Growing Up Absurd
New York Review Books Classics, 312pp, £9.99
In an essay about Paul Goodman written after his death in 1972, Susan Sontag referred to him as “our Sartre, our Cocteau”. This was then – and remains today – an eccentric opinion. Far from enjoying the centrality of a mandarin, Goodman remained on the fringes of American public life for most of his career. A prolific writer in many genres, he received little critical attention and is today remembered mainly by those with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the milieu of the New York intellectuals.
The one time when Goodman’s obsessions intersected perfectly with those of the age came in 1960, when he published Growing Up Absurd. This long essay or tract, just reissued by New York Review Books Classics, was one of the early tremors of what would become the 1960s earthquake. Like Herbert Marcuse and Norman O Brown, Goodman was taken up by the counterculture and the new left, who found in him a rare member of the older generation who really got it.
Goodman’s ghost would be appeased to see all the tributes to Growing Up Absurd that proliferate on the internet, more than 50 years later. Young readers still find it relevant, inspiring, intimate, true; they write of copying out long passages by hand and giving copies to everyone they know. The personal power they feel is registered in the title of a recent documentary about him, Paul Goodman Changed My Life. For, like The Catcher in the Rye, a book with which it bears a spiritual affinity, Growing Up Absurd brilliantly evokes the adolescent’s private sense of being misunderstood by a heartless and empty world. It is, as Holden Caulfield would say, the kind of book that makes you want to call up the author on the phone.
The persistent power of Growing Up Absurd is also, however, a kind of paradox, since Goodman was writing so specifically about the social conditions of mid-century America. The book takes the form of a report on a “modern” social problem then much in the news: juvenile delinquency. “Naturally, grown-up citizens are concerned about the beatniks and delinquents,” Goodman writes in his preface. “The school system has been subjected to criticism. And there is a lot of official talk about the need to conserve our human resources lest Russia get ahead of us.” In addition to delinquents and sputnik, Goodman invokes the beats in America and the angry young men in Britain, those quintessentially 1950s literary phenomena. What, he asks, is making so many boys – and his concern is explicitly with boys and men – unwilling or unable to “grow up” properly?
The answer, reiterated at length throughout the book, is a simple but radical one. The world of 1950s America, Goodman finds, is just not worth growing up into. “Pretty soon it becomes clear,” he writes, “that people are uneasy about, ashamed of, the world that they have given the children to grow up in. That world is not manly enough, it is not earnest enough . . . I assume that the young really need a more worthwhile world in order to grow up at all.” Each chapter of the book shows how this failure manifests itself in various areas of life: “Jobs”, “Patriotism”, “Faith” and, crucially, under the rubric “Social Animal”, sexuality.
The problems that Goodman identifies are all problems of affluence, of a society that for the first time in history has more than it needs to satisfy its members’ animal wants. It is no longer difficult to get a job, Goodman assumes; the middle class is taken care of by large corporations and the working class by large unions. The problem is that, material needs assuaged, spiritual needs can come to the fore and the system of interlocking bureaucracies that makes the economy run so smoothly leaves no room for individual initiative or manly spiritedness. “It’s hard to grow up when there isn’t enough man’s work. There is ‘nearly full employment’ . . . but there get to be fewer jobs that are necessary or unquestionably useful.”
There is a great irony in reading these words today, in a recession-racked economy that looks back to precisely Goodman’s moment as a lost paradise. In a golden age, the poet Randall Jarrell once wrote, everyone goes around complaining about how yellow everything looks. Just so, Goodman does not imagine that the alternative to a middle-class, highly unionised, steadily growing economy might not be an anarchists’ paradise of meaningful labour but what we have today: a world in which unions are emasculated, the middle class is shrinking and incomes are highly stratified.
Indeed, from a certain point of view, the liberalization of the economy in America and Britain in the 1980s solved the problem of the need for “man’s work”. As Goodman writes: “To produce necessary food and shelter is man’s work. During most of economic history most men have done this grudging work, secure that it was justified and worthy of a man to do it.” Today, when many men – and many women, too – have to work several jobs just to provide “necessary food and shelter”, the luxury of worrying about meaning has been priced out of reach.
