American voice...convincing, genuine, singular" -- wrote Susan Sontag in her admiring obituary of him for the New York Review of Books. And his analysis is also balanced. Towards the end of Growing Up Absurd, a chapter weighs the benefits that recent changes have supposedly brought to a wide range of areas. Thus, modern architecture has provided increased functional housing, but has not created an environment where there is an "organic relation of work, living, and play"; the working class has made significant social and economic advances, but only at the cost of "increasing rigidity of statuses" and the "degradation of popular culture." Goodman may write out of a passionate utopianism, based on his wish that all young people have the chance to grow up with a strong sense of purpose and meaning, but it is a utopianism that is nuanced and always grounded in argument.
The '60s counter-culture was certainly influenced by Goodman's ideas, with echoes of his views to be heard in the voices of such social critics as Theodore Roszack, Herbert Marcuse and Norman Mailer. Today as well, however, anyone disenchanted with corporate capitalism can look to Goodman for inspiration. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, a copy of Growing Up Absurd was found in the knapsack of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, on his arrest in 1996.