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Paul Goodman Biography

     Paul Goodman was born in New York City on September 9, 1911. He never knew his father who abandoned the family when Paul was an infant. This left his bohemian mother a working single parent. His brother Percival left home early. He was raised without much supervision by his mother's sisters and his older sister Alice in the rich atmosphere of the urban Jewish intellectual community of the early part of the century. He was a bookish and curious child who roamed freely in the streets, parks, museums and libraries of New York City absorbing a truly free education. He graduated from City College in the depression year of 1931 and snuck into classes at Columbia and Harvard. Through a Columbia professor he was invited to teach at the University of Chicago while he earned his Ph.D in Literature, but he was fired from his job (as he was fired from every teaching job in his life) because he insisted on his right to fall in love with his students. He was never in the closet about his bisexuality and saw no reason to hide it even in the face of the trouble it caused him in that less permissive time.

     Through the next twenty-five years he lived with his common-law wife Sally. Goodman had two daughters, Susan (whose mother was Virginia Miller, Goodman's first wife) and Daisy, and a son, Matthew Ready. During this time they lived in decent poverty and an ideal environment for serious people. They got by on little jobs including a $5 per story contract with the MGM story department in New York for plot synopses of French novels. During this time he wrote furiously. He considered himself an artist and produced mostly poems, plays and short stories. He promoted himself vigorously but met with little acceptance of his mostly avant-garde style. He was involved with little literary magazines, theater groups and political activities centered around the Spanish Anarchist Hall (Solidaridad International Anti-Fascista).

     Midlife found Paul Goodman drained and fearful in the face of his status as a marginal artist with children to raise. He wrote in a journal: I am at a loss, in our great city, how to do anything at all that could make an immediate difference in our feeling and practice (and so in my own feeling and practice). Therefore I have ceased to want anything, I do not know what we want. It was at this time that he met Fritz Perls, a German Jew who spent the Hitler years in South Africa and fled to the United States as the apartheid regime arose there. Perls had studied with the founding generation of Freudians but soon developed a very unconventional therapeutic practice. Perls' ideas blended well with Goodman's and they were soon involved in a rich collaboration, founding the Gestalt Therapy Institute and writing Gestalt Therapy .

     This exposure shifted Goodmanâs career from artist/writer to social critic. He wrote no more stories or plays and fewer poems. His breakthrough book, Growing Up Absurd, was rejected by a dozen publishers before finally seeing print in 1960 and becoming a huge success. Soon the rest of society began to catch up to him as young people began to rebel against the excessive conventionality of the fifties. He was well placed to address the anti-institutional critique which emerged at this time and led to massive change in the years to come. By the mid-sixties he was adopted as sort of an uncle of the youth/student movement, wrote a book a year, and made almost constant campus appearances. His contribution was scholarly yet personal, classical yet revolutionary, and thoroughly natural and anti-institutional.

     As the movement became the Movement and shifted to a struggle between the Old Left and the New Left, Goodman remained unapologetically free. Many of his former followers abandoned him as he refused to offer a blueprint for building structures for the future, preferring the formulation of here, now, next. He seemed both saddened and relieved by this and soon settled into his familiar status as outsider critic, but now with a comfortable fame and some financial security.

     In 1967 his son Mathew died tragically in a mountain climbing accident. Friends say he never recovered from the grief this caused him. Soon his health began to deteriorate and his writing mellowed into the reflections of an old warrior. He died of a heart attack on August 2, 1972, just short of his sixty-first birthday.

By: John Fitzgerald

Brief Biography


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