Paul Goodman (9 September 1911 – 2 August 1972) was an American poet, writer, and public intellectual who is now mainly remembered as a notable political activist on the pacifist Left in the 1960s and early 70s. Less widely known is his role as a co-founder of Gestalt Therapy. In this regard, he was strongly influenced by Otto Rank's "here-and-now" approach to psychotherapy, fundamental to Gestalt therapy, as well as Rank's post-Freudian book Art and Artist (1932).

Politically, Goodman described himself as an anarchist, sexually as bisexual, and professionally as a "man of letters".

Early life

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. His early years were characterized by menial and teaching jobs taken to enable him to continue as a writer and to support his children.


Goodman was a prolific writer of essays, fiction and poetry. Although he had been writing short stories since 1932, his first novel, The Grand Piano, was published in 1942. More novels followed, including the notorious gay-themed novel 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.

In the meantime, he wrote Kafka's Prayer (1947) and the same year co-wrote, with his brother Percival, the influential classic Communitas (1947). Shortly thereafter, he was asked by Fritz Perls to write up the notes which would later be published as Part II of Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (1951), co-authored by Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline, and which was the seminal work for the new therapy. A year later, Goodman would become one of the Group of Seven - Fritz and Laura Perls, Isadore From, Goodman, Elliot Shapiro, Paul Weiss, Richard Kitzler - the founding members of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.

During his life he wrote on a wide variety of subjects; including education, Gestalt Therapy, city life and urban design, children's rights, politics, literary criticism, and many more. In an interview with Studs Terkel, Goodman said "I might seem to have a number of divergent interests — community planning, psychotherapy, education, politics — but they are all one concern: how to make it possible to grow up as a human being into a culture without losing nature. I simply refuse to acknowledge that a sensible and honorable community does not exist."

He was equally 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.

Hayden Carruth wrote "Any page of Paul Goodman will give you not only originality and brilliance but wisdom — that is, something to think about. He is our peculiar, urban, twentieth-century Thoreau, the quintessential American mind of our time."

His Collected Poems (1974) was published posthumously.

Views and opinions

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 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, 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 acknowledgment and proper channeling of these tensions would lead to a better educational environment.(ibid, p.89)

After having been a strong advocate of the student movement during most of the 1960s, Goodman eventually became a staunch critic of the ideological harshness the "New Left" embraced toward the end of the decade. In "New Reformation" (1970), his tenth book of social criticism, he argued that their "alienation" and existential rage had usurped what worthwhile political goals sixties youths had had in the earlier part of the decade (e.g. the Port Huron Statement), and that therefore their tactics had become destructive. (p. 47-60, 144-163) The book further situated this drama of the tumultuous sixties in the larger context of what Goodman called "the disease of modern times." (p. 22). In drawing this parallel between young peoples' socio-historical consciousness and their political activism, Goodman made an early contribution to the argument that the philosophical underpinnings of the New Left were largely informed by postwar disenchantment with Enlightenment conceptions of science, technology, truth, knowledge, and power relations.

For instance, after a hostile exchange with student radicals who had heckled him "heatedly and rudely" at a campus appearance in 1967, Goodman wrote, "suddenly I realized that they did not believe there was a nature of things. [To them] there was no knowledge but only the sociology of knowledge. They had learned so well that physical and sociological research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they were doubtful that there was such a thing as simple truth, for instance that the table was made of wood--maybe it was plastic imitation...I had imagined that the worldwide student protest had to do with changing political and moral institutions, and I was sympathetic to this. But I now saw that we had to do with a religious crisis. Not only all institutions but all learning had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon, and there was no longer any salvation to be got from Works."

After a life of revolutionary revelry and social criticism, Goodman's likening of the youth revolt in the 1960s to the Protestant Reformation of 1517 made up the crux of his belief about American modernity in the late sixties: "It is evident that, at present, we are not going to give up the mass faith in scientific technology that is the religion of modern times; and yet we cannot continue with it, as it has been perverted. So I look for a 'New Reformation.'" (xi)

Goodman participated at the 1967 Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, held in London, and which was aimed at "creating a genuine revolutionary consciousness by fusing ideology and action on the levels of the individual and of mass society" [2]. It was coordinated by South African psychiatrist David Cooper, and other participants included R. D. Laing, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Marcuse.

His son Matthew died in a mountain climbing accident in 1967. Friends say Goodman never recovered from the grief this caused him and his health began to deteriorate. He died of a heart attack just before his sixty-first birthday.


It is by losing ourselves in inquiry, creation & craft that we become something. Civilization is a continual gift of spirit: inventions, discoveries, insight, art. We are citizens, as Socrates would have said, & we have it available as our own.

We propose banning private cars from Manhattan Island ... Present congestion & parking are unworkable, & other proposed solutions are uneconomic, disruptive, unhealthy, nonurban, or impractical ...

- from "Banning Cars From Manhattan" (1961) by Paul & Percival Goodman

How well they flew together side by side

the Stars and Stripes my red and white and blue and my Black Flag the sovereignty of no man or law! They were the flags of pride and nature and advanced with equal stride across the age when Jefferson long ago saluted both and said, “Let Shays’ men go. If you discourage mutiny and riot what check is there on government?

- Paul Goodman, in Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State (1973)

Further reading

Essays and non-fiction

  • Growing Up Absurd
  • Kafka's Prayer (1947)
  • Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality - Frederick Perls, Ralph F. Hefferline, Paul Goodman (1951)
  • Communitas - Paul and Percival Goodman
  • Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (1962)
  • The Politics of Being Queer (1969)
  • New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative (Vintage, 1970)
  • Nature Heals: The Psychological Essays of Paul Goodman (1977).
  • Crazy Hope & Finite Experience: Final Essays of Paul Goodman - Edited by Taylor Stoehr Jossey-Bass Publishers, California, (1994)


  • The Grand Piano (1942)
  • Parents' Day (1951)
  • The Empire City
  • The Collected Stories of Paul Goodman - edited by Taylor Stoehr (published in 4 volumes from 1978-80).


  • Collected Poems (1974)

On Goodman

  • Here, Now, Next: Paul Goodman and the Origins of Gestalt Therapy - Taylor Stoehr
  • Paul Goodman - Kingsley Widmer (Twayne, 1980)
  • Adam & His Work: a bibliography of sources by and about Paul Goodman (1911-1972) - Tom Nicely (Scarecrow Press, 1979).


  • [1] Rossman, Parker Sexual Experience Between Men and Boys (pp.87-92) New York, 1976
  • [2] The Dialectics of Liberation, Ed. David Cooper (Penguin, 1968) David Cooper

External links

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