Why, then, does Growing Up Absurd retain its power, even in a very different economic climate? The reason partly has to do with Goodman’s acute, compassionate observations about the effect of modern urban life on childhood. Housing projects destroy neighbourhoods and leave children without a community of adults to monitor them. Children marked early on as delinquents are handed over to a bureaucracy of police and social workers that treats them as problems rather than individuals. Worst of all, there is no room, physical or social, for children to have adventures. Goodman understands much of what is categorized as juvenile delinquency – up to and including vehicle theft – as “animal expression and some spirited enterprise”. “Where everything has become property and order, it is quite impossible to be vivacious, aggressive, undeliberate, exploratory and venturesome, without being out of order and sometimes smashing things,” he writes.
It is easy to hear in this admiration of boyishness the echo of a long American tradition – of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, even of Thoreau in his cabin. It would be a mistake to ignore the nostalgic, conservative strain in Goodman’s vision – a vision of childhood as a pastoral paradise lost. One of the virtues unavailable to modern children, he argues, is old-fashioned patriotism: “For the first time in recorded history, the mention of country, community, place has lost its power to animate . . . A man has only one life and if during it he has no great environment, no community, he has been irreparably robbed of a human right.”
Delinquency and beat-style “dropping out”, Goodman concludes, are a rational response to an adult world that no sane and honourable person would want to enter. In this way, criminals and dropouts become not a problem but a symptom and perhaps something more – a heroic counterculture and even the spearhead of revolution. “The fatalistic destruction of the kids struggling for life in an environment not suited to produce great human beings is more interesting than the successful doings of that society,” he concludes. That is why Goodman devotes the last two chapters of Growing Up Absurd to a quasi-anthropological study of the mores of the beats – whom he categorises as “the early resigned” – and of delinquents, “the early fatalistic”. They are two expressions – one for the middle class, one for the poor – of resistance to a bankrupt order that seemingly cannot be challenged head-on.
It is all so humane and sympathetic and plausible that one can easily lose track of the fundamental and dangerous error of Goodman’s diagnosis and prescriptions. The problem becomes clear in the last chapter, “The Missing Community”, in which he comes closest to offering a programme for solving the problems he has identified. The US has failed, he argues, to carry through to completion a number of the promising revolutions that the modern world began and abandoned – the Enlightenment revolution of reason and science, the democratic revolution of individual participation in government, the sexual revolution of free sexual expression. If we were to successfully finish these revolutions, Goodman writes, the result would be a society where – and he goes on to list its qualities – the community is “planned as a whole, with an organic integration of work, living and play . . . Where production is primarily for use. Where social groups are laboratories for solving their own problems experimentally . . . Where all feel themselves citizens of the universal Republic of Reason . . . Where ordinary experience is habitually scientifically assayed by the average man.”
“To grow up,” he concludes, “the young need . . . society made whole again.” Yet it could hardly be clearer that society was never as whole as all that; for what Goodman desires is not a return to any actual past but the new Jerusalem, a realm of perfect plenty, freedom, justice, fraternity, reason and equality. If only such a society can be considered decent, then it stands to reason that any existing society is indecent and therefore worthy of rejection. Those who hold out for perfection and are disappointed become morally superior to those who consent to live imperfectly, mitigating the world’s evils as best they can and learning to endure the suffering that cannot be mitigated. In other words, children become superior to adults.
It’s not hard to see, then, why Growing Up Absurd became so popular among the young. Nor is it hard to see why a left conceived in such terms should have contributed to destroying the liberal consensus that ruled the US during the time Goodman was writing. Today, Goodman looks like a classic bad teacher, the demagogic kind who flatters his students’ ignorance and conspires with them against the dull, grown-up world – when he should be teaching them that this world is, as the poet said, where we must find our happiness, or not at all.
Adam Kirsch’s most recent book is “Why Trilling Matters” (Yale University Press, £20)