Meaning a Life: an Autobiography (Paperback)
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A classic of twentieth-century American autobiography now back in print with previously unpublished material from the author’s archive
First published in 1978, Mary Oppen’s seminal Meaning a Life has been largely unavailable for decades. Written in her sixties, her first and only prose book recounts, with honesty, depth, and conviction, her fiercely independent life—“a twentieth-century American romance,” as Yang describes it in the new introduction, “of consciousness on the open road; a book of travel where the autobiographer is not the usual singular self at the center of the story but the union of two individuals.”
Oppen tells the story of growing up with three brothers in the frontier towns of Kalispell, Montana, and Grants Pass, Oregon, determined to escape the trap of “a meaningless life with birth and death in a biological repetition.” That escape happens in the fall of 1926, when she meets another student in her college poetry class, George Oppen. She is expelled for breaking curfew, and from then on the two face the world intertwined: living a life of conversation, hitchhiking across the US, sailing from the Great Lakes to New York City, meeting fellow poets and artists, starting a small press with Zukofsky and Pound, traveling by horse and cart through France, and fighting fascism through the Great Depression. Mary Oppen writes movingly of both her inner life and external events, of the inconsolable pain of suffering multiple stillbirths, of her husband fighting on the front lines during WWII while she struggled to care for their baby daughter, of fleeing to Mexico to avoid persecution for their political activities. This expanded edition includes a new section of prose and poetry that deepens Oppen’s radiantly incisive memoir with further memories, travels, and reflections.
About the Author
Mary Oppen (1908–1990) was a writer, painter, activist, and the lifelong partner of the poet George Oppen. Besides her autobiography, she published two collections of poetry, Poems & Transpositions and the chapbook Mother and Daughter and the Sea.
Jeffrey Yang is the author of the poetry books Vanishing-Line and An Aquarium. He is the translator of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies and Su Shi’s East Slope, and the editor of Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems from New Directions. He works as an editor at New Directions Publishing and New York Review Books.
Originally published by Black Sparrow Press and now saved from obscurity, this sonorous autobiography from painter and poet Oppen chronicles the lives of two literary soul mates. 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. 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.
Now, when we are more atomized than ever — by partisanship and political lies, by contagion and its economic fallout — reading Mary’s autobiography reminds us that life is important, but that living is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is, as she tells us from the start, meaning