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MEANING A LIFE by Mary Oppen


An Autobiography

by Mary Oppen

Pub Date: April 1st, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-8112-2947-0
Publisher: New Directions

An expanded edition of a 1978 memoir about poetry and one’s purpose in midcentury America.

Originally published by Black Sparrow Press and now saved from obscurity, this sonorous autobiography (and only prose publication) from painter and poet Oppen (Poems & Transpositions, 1980, etc.) chronicles the lives of two literary soul mates. Born in 1908 in Kalispell, Montana, the author grew up with a desire not only to leave her rural lifestyle but to pursue a lifelong conversation, learning “as much as we are able of the universe we are part of.” She went to Oregon State University, where she met her future husband, George; although she was expelled after their first date for breaking curfew, their bond was cast. “Our joined lives,” she recalls, “seem[ed] to us both choice and inevitability.” Oppen’s narrative shifts seamlessly into a collective memoir as she chronicles the couple’s travels from San Francisco to New York, Paris, and Mexico, tested on their way by the hardships of World War II. Of their many travels, Oppen quotes Sherwood Anderson: “we wanted to know if we were any good out there.” Although George won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1969, Mary’s memoir is by no means in his shadow; their love and intellectual union is rhapsodically mutual and an inspiring achievement to behold. Midcentury poetry aficionados will enjoy another layer: George was part of the “objectivist” poetry movement, and Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky appear throughout the Oppens’ travels. While these poets challenged the conceptual side of their craft, Mary looked to the entire literary canon for her voice. On Virginia Woolf, she writes, “Virginia herself found in her writing what life meant to her, and reading her works I found a little more of what life meant to me.” The author divined meaning and guidance from the literary lives around her and channeled those forces into a passionate memoir that will continue to resound with readers even decades after its publication.

Inspiring recollections of love, literature, and a search for meaning.