Meaning a Life: an Autobiography

Meaning a Life: an Autobiography


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A classic of twentieth-century American autobiography now back in print with previously unpublished material from the author’s archive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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780811229470
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 04/28/2020
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 515,784
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

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.

Table of Contents

Introduction Jeffrey Yang vii

A note on the text xxv

Meaning a Life: An Autobiography

1908-1917 A Beginning 5

1917-1925 My Brothers' Wanderings 31

1926-1927 Love & Escape 55

1928-1929 First Travels 77

1929-1932 France 117

1933-1937 New York City 141

1938-1941 Transition 165

1942-1945 Wartime 171

1946-1958 California & Exile 183

So Near 205

Other Writings

Re: Maine 219

Nassau + My Trip to Visit Andy 231

Declaration of Independence 237

After a Conversation with G. 241

"Does she think she is a legend?" 243

On a Dark Night (Saint John of the Cross) 245

It Is a Life 247

"Deer run wild in" 250

"Love for another has shaken and" 251

"our boat makes a way for us" 252

"I come as a guest" 253

Mother and Daughter and the Sea 254

Conversation 256

Muse 257

"Is there a woman who knows her own way" 258

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