Growing Up Absurd
|Subject||Social criticism, sociology, American youth|
|LC Class||HQ796 G66|
Growing Up Absurd is a 1960 book by Paul Goodman on the relationship between American juvenile delinquency and societal opportunities to fulfill natural needs. Contrary to the then-popular view that juvenile delinquents should be led to properly regard society and its goals, Goodman argued that young American men were justified in their disaffection because their society lacked the preconditions for growing up, such as meaningful work, honorable community, sexual freedom, and spiritual sustenance.
The book drew from Goodman's prior works, psychotherapy practice, and personal experiences and relations in New York City. Originally offered an advance by a small New York press to write on city youth gangs, he was asked to return the funds when the resulting book, written in late 1959, focused less on the youth than the American culture and value systems in which the youth were raised. In total, 19 publishers rejected Growing Up Absurd before Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz found the piece to relaunch his magazine and encouraged Random House publisher Jason Epstein to reconsider the book. Goodman had a contract the next day. Random House published the book in 1960 and a Vintage Books paperback edition followed two years later.
Goodman's book became a best-seller with 100,000 copies sold in its first three years and translations into five languages. It was widely read across 1960s college campuses and popular among student activists and the New Left, who assimilated the author's ideology. Growing Up Absurd transformed Goodman's outcast career into mainstream notoriety as a social critic, including invitations to lecture at hundreds of colleges. But Goodman's fame faded as quickly as it came. In later years, reviewers reproached Goodman's exclusion of women from his analysis. Many specifics of the book became dated with time, as well. New York Review Books reissued Growing Up Absurd in 2012.
Following World War II, amidst underlying fears from nuclear proliferation, American radicals began to describe increasingly regimented societal expectations as "the organized system" by the mid-1950s. Themes of rising defiant, restless, disaffected youth culture seceding from social order became popular in the media, between teenage gangs, bohemian beatniks, and the more reckless working-class youth.  Growing Up Absurd follows 1950s sociological critiques like The Organization Man but instead of focusing on business personnel, focuses on the collateral damage.  Growing Up Absurd author Paul Goodman disagrees with the then-common view that the solution for youth disaffection was to bring the youth to properly regard society and its goals. Siding with the youth, he argued that the young already understood and rejected society's overorganized and unimportant goals. 
In Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System,  Goodman blames American culture and value systems for the rise of juvenile delinquency in the late 1950s.  He argues that both urban juvenile delinquency and the beatnik subculture were responses of rebellion against the organized system.  Goodman focuses on young men who, he argues, were justified in their rebellion against a society lacking in meaningful vocation, honorable community, sexual freedom, and spiritual sustenance.  Youth require these qualities in their society in order to grow up and develop their social and moral identities. 
Work becomes meaningless, Goodman argued, when it focuses on role, procedure, profit, rather than love, style, interest, use.  Since advertising spurred artificial demand for useless goods,  corporate jobs had become abundant but were unfulfilling, without a sense of purpose or service,   and climbing to corporate power through routine, bureaucratic jobs was contrary to the ideals of purposeful vocation.  Worse, this mechanical state of affairs was widely accepted as inescapable or the natural conditions of work, for which Goodman used the metaphor: an "apparently closed room" fixated on a " rat race".  Those that did not conform, he writes, were cast aside as " drop-outs" with inchoate frustration.  Goodman refers to this corporate takeover as " sociolatry", that citizens had traded the simple pleasures of daily life for the securities of living under an affluent, mechanized order. To Goodman, this trade-off was "absurd":  even with better schools and staffing, it would still be wrong to "socialize" youth into role responsibilities detrimental to human nature.  If societal aims are wrong, the urge to socialize children becomes circular and self-serving. Goodman asks, "Socialization to what?"  Those seeking to correct delinquency, he wrote, should instead improve society and culture's opportunities to meet the appetites of human nature. Goodman faulted social critics, including himself, and academic sociologists for being content with studying this system without endeavoring to change it.  He held that attempts to mold human nature to social order would backfire  and that, given the chance, "freedom and meaning will outweigh anomie". 
