Meaning a Life: An Autobiography

New Directions. Apr. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9780811229470. pap. $18.95. autobiog
Artist, activist, and wife of objectivist poet George Oppen recounts her life in Montana and Oregon in the early 1900s and her marriage to and partnership with her husband. Her memoir, originally published in 1978, has been reissued with a new introduction by the poet and editor Jeffrey Yang and previously unpublished writings. The couple met in 1928 when they were students at Oregon State University. After being expelled for breaking curfew together, they traveled the country, hitchhiking and sailing, before moving to France in 1929. The rise of fascism alarmed them, and they returned to the U.S. in 1932, only to confront a country in the throes of the Great Depression. Mary notes that after they disembarked in Baltimore, “grown men, respectable men—our fathers—stepped forward to ask for a nickel, rag in hand to wipe our windshield.” The Oppens felt compelled to set aside their artistic ambitions and begin advocating for the unemployed; they joined the Communist Party and the Workers Alliance. Despite the fact that George served in World War II, the couple was under suspicion for their pre-war communist affiliations, which lead them to exile in Mexico City from 1949–57.
VERDICT Oppen’s memoir is a rich history of leftist political thought in America while chronicling a literary companionship and enduring love story; it is highly recommended for all collections.

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