A Means to an End: On Mary Oppen’s “Meaning a Life: An Autobiography”

By Dan FriedmanJune 24, 2020

A Means to an End: On Mary Oppen’s “Meaning a Life: An Autobiography”

Meaning a Life by Mary Oppen

FROM ITS SPARSE TITLE to the collected “Other Writings” at its close (“I say we make the choice and call that luck…”) the reissued and supplemented Meaning a Life bears testimony to eight decades of Mary Oppen’s reflection and action.

Before we were confined to our homes by the global pandemic, modern Western society was deeply threatened by its collective inability to stop the clock and consider the truth. Finding time to reflect and act on what is important seems like a luxury when time is money, speeding by in ever-larger increments. In her writing and through her life story, Oppen calls on us to defy peer pressure and enter into the essential work of making time meaningful.

Until Maggie Nelson brought Mary and her husband George back into the intellectual limelight with The Argonauts in 2015, it had been a while since either of them had received much attention. George, one of the pioneers of Objectivist verse in the 1930s, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his volume Of Being Numerous. That was his moment. A decade later, in 1978, as Alzheimer’s disease began to loosen his grasp on the language and the world he loved, Mary published her autobiography, Meaning a Life. That was hers. Separating the achievements of the two Oppens is both simple and impossible.

As Jeffrey Yang puts it in the introduction to the new volume, George and Mary were the “shining rays of a binary star.” Yang finds Mary “echo[ing]” the same point “in a journal she kept on their visit to Israel in 1975 at the invitation of the mayor of Jerusalem: ‘Of course I am I and George is most certainly George, his accomplishments are his and mine are mine, but the composite life we live is us.’” In his 1978 New York Times review of George’s collection Primitive and Mary’s Meaning, Michael Heller characterizes the Oppens’ binary system this way: “To read the books together is to discover not how they lean on each other — quite the contrary, in fact — but how they signal across the ground of their authors’ common experience.”

Literarily speaking, the two are quite distinct — George wrote strikingly spare poetry during two distinct phases of his life, while Mary wrote this sole published memoir — but their thinking and writing was born of a shared viewpoint, hard won from decades of life together. That’s why it feels both necessary and wrong to write about George while considering Mary. She, a strong feminist, is always implicit in his writing, but for reasons of poetic style and social sexism, it is easier to ignore her presence in George’s hard, impersonal poetry. He, though, is an inevitable part of her life and its telling, even when he’s not mentioned; the dedication of Meaning reads, “To George, whose life and mine are intertwined.”

This entwinement, though, should not be confused with loss of self. Mary’s autobiography is in no way egotistical, but it’s impossible to read it without marveling at the quiet strength of will evidenced by a young woman from the Pacific Northwest. She throws off the loss of her father, the coldness of her mother, the small-mindedness of her brothers and friends — not to mention the confines of society’s expectations — to build a significant life across continents. Even in the face of bigotry, illness, loneliness, fascism, and petty bureaucracy, she never loses the steeliness of that young girl who plans her liberation. “[W]hen my family moved to Grants Pass,” she writes, “I was twelve years old, and almost at once I began to save money to escape.”

She ends up escaping into the life that she and George forge together — a liberation through deep, intimate collaboration. That collaboration mostly took the form of helping people both in and beyond their circle, and it fueled two rich bursts of poetic output by George. In the early 1930s, the couple abandoned publishing in order to act in the world of people, not words, but they remained committed to finding the truth.

For Maggie Nelson, the two remarkable aspects of Mary’s life are, on the one hand, her relationship with George and, on the other, the one thing that she did not share with George — the bitter tragedies of attempted motherhood. That latter experience (partly mitigated by the birth and life of her daughter Linda) is part of Mary’s embodied identity as a woman, to which she gave deep and original consideration throughout her life. For, even while telling us frankly about her instinctual discovery of sex and, later, commonplace methods of abortion in semi-rural Oregon, Mary transcends blithe intercourse through penetrating discourse:

Sex in Grants Pass was permissive; the veneer of strict puritanism was not more than a surface ethic which the church people tried to enforce in a lumber town full of lumberjacks and country people. […] Prohibition incited lawlessness and added an air of secrecy and license, an air of drunkenness, to sex. Sexual activity went on all around me, among all ages of the population. Across from our house on Saturday afternoons we watched the wife polish the new car for the weekend, and when she finished the husband got in the car to drive it away for his own spree. She seemed unconscious of his purpose, and no one told her.

Mary (née Colby) goes to Corvallis State Agricultural College (now Oregon State University), where she meets George, a young thinker running from his wealthy German Jewish family. They get expelled for spending the night together — and they prolong that one-night-stand for 57 years. They make choice after choice to do the right thing for the right people — making meaning preeminent over ease. They cross the country, spend time in France, New York, and San Francisco, fight for workers’ rights during the Great Depression, survive combat and separation during World War II, and travel to Mexico to bring up their daughter and avoid McCarthyism.

Reading Mary’s story now, in the midst of a 21st-century global disaster, brings home the newness of our technology and of globalization. She was born in Kalispell, Montana, which was “so newly settled that children and Indians were the only natives,” and grew up in raw, colonial communities. Later, she moved to Oregon via a Seattle that predated Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon and still had a man tasked with enacting “the evening ritual, the lighting of the lamp.”

Perhaps because Mary’s formative years were spent in such hardscrabble places, her focus is always on the mechanics of life, and she always reminds us of our dependence on our flesh-and-blood neighbors, be they human or not. Whether discussing the various boats that she and George used, Linda’s horse, the animals that surrounded their San Francisco house, or the people they met and loved in Queens, California, and Mexico, she stresses the physicality of their experience. Every recollection is practical. Ideology cannot live when people abandon each other.

Human interdependence is real and vital even when it is obscured by the mighty machines of World War II or the machinations of oppressive political power. The Colby family tale is a timely reminder of how, though we think of the United States as a Space Age power, Americans only recently finished crossing the continent: “At war’s end [my grandfather] collected his back pay and started walking west. After meeting my grandmother Emma La Marr in Ohio, he walked farther west to Montana, where he took a homestead near Kalispell. Emma went out to Kalispell from Ohio and they lived a frontier life.”

The rapid changes of today’s world are mirrored in those of yesterday. Throughout, Mary and George attempt to stay true to their ideals. They use a small family inheritance to start the short-lived journal and publishing project, To Publishers, but as the Depression ruins its prospects, they move on to activism, first by organizing communities, then by fighting fascists, then by providing a Mexican haven for American political refugees.

Mary’s life spanned the short 20th century, from before World War I to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The year that she was born, 1908, saw the first passenger on a powered airplane. The year that she died, 1990, saw numerous space flights from multiple countries, including the launch of the Hubble telescope on the back of Discovery. During her lifetime, two devastating world wars overshadowed numerous other deadly conflicts, mass genocides were committed on different continents, and, though empires faded, other equally oppressive systems sprang up in their place.

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.


Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is also a contributing editor to 8by8Mag.com and the author of an ebook about the 1980s rock group Tears for Fears.

LARB Contributor

Dan Friedman is a writer and digital consultant working with organizations including HIAS and the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Subscribe to his Voice of Reason.


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