To create a society worthy for youth to want to join, Goodman resolves, certain "unfinished" revolutions must be brought to their conclusion on topics including brotherhood of man, democracy, free speech, pacifism, progressive education, syndicalism, and technology. He implores readers to seriously pursue these ideals,  to not just rebel but to do so politically. 
Author Paul Goodman had a marginal intellectual career prior to publishing Growing Up Absurd, sustained by his wife's secretarial salary and his psychotherapy practice.  Throughout the 1950s, Goodman developed his practice of Gestalt therapy and finished his epic novel The Empire City. The novel ends with its protagonist, at the encouragement of his therapist, "spoiling for a fight" to reclaim his sick society from the forces that alienated him. Goodman, in his journals, blamed his own cowardice as blocking his ability to specify this "fight". He wanted to identify his own personal fight, which he would then supplant in the story.  He later came to conclude that the fight would be "war against the Organized System" and it need not be his fictional protagonist's war but the living author's own, beginning with Growing Up Absurd and running throughout the rest of the 60s. Like Goodman's protagonist, Goodman believed that he had to work through his societal alienation by participating in society.  He drew from his psychotherapy practice as well, which focused on changing societal circumstances rather than his clients. 
In 1958, after publishing in small political and cultural magazines, Goodman began to receive requests for writing and speaking on social criticism from mainstream editors.  He read Washington, Jefferson, Thoreau, and Emerson and pondered his own patriotic intervention in American society.  A small New York press, Criterion Books, offered Goodman a $500 advance  to write a book on New York's teenage gangs in mid-1959.  The resulting manuscript, however, did not focus on the youth but the American culture and value systems in which the youth were raised.  Goodman wrote the manuscript over several weeks spanning multiple months.  The final work thematically derived from topics he had been addressing for years, such that some parts were simply quoted from past works. He drew from his personal interactions in New York City, his teaching experience, and his colleagues Benjamin Nelson, Harold Rosenberg, and Elliott Shapiro.  Also significant, where his prior writing had qualities of hectoring insistence and recklessness, according to Goodman's literary executor, Growing Up Absurd tried a new style that was powerfully earnest, direct, and patient. Goodman was confident that his message was clear and agreeable.  Goodman wrote in his diary that upon finishing his last chapter, he whistled " The Star-Spangled Banner" as he walked the chapter to his publisher. He saw himself as patriotically defending his country against "the system".  Goodman wanted his political message to be read in advance of the 1960 presidential campaign under the belief that his manuscript's cultural issues of conformity and alienation were, in truth, political issues.  The publisher decided not to publish the manuscript and asked Goodman to return the advance for delivering work unfit for print.  The manuscript was rejected by 19 publishers, including the publisher that would ultimately print it. 
In his memoir, Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz wrote that he had been searching for an "opening salvo" on juvenile delinquency and middle-class youth deviance, a highly publicized topic, to mark his magazine's reimagination as a home for American social criticism. Most treatments of the subject, he wrote, described the phenomenon as "unrelated incidents of individual pathology ... to be dealt with either sternly by the cops or benevolently by the psychiatrists".  He heard about Goodman's finished manuscript and the part that was published in Dissent. Despite what he described as his long-standing admiration for Goodman's writing and "colloquial directness", he considered the magazine piece uninteresting but was impressed by the work as "the very incarnation of the new spirit I had been hoping would be at work in the world". 
According to Podhoretz's memoir, he excitedly called Random House editor Jason Epstein, whom he convinced to come over and read the manuscript that night. Though Random House had previously rejected the manuscript and Epstein thought of Goodman as a "has-been", Goodman had a contract the next day.  With the book's release planned for later in 1960, Goodman and Podhoretz revised over half the manuscript into three extended serial extracts for the editor's reimagined Commentary magazine,  which ran in February, March, and April 1960. Extracts also ran in Dissent, Mademoiselle, and Manas around the same time.  While Goodman normally rejected attempts to revise his work as a violation of the human spirit's natural flow, Goodman approved of Random House's appointed book editor. According to Goodman's brother, the editor's manuscript edits were the only edits Goodman permitted in his career. 
