Mary Oppen

By: Suzanne Fischer
November 28, 2015

George and Mary Oppen, c. 1968. Photograph by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
George and Mary Oppen, c. 1968. Photograph by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

I first read MARY OPPEN’s (1908–90) remarkable memoir, Meaning a Life, at a Jesuit retreat center in the browning hills of northern California. Oppen was not religious, but her life was one of devotion: to art and poetry; to the fight against fascism; and of mutual devotion to her husband, George. Mary was raised in Montana and Oregon, and carried her Westerner’s love of nature and lack of pretension with her through her complicated life. Mary and George met at the University of Oregon; after their first date Mary was expelled and George suspended for staying out past curfew. Their education interrupted, the two teenagers embarked by wheel and sail across the country. “We were always two,” wrote Mary; their deep partnership was the basis for their generous lives. They moved to France in the late ’20s in a quixotic drive to start a press that could publish Pound, their close friend Louis Zukofsky, and George’s own poetry. When they returned to New York they both joined the Communist Party to organize the unemployed. For Mary and George, politics was incompatible with art, and they both stopped painting and writing for decades. Their refusal to combine their two objects of devotion was simple: if something was important enough to pursue, it must be pursued wholeheartedly. (They also had an aesthetic dislike of socialist art.) George fought in the war and afterwards, facing McCarythyist persecution. they spent the 1950s in Mexico with their daughter, returning later to New York and California. It was only then that they took up art again, and George won the Pultizer Prize in 1969. When Mary sat down to write poetry in the 1970s, Meaning a Life demanded to be written. “It was as though pent-up emotions were waiting to be released — I wasn’t aware of all I remembered until I tapped at the door and memories came flooding in. Apparently nothing is forgotten, but all is waiting to be called forth; I think I have reached a safe age from which to release the memories which have troubled me over the years. Perhaps,” wrote Mary at age 70, “they would not have been released for the asking when I was younger.”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Dawn Powell, Stefan Zweig, Jim Nutt, Claude Levi-Strauss, Vincent O’Sullivan.

READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).


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