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Richard Woodward, "Paul Goodman: Recounting Forgotten Man on the Attack"

Paul Goodman: Recounting Forgotten Man on the Attack
Richard B. Woodward

Even by the obstreperous standards of other New York intellectuals, Paul
Goodman (1911-72) was a special kind of troublemaker.

Anarchist, utopian, World War II pacifist, pied piper of the '60s youth
revolt, urban planner, Gestalt therapist, uncloseted bisexual and
crusader for gay rights, advocate of sustainable farming, gifted poet
and novelist, he exhibited a wayward independence that made him a party
of one in the American political arena but that also earned him the wary
respect of his peers. Susan Sontag called him one of her heroes. Alfred
Kazin and Lionel Trilling, neither one a fan of Goodman's theoretical
writings, confessed to a secret envy over his "scandalous reputation."

In his fascinating documentary, "Paul Goodman Saved My Life," opening Wednesday for two week at Film Forum, first-time director Jonathan Lee attempts to remedy the present amnesia about this provocative, maddening, complex and divisive figure. The tagline puts it well: "a
film about the most influential man you never heard of."

The opening snippet, from William F. Buckley's brainy "Firing Line," underscores the status Goodman once enjoyed. With his rumpled clothes and corncob pipe, he was the image of the American cracker-barrel professor eager to mix it up with anyone in a public forum. Magazines in the 1960s solicited his views on the regular tumults of the day.

As the documentary observes, paperback copies of his "Growing Up Absurd," an impassioned critique of American education, could be found in college dorm rooms during the '60s and '70s. Interviews with writer Grace Paley, journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, playwright Judith Malina, editor Jason Epstein, composer Ned Rorem and sociologist Michael Walzer
further testify to the wide circle of Goodman's friends and cultural interests.

The film is less successful at explaining why his renown has precipitously faded, although hints abound. Too willful to hold any academic appointment—even the far-from-puritanical Black Mountain College asked him not to return in 1950 after he made too many passes at
men and women and urinated on the baseball field—he seems to have chosen early in life to make his own crooked way in the world.

Whereas many bright Jewish students at City College of New York in the 1930s became communists (and later anticommunists), Goodman gravitated toward Bakunin, not Lenin. Anarchism and Jeffersonian democracy were his creeds. Big government and big corporations were both the enemy. They stood in the way of what he thought should be the goal of life—personal fulfillment through individual freedom.

"Any intellectual movement that prevented people from creating something new, he had to attack," said Mr. Lee over the phone.

Interviews with Goodman's three daughters and wife suggest that such libertarian principles created tensions in his family. Twice married, he became openly gay in the 1940s, when such sexual expression was legally and physically dangerous. For years his routine did not vary. He would write books in the mornings, cruise Times Square for young men in the afternoon, then return home for supper with his wife and children.

He was allowed to have as many affairs as he wanted, but, as his wife, Susan Goodman, says in the film, he forbade her the same autonomy. Feminism may be the only radical movement that passed him by.

The popularity of "Growing Up Absurd" turned him into a prophet of discontent and a "philosopher of the New Left," even though he had no use for violent revolutionaries, or they for him.

"I'm someone who makes sense," he says in the film. "Unlike SDS, which makes none." Lecturing 19-year-olds when in his 50s proved a strain. "I hate their music, which I find very boring," he confesses.

The film argues persuasively that Goodman deserves to be read again. Most of his more than 20 books are out of print and histories of the period have shamefully neglected him. He doesn't rate a single mention in Michael Kazin's "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation," and the Library of America chose not to include his writings in its canonical series.

According to Mr. Lee, Goodman's youngest daughter, Daisy Goodman, believes that were her father alive today he would be in downtown New York, siding with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and instructing them.

"I know what ails these young people," he says in a clip from a 1960s student rally. "I think I know what in our society has caused it. Morally, they're 100% in the right. But they won't discover it by themselves. Never, never, never."

Was Goodman an admirably brave nonconformist who resisted all forms of authority? Or was he impossibly selfish and naive, an idealist with too high an opinion of his own woolly-minded thoughts and too little respect for those of others?

Mr. Lee presents ample evidence that either answer, or both, may be true.