Random House published the book's first edition in 1960  and Vintage Books printed the first paperback two years later. Growing Up Absurd was translated into French (1971), German (1971), Italian (1964), Japanese (1971), and Spanish (1971).  New York Review Books reissued the book in 2012 with a foreword by Casey Nelson Blake.  The book's appendices include articles and book reviews by Goodman from the late 1950s. 
Growing Up Absurd was Goodman's first work of " abnormal sociology"—just as abnormal psychology describes the conditions of unusual behavior, Goodman's book addressed the institutions and politics that inhibited functional behavior. As a follow-up to Gestalt Therapy, his last nonfiction work a decade prior, Growing Up Absurd served as Goodman's reparative therapies for abnormal social conditions.  Goodman dedicated Growing Up Absurd to the Gestalt psychotherapist Lore Perls for her role in helping train and mentor him as a therapist, helping cool his defiance, and enabling him such that he could write the book.  The book's core indictment of the societal conditions that produce delinquency, however, were not necessarily original to Goodman and was concurrent or presaged in the work of sociologists R. D. Laing and Herbert Marcuse.  Goodman considered his proposals conservative in how he sought to restore aspects of the past. 
The book was a best-seller,  with 100,000 copies sold in three years  and half a million paperback copies printed by 1973.  Growing Up Absurd enjoyed wide readership among the New Left  and across 1960s college campuses.   Goodman's ideas became popular with student activists and it was said that every activist at Berkeley had a copy, even if few read the full text.  Americans had seen isolated headlines on juvenile delinquency but had not noticed the similar patterns between both urban and beatnik revolt against the organized system. To this public, Goodman's literary executor Taylor Stoehr recounted, Growing Up Absurd was "a revelation".  Chapters from the book were republished in radical and mainstream magazines.  Commentary readers responded positively  and the revamped magazine's editor Norman Podhoretz credited the strong response to Growing Up Absurd's serialized extractions for Commentary's quick ascent.  Following the book's success, Goodman's publisher expressed interest in reprinting his Communitas.  Extracts from Growing Up Absurd later ran in the Evergreen Review  and many edited group volumes.  Unlike the American response, its release was panned in the British press. 
Growing Up Absurd was revelatory to readers who had not considered but wanted to believe that work and ideals were connected. To this new audience, Goodman read as both fresh and old-fashioned: a contemporary man of letters's unabashed advocacy for a moral culture with traditional values of faith, honor, vocation. Goodman's discussion of the "rat race" and worthwhile work too resonated with college students, who had similar realizations, but was more distant to adults who had grown accustomed to the American nature of work.  The book's advocacy for youth's sexual freedom was shocking to older readers and some accused Goodman of using the book to argue for acceptance of sexual deviance. 
Contemporaneously, public intellectual John K. Galbraith described Goodman's book as hard to read from its title to its appendix, in contrast to the increasingly commonplace slick and superficial mass market works of criticism.  Dwight Macdonald too lamented Goodman's writing being less clear than his thinking, though Macdonald admired Growing Up Absurd among Goodman's oeuvre.  Literary critic Kingsley Widmer described Goodman's rhetoric as varying between righteousness, condescension, and magnanimity. 
Some critics focused on Goodman's ability to offer solutions. That youth want meaningful work, said The Times Literary Supplement, is a tautology. While it is easier to puritanically agree with Goodman's assessment of societal downfalls, the reviewer said it is harder to ascertain why we agree with these aims yet cannot seem to achieve them. In this way, Goodman banked too heavily on the miraculous changing of minds rather than meeting people where they were.  Galbraith's New York Times review considered Growing Up Absurd a "serious effort" despite not offering robust solutions. 
