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Goodman is now mainly remembered as a notable political activist on the pacifist Left in the 1960s and early 70s. Politically he described himself as an anarchist, sexually as pederast (Rossman, 1976, pp.87-92), and professionally as a "man of letters". Less widely known is his role as a co-founder of Gestalt Therapy.
Born in New York City, he freely roamed the streets and public libraries of the city as a child (and later developed, from this, the radical concept of "the educative city"). He taught at the University of Chicago while he was taking his Ph.D., but fell in love with a student and was dismissed. He fathered a family by two common-law wives, and his early years were characterized by menial and teaching jobs taken to enable him to continue as a writer and to support his children.
His first novel, The Grand Piano, was published in 1942. More novels followed, including the notorious Parents' Day (1951), and more than 100 short-stories. But public recognition only came when he was nearly fifty, in 1960 with Growing Up Absurd: problems of youth in the organized system. This led to him being taken up, as a guiding light, by the radical counterculture of the mid and late 1960s.
His Collected Poems was first published in 1974. During his life he wrote on a wide variety of subjects; including education, Gestalt Therapy, city life and urban design (the influential classic Communitas (1947)), children's rights, politics, literary criticism, and many more. He was at home with the avant-garde and with classical texts, and his fiction often mixes formal and experimental styles. The subject matter and style of Goodman's short stories have been an influence on those of Guy Davenport.
The freedom with which he revealed, in print and in public, his homosexual life and loves (notably in a late essay, "The Politics of Being Queer" (1969)), proved to be one of the many important cultural springboards for the emerging gay liberation movement of the early 1970s. However, his own views ran counter to the modern construction of homosexuality. It was his opinion that it was pathological not to be able to make love to someone of the opposite sex, but that it was equally pathological "not to be able to experience homosexual pleasure." Likewise, it was his view that sexual relationships between men and boys were natural, normal and healthy, and that they could lay the foundation for continuing friendship even after the sexuality is outgrown (since "sex play does not last long between males, as a rule").(ibid, p.88)
In discussing his own sexual relationships with boys, he acknowledged that public opinion would condemn him, but countered that "what is really obscene is the way our society makes us feel shameful and like criminals for doing human things that we really need." In diagnosing the problems of modern education, which even in his time was accused of killing the spirit of the youngsters and leaving them bereft of curiosity and creativity, he underlined that "a good pupil-teacher relationship inevitably has sexual overtones" and that acknowledgement and proper channeling of these tensions would lead to a better educational environment.(ibid, p.89)
- Kingsley Widmer. Paul Goodman (Twayne, 1980)
- Tom Nicely. Adam & His Work: a bibliography of sources by and about Paul Goodman (1911-1972) (Scarecrow Press, 1979).
- Black Sparrow Press keeps some of Goodman's fiction in print, including The Collected Stories (published in 4 volumes from 1978-80).
- Rossman, Parker Sexual Experience Between Men and Boys New York, 1976