The one time when Goodman’s obsessions intersected perfectly with those of the age came in 1960, when he published Growing Up Absurd. This long essay or tract, just reissued by New York Review Books Classics, was one of the early tremors of what would become the 1960s earthquake. Like Herbert Marcuse and Norman O Brown, Goodman was taken up by the counterculture and the new left, who found in him a rare member of the older generation who really got it.
Goodman’s ghost would be appeased to see all the tributes to Growing Up Absurd that proliferate on the internet, more than 50 years later. Young readers still find it relevant, inspiring, intimate, true; they write of copying out long passages by hand and giving copies to everyone they know. The personal power they feel is registered in the title of a recent documentary about him, Paul Goodman Changed My Life. For, like The Catcher in the Rye, a book with which it bears a spiritual affinity, Growing Up Absurd brilliantly evokes the adolescent’s private sense of being misunderstood by a heartless and empty world. It is, as Holden Caulfield would say, the kind of book that makes you want to call up the author on the phone…
Was it enough to hate stuff? The answer that began to emerge in the letters, which continued to amuse and comfort the two men as the years wore on, was that hatred and irritability could be an almost inexhaustible store of humor, liveliness, and insight. If you hated intensely enough, deliberately enough, with enough determination and discrimination, you just might end up with something new, unexpected, true to life.
Among all the two men’s accomplishments, Lucky Jim remains unique. Larkin, especially, would do much to make poetry of depressed and declining middle age (‘Life is first boredom, then fear/Whether or not we use it, it goes.’), and Amis’s later work is not insensible to the grotesquery of trying to live the rest of your life as if you were 25. Lucky Jim is their one document of youth, their youth. It is in a way as optimistic as it is angry. Jim’s rages are impotent rages, his small acts of vandalism useless and self-destructive – and yet he undertakes them in the belief that they are not meaningless, that the world he is disparaging can be changed. Lucky Jim is a weirdly hopeful book, written when the failures of the men whose sensibilities and lives it captured, as well as the successes, still lay very much in the future. In 1951 all these things were something to imagine and laugh at. Lucky Jim is a lucky book, snatched improbably from time, the product of a collaboration, both editorial and spiritual, that neither writer, once firmly established, could afford to attempt again.
—From Keith Gessen’s introduction to Lucky Jim, up at the New Statesman, about the germination of the book in Kingsley Amis’s friendship with Philip Larkin. Amis died seventeen years ago today, but we hope to keep his books alive by publishing ten of them over the next few years—Lucky Jim and The Old Devils are first, to be followed by The Green Man and The Alteration. And the great thing about Amis’s career is that there is a novel for every age (and mood).