On the Syllabus: Growing Up Absurd

So I might not have a lot of time to post this year, but one thing it occured to me to do is post selections from some of my thesis-related reading for those of you who are interested in what I'm doing on the intellectual/history front. Since I'm enrolled in an independent study this semester, I have the luxury of designing my own schedule of reading in preparation for my oral history fieldwork. The reading I'll be doing this semester is in part theoretical/methodological (how I'll be doing my oral history collecting and thesis writing, and why I chose to do it that way) in part a review of the existing historical literature on the period and topics I am studying, and in part primary sources that help provide contemporary context for the beginnings of the Oregon Extension program.

One of the books I've been reading this week, Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in an Organized Society. The prolific Goodman wrote one of the earliest post-war critiques of 1950s American conformity, first published in 1957, which later became a "must read" for countercultural activists during the 1960s and 70s. The basic argument of Growing Up Absurd is that the post-war society is depriving youth (specifically boys, see below) of meaningful work opportunities -- leaving them with the option of unfullfilling factory of office jobs that do not contribute (in Goodman's view) to the betterment of society. While his argument has faults, he is also making key observations about the fault-lines in American society during the era of post-war conformity. The priceless bits, however, are the sections in which he defends his focus on "young men and boys" as a stand-in for "youth." When I began reading, I figured he was using masculine pronouns as a stand-in for humanity in general (it's the 1950s after all). Not so according to this parenthetical found at the end of his introduction:

(I say the "young men and boys" rather than "young people" because the problems I want to discuss in this book belong primarily, in our society, to the boys: how to be useful and make something of oneself. A girl does not have to, she is not expected to, "make something" of herself. Her career does not have to be self-justifying, for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying, like any other natural or creative act. With thie background, it is less important, for instance, what job an average young woman works at till she is married. The quest for the glamour job is given at least a little substance by its relation to a "better" marriage. Correspondingly, our "youth troubles" are boys' troubles -- female delinquency is sexual: "incorrigibility" and unmarried pregnancy. Yet as every woman knows, these problems [I am writing about] are intensely interesting to women, for if the boys do not grow to be men, where shall the women find men? If the husband is running the rat race of the organized system, there is not much father for the children.) [13]

I would love to write an entire essay at some point unpacking the layers of cultural "common sense" packed into this one single paragraph of Goodman's polemic. He continues this way of raising the question of women in a tangential, completely un-analyzed way. In the section where he discusses the Beats, he critiques their cultural dissent at length and then eventually gets around to the question of "What is in it for the women who accompany the Beats?" (185)

There are several possible sexual bonds . . . Her relation to him is maternal: she devotes herself to helping him find himself and become a man, presumably so that he can then marry her. . . Another possible relation is Muse or Model: her Beat is her poet and artist and makes her feel important. This is a satisfaction of her feminine narcissism or penis envy.

So mother or virgin/whore: those are our options girls. But wait! There's more (185-187).

One sometimes sees a pathetic scene in a bar. Some decent square young workingmen are there, lonely, looking for girls or even for a friendly word. They feel they are "nobodies"; they are not Beats, they are not artists. They have nothing to "contribute" to the conversation. The girls, meantime, give their attention only to the Beats, who are sounding off so interestingly. But these Beats will not make any life for the girls, whereas the others might make husbands and fathers.

Amazing what a long history the Nice Guy (tm) vesus Bad Boy (tm) mythology has, isn't it? One might, of course, ask if there are any female Beats -- in spirit if not in historic fact (there were very few women who were part of the core movement). Goodman does actually mention such women, at the tail end of his analysis:

Finally, of course, there are the young women who are themselves Beats, disaffected from status standards. Perhaps they have left an unlucky marriage, have had an illegitimate child, have fallen in love with a Negro, and found little support or charity "in" society. They then choose a life among those more tolerant, and find meaning in it by posing for them or typing their manuscripts.

So even the women "Beats," who fit his earlier definition of "incorrigibility," end up being not so much artist-activists themselves, but rather a sub-species of the Muse and Model he defines earlier. As women artists and activists pointed out at the time -- most loudly and concertedly during the 1960s and 1970s -- this was in fact far from the truth of their own lived experience.

That's it for this week's "on the syllabus" dispatch . . . look for more next weekend!


  1. Wow. That's wonderful...so many fascinating assumptions. If you write that essay about the one paragraph, I want to see it. :)

  2. Isn't it? I doubt I'll have the opportunity to write that essay, but if I do I'll send it on :)!