Tue, Nov 06, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Book Review: Growing up absurd

Paul Goodman’s recently reissued book is an assault on US values held sacred in the 1950s, and anticipates the counter-culture of the 1960s

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Growing up absurd, by Paul Goodman

The New York Review of Books’ publishing division continues to re-issue neglected classics from the latter half of the last century, and one of the latest is Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd. First published in 1960, it’s an assault on American society, and by implication a defense of the Beats whose pioneering cultural products had only recently appeared — Kerouac’s On the Road came out in 1957 and The Dharma Bums in 1958, while Ginsberg had given his ground-breaking reading of the first part of Howl in 1955.

Goodman was an academic and journalist, and he made his name with this book. He begins, rather tangentially, by discussing jobs and saying there was little employment available that could give the young true satisfaction. He then launches into an attack on a wide variety of American 1950s phenomena, from “organization men,” the rat-race, hostility to progressive education, the ugliness and conformity of most towns, to racial segregation, mass culture, Hollywood, Madison Avenue and Wall Street.

By comparison, he argues, the Beats were in the process of evolving a form of communal living faithful to many ancient traditions, and embodying a radical idealism that was rare indeed in mainstream society.

From the view-point of 1960, of course, Goodman couldn’t have seen what was to come — the taking up of this “alternative” form of society by literally millions, both in the US and worldwide. Two million of these young people, by now styled “hippies,” marched on Washington DC in protest against the Vietnam War, and effectively brought that war to an end through the pro-peace social attitudes they popularized. The Pentagon, it could be argued, through its involvement in the addiction of today’s young to computer war-games, has been busy making sure such a thing never happens again.

Publication Notes


By Paul Goodman

279 pages

Re-issued by New York Review of Books

Paperback: US

Goodman can’t be considered an unequivocal precursor of those times, however, and this book is a strange mixture of prophesy and conservatism. But the 1960s counter-culture was also remarkably traditional in many ways, having no time for artistic modernism, preferring folk music and old-fashioned handicrafts to 12-tone music and expressionism.

Goodman is more concerned to counter the widespread belief that the Beats were a form of juvenile delinquents than to argue for pacifism (which he prematurely says the young had failed to take to), let alone the supposedly beneficial effects of psychedelic drugs. He also demonstrates, in his book review of On the Road printed here as an appendix, that he dislikes both Kerouac and Ginsberg. Even so, in its combination of anarchist utopianism and cultural conservatism, Growing up Absurd stands out as an analysis that later writers such as Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse were only too happy to follow.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, we’re able to see things more clearly. Firstly, the 1960s counter-culture reversed wholesale almost every aspect of 1950s mainstream America. For Christianity it substituted Zen Buddhism, for a belief in nuclear weapons as defending “American values” it substituted a solidly anti-war stance, for alcohol it substituted psychedelic drugs, for meat-eating it substituted vegetarianism, for suits and ties it substituted flowery robes and tied-back hair, and for classical music and sentimental crooners it substituted rock‘n’roll and its many off-shoots.

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