Eat the Fire: Paul Goodman is 100

One hundred years ago Friday—September 9, 1911—a boy was born in upper Manhattan, the “Sugar Hill” area between Washington Heights and Harlem, into a family freshly torn apart. The boy's father, a second generation German-Jewish immigrant, had done well in the antiques business and the family was prosperous, but now, in 1911, Barnett Shatz had taken a mistress, and in the midst of divorce proceedings he absconded, leaving his wife pregnant with their fourth child and bereft of material resources. Augusta Goodman made do, selling ladies' fashions, mostly on the road. She leaned first on her sisters, then on her eldest child, Alice, to care for the infant, Paul. Such sibling bonds would be the boy's core family relationships as he grew up. All traces of his father—photos, documents, stories, even his name—were erased.

One hundred years ago a fatherless child could play truant on the streets of New York—streets not yet rendered dangerous by automobiles or unintelligible by over-development—and not only escape without coming to harm but gain initiation into how the real world works through adventure and mischief. And years later, looking back on these magical experiences (and making some stuff up), the boy would create the unforgettable character of Horatio and the phantasmagorical New York that is The Empire City.

One hundred years ago a bright child born into relative poverty in New York City could obtain a very high-quality education, from elementary school to a college degree, all for free. Paul Goodman had the good fortune to start out in a teachers' college “model school,” P.S. 22; to hustle through a fast-track junior high into the city's elite, admission-by-exam public “prep” school, Townsend Harris Hall; to graduate at 15 and hurry on to the City College of New York, where he studied with the world-class philosopher and teacher, Morris Raphael Cohen, and mingled with the cream of the new immigrant generation (all male, of course), later to be known as the “New York intellectuals” of the 1940s.

One hundred years ago a child could grow up in decent poverty—poverty about one rung above misery—and learn to survive and thrive, making do with little and still living the life of the mind. This capability, and this bohemian, anarchist attitude, would allow Goodman to live in Manhattan through the Depression, the war, and the "Duration" without ever taking or holding a "real" job—always insisting he was a writer, and in fact producing copious prose and poetry, a book a year for every year of his adult life.

One hundred years ago, just in case you forgot, there were no portable electronic devices of any kind; the telephone was a heavy, awkward, newfangled instrument primarily used for business, and radio was still used almost exclusively for maritime communication; refrigeration (on railroad cars) was a big new breakthrough for the meatpacking industry. One hundred years ago, the biggest motion pictures of the year included a 25-minute version of Shakespeare's Henry VIII and D. W. Griffith's 30-minute version of Tennyson's poem "Enoch Arden" (both silent, of course).

And one hundred years ago, the stars were all there was to see in the night sky, and you could see them in Manhattan.

And one hundred years later, the memory of that boy/man, his works, and his maverick romp through the twentieth century will be revived—not a moment too soon—by Jonathan Lee's documentary PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE. The film doesn't open for another six weeks, so the Paul Goodman centennial is likely to be a quiet celebration, observed by you and me. Celebrate him by finding his words and listening to his voice. (If you're in the empire city, Left Bank Books in the Village would be a good place to hunt—a "vanishing New York" sort of place, to be sure.)

Happy birthday!


Now isn't it time

when the candles on the icing

are one two too many

too many to blow out

too many to count too many

isn't it time to give up this ritual?

although the fiery crown

fluttering on the chocolate

and through the darkened room advancing

is still the most loveliest sight

among our savage folk

that have few festivals.

But the thicket is too hot and thick

and isn't it time, isn't it time

when the fires are too many

to eat the fire and not the cake

and drip the fires from my teeth

as once I had my hot hot youth.

- Paul Goodman

ps: Thank you very much to Taylor Stoehr for contributing to this piece, and for everything!