Fueled by the changing desires of the times, including a willingness to address societal issues, Growing Up Absurd transformed Goodman's outcast career and brought him public fame as a social critic   and educational theorist.  He emerged from the book with attention he had long sought, including a college lecture circuit and a public role both literary and in school reform.  Some of Goodman's ideas have been assimilated into mainstream, "common sense" thought: local community autonomy and decentralization, better balance between rural and urban life, morality-led technological advances, break-up of regimented schooling, art in mass media, and a culture less focused on a wasteful standard of living.  His systemic societal critique was adopted by 1960s New Left radicals  and an emphasis on moral life subsequently became part of the New Left's aspirations.  Goodman bridged the 1950s era of mass conformity and repression into the 1960s era of youth counterculture in his encouragement of dissent.  Goodman became a popular guest speaker both for the book's resonance with 1960s youth and his criticism of the youth movement's excesses.  He was invited to lecture at hundreds of colleges. 
Goodman's outré expressions on art, politics, and sexuality were misinterpreted by his followers as acts of defiance, intentionally flouting a sick society's norms, but they were more accurately described as Goodman's own refusal to acquiesce. Both interpretations built his affinity with the youth. While some criticized his flattery of his young followers, Goodman often reminded his young audiences of their inexperience and encouraged them to pursue mastery if they wanted to make a better world.  Part of Goodman's appeal as a " Dutch uncle" was his reminder that their cultural birthright once featured ideals, acts, and people worthy of pride. 
Many specific details of the book soon became dated.  While youth gangs persisted, juvenile delinquency as a topic did not and the disaffected beatniks successively traded favor for hippies and punks. Cold War-era touchpoints pervade the book.  Goodman's discussion of poor youth focused on socioeconomic needs and not racial conflict.  Goodman's primary intention was to show how youth issues reflect their parent society, not to provide a comparison of such issues across eras.  As criticism of American society, Growing Up Absurd appeared mild by the end of the decade, according to Merle Miller. 
Goodman's patriarchal assumptions about gender and treatment of women, exemplified in his focus on "man's work" and the inherent fulfillment of motherhood, were rebuked in early reviews and the following decades.   In particular, he wrote that the book focuses exclusively on men and their careers because women, having the capacity for childbirth, did not need a career to justify their worth.  By his literary executor's account, Goodman was "blinded in this area", having ignored the role of women's own fulfillment and extrafamilial autonomy in his description of a fully developed human nature.  Retrospective reviews reproached Goodman's analytic exclusion of women   and one cited it as sufficient reason to not want for a "Goodman revival".  Goodman's analysis of men similarly narrows to "manly" lad culture, excluding those from upper-class or non-urban backgrounds. 
Looking retrospectively at Goodman's career, literary critic Kingsley Widmer panned Growing Up Absurd as rough, rambling, and mediocre despite its insights and sociological vision.  Overall, Widmer considered Goodman's analysis of vocational and community issues to be unserious, and Goodman's thoughts on decentralization and schooling to be better expressed in other works. Growing Up Absurd's main contribution, Widmer contended, was in focusing public attention "on the discontents of the young and the lack of humane values in much of our technocracy".  Widmer felt that Goodman's subsequent "public gadfly" appearances had merit  and that the practical idealism he wanted for the young was partially realized in the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement. As 1960s campus rebellions suggested the possibility of greater change, Goodman and the youth shared mutual sympathies for several years in which he was often invited to their colleges to speak. 
Growing Up Absurd was among the first works of American school social criticism in a 1960s body of literature that became known as the romantic critics of education.  Critics of public schools borrowed the book's ideas for years after its publication, and his ideas on education reverberated for decades. 
Growing Up Absurd was continually in print as of 1990 but was not in high demand as a classic. Although the book made him well-known,  Goodman's public interest peaked with his late 1960s youth readership. His influence never took hold in the wider public  and within decades Goodman was largely forgotten from public consciousness. His literary executor wrote that much of Goodman's effectiveness relied on his electric, cantankerous presence.  Over time, the idea of "the system" entered common language and ceased to be a rallying cry.  In the 1980s, Stoehr surmised that the book had the widest readership among the anarchist West German Greens. 
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