The Collected Stories of Paul Goodman, edited by Taylor Stoehr. Black Sparrow Press.
The Break-Up of Our Camp, Stories 1932-1935. 289 pp.
A Ceremonial, Stories 1936-1940. 273 pp.
The Facts of Life, Stories 1940-1949. 325 pp.
The Galley to Mytilene, Stories 1949-1960. 309 pp.
Despite his many public roles, Paul Goodman all his life was first and foremost a writer, and in the enormous variety of things he wrote — poems, plays, novels, reviews, political essays, literary criticism, psychological essays, social criticism, educational theory, linguistic analysis, religious musings — his stories hold a special place. When he spoke of his early life as a writer, he spoke of the stories: “I would trudge around — I guess I wrote a hundred stories, a hundred fifty stories, and we were very poor and I couldn’t afford postage to send them to the magazines. I’d trudge around and pick them up (rejected) one place and take them to another.” Though in his long career he gradually accumulated any number of interests, his stories stretch over a period of thirty years, right up to his fame as a public thinker in the sixties. In his lifetime he published four collections of stories, including a final volume, Adam, that pulled together stories from his whole career. Even from his earliest days, one finds expressed in his stories the stunningly novel ideas that were to bring him fame. Yet of all the kinds of writing he did — with the exception, possibly, of his plays — Goodman is least known as a writer of stories.
The problem is not that his stories are not good — many are obviously remarkable pieces of writing — but that they are not, in any sense which most readers have come to understand, stories. We think of the quintessential storyteller as a man full of anecdote and plot, a sharp delineator of character, who in a few quick strokes can set a mood. Goodman was none of those things consistently: his tone is much the same from piece to piece, his stories are generally plotless, and the characters are often enough all — rather obviously — Paul Goodman. Yet the mansion of fiction has many rooms, and enough of even its greatest writers do not fit our preconceived molds. Goodman was not that streetcorner babbler, wrapped up in remembered and invented anecdote, but a thinker, an observer, a contemplator. With his terrible hunger for experience, he was endlessly attentive to the world around him — one remembers the poem in which, coming upon a stream, he takes one of its smooth white pebbles into his mouth — and in contemplating that world, even its smallest details, he sees the universal.
What he called his stories are these ceaseless dissections and definitions of human experience. It may be wrong to call some of them stories, but it would be as wrong to call them anything else; often enough they seem closest to prose poems, with that kind of lyrical intensity and singleness of effect. It is no wonder that he was incredibly prolific, since the stuff of his stories is often enough the banal and everyday, as many of his titles show: “The Rivers,” “The Tennis Game,” “Pictures of Things Moving Toward Their Goals.” What is wonderful is the variety of meanings that Goodman finds in even the most common facts. At times the piece of experience Goodman chooses to explain is quite small — a violin sonata, a group of boys riding in a boxcar; at other times it is the events of days, weeks, or a lifetime; often it is legendary — a number of stories on mythical and Biblical figures — and, just as he saw the universal in the banal, he often enough finds the stuff of everyday experience in the lives of the great mythical heroes. Goodman was not selective: it was the great virtue of his mind to be wide ranging, so that when his stories are unsatisfactory it is often because he chose a subject that is itself fragmentary or incomplete. It was when he happened on a likely subject — some piece of experience of about the right size, with some variety of character, and at least a little action — that he produced what could properly be called a story.
He began as an avant-garde artist of remarkable freshness and daring; his earliest novel-in-stories, Johnson, seems consciously to echo the avant-garde masters of the early part of the century, especially Cocteau. Also in this early period he wrote pieces that seem oddly naturalistic and flat, as if a part of him tended toward the nineteenth century masters of the form. But though some notable pieces did precede it, the work in which the young Goodman seems to me to have found his voice is the novella-in-stories, “The Break-Up of Our Camp,” in which the narrator’s last days as a counselor at a summer camp reflect not only his problems in confronting the world as a whole, but also all the larger problems of human community in general.
Goodman was always his most discerning critic, and it was he who assigned the name cubist to his second period. He had also formulated a theory which attached a particular literary manner to an attitude on the part of the artist. A realistic writer is one who finds his society tolerable and livable, and is able just to describe it accurately; a naturalist is a writer who has begun to find fault with society, and thus focuses on its less savory details; a symbolist is an artist who finds the world he faces intolerable in itself, and thus must find some significance beyond it; and the cubist is a writer so much alienated from society that he pays little attention to the world he is describing but handles words mostly for their literary significance: he might, for instance, choose and arrange them more for their sound and rhythm than for some other kind of meaning. Goodman described these literary manners as a continuum, as if a writer might gradually move through them; actually he shuttled among them throughout his career, though his cubist period is fairly distinct. His most daring cubist experiments are, for me, fairly empty, but when he used the cubist manner to express a meaning, as in “Saul,” or “Ravel,” the results can be astounding.
It was in the forties that Goodman grew interested in psychoanalytic theory — he wrote on Freud and Reich, and eventually co-authored Gestalt Therapy with Frederick Perls and Ralph Hefferline — and his stories from that period reflect his interest. Gestalt theory as he expressed it focused on man in his environment, that borderline where one touches the other, and in the third period of his writing he focused more on the man: he contemplated the contemplator. His pieces bore titles like, “Thoughts on Fever, and Thoughts on These Thoughts”: he analyzed a subject, then analyzed himself as the kind of man who would choose such a subject. Other of his pieces were once again realistic or naturalistic, as he tried to recapture parts of his childhood or focus on the experiences of his own children.
Eventually Goodman turned his attention outward, deciding that, in the problem of the adjustment of man in his environment, it was more often than not the environment that was the problem: American society had to change. In his final period he prefigured his role as a social critic, first in the haunting “The Galley to Mytilene,” in which the mythical hero learns to accept both sides of himself and relent toward society, then in the series of vaguely symbolic stories in which a succession of rescuers see the stupid ills of society and bitterly suggest remedies. The most personally autobiographical of these stories are too self-pitying to be entirely comfortable, but when Goodman found a likely character to express his complaint — like the engaging Jeremy Owen — they were up to the level of his finest work. The fifties were a difficult time for Goodman as a physician to society, which was ignoring his advice. When, in the sixties, his prescriptions were at least given a hearing, he gave himself to them wholeheartedly, and abandoned fiction altogether.
The question with any such collection is whether all the space is worth it, whether it would not have been better, say, to cull out a one volume Selected Stories which featured only the unquestionably successful pieces. In the case of Goodman, one would have to say no. He himself assembled such a collection in 1968 and saw it largely ignored. Goodman is so original and sometimes difficult a writer that he is best understood in context. One is better able, after wading through the less successful fragments, to appreciate “The Detective Story,” “A Ceremonial,” and “The Death of Aesculapius.” These volumes also, even more than the Collected Poems, hold the immense fascination of tracing the biography of a man absolutely dedicated to the life of the mind. I, for one, am delighted to have them all, four beautifully bound and printed Black Sparrow volumes with their invaluable introductions by Taylor Stoehr, who in the years since Goodman’s death has been collecting his work and writing so expertly, and who is at work on a Goodman biography. Paul Goodman deserves a Collected Works. With him, even more than with most great writers, one is able to see that his flaws are a necessary part of his virtues.