Mary Oppen

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.

Meaning a Life: an Autobiography

Literature by Mary Oppen

With a contribution by Jeffrey Yang

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.…
More Information
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.
Los Angeles Review of 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.
Kirkus Reviews
Mary’s narrative style illuminates its aesthetic dimension. Her descriptions are unrelentingly clear and honest. Meaning a Life is a reminder that sympathy is not nothing, but sympathy, when it leads to action, is something more, and greater.
—Miranda Popkey, The New Yorker
< Mary Wellesley Martin Aitken >