George Oppen was born in New Rochelle, New York, on April 24, 1908, the son of George August Oppenheimer (who changed the family name in 1927) and Elsie Rothfeld. When Oppen was four and his older sister Elizabeth was seven, their mother had a nervous breakdown and committed suicide, an unsettling event compounded by his father’s marriage in March, 1917, to Seville Shainwald, a woman from a very wealthy family whose relationship with Oppen was difficult and abusive. Oppen developed a warm, supportive relationship with his half sister June Frances, who was born in 1918, the year the family moved to San Francisco.
In accordance with his family’s social expectations, Oppen attended a military academy, but he was expelled six weeks before graduation for his drunken involvement in a fatal automobile crash. After traveling in the British Isles, he completed his secondary education at a small preparatory school and followed a friend to Corvallis to enroll at Oregon State College (later Oregon State University). There he met Mary Colby, an independent, literate young woman, and fell deeply in love. When the two were punished for violating a curfew, they both left school in 1926, pledging to form a pact to live together as artists. Oppen and Colby hitchhiked across the West in 1927, marrying in Dallas, Texas. The couple drove to the Great Lakes in 1928, sailed down the Erie Canal to New York City, and settled there when Oppen took a position as a switchboard operator in a brokerage house. Oppen had been writing poetry during their travels, and in New York he met Louis Zukovsky, a young poet and teacher, and Charles Reznikoff, a lawyer and friend of Zukovsky.
When Oppen turned twenty-one, he received a substantial legacy. He and Mary moved to France in 1929, and he began the composition of Discrete Series (1934), his first collection of poems. In...
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In his time, Oppen was largely ignored except by those poets who knew and valued his distinct and original approach. While he still remains largely unknown, his work has not become dated and will reward the serious student of literature who is prepared to look beyond the familiar.
George Oppen was born on April 24, 1908, in New Rochelle, New York, into a moderately wealthy Jewish family. His father, George August Oppenheimer, was a diamond merchant. Oppen’s mother committed suicide when he was four years old. His father remarried in 1917 and the next year moved his family to San Francisco, a city which has been both an inspiration and a resource for much of Oppen’s poetry. In 1926, at Oregon State University, Corvallis, he met Mary Colby. They were married in 1927, the same year that the family shortened its name to Oppen. Of their relationship, Mary wrote that it was not simply love but the discovery that “we were in search of an aesthetic within which to live.” For both, it meant distancing themselves from their pasts and striking out into new territory, both geographical and psychic. This departure was not so much a break with the past as a desire to obtain distance from and insight into it, for in this, as in all their subsequent travels, the Oppens sought to live close to, and understand, ordinary working people.
Together, the Oppens hitchhiked to New York City, completing the last leg of the journey on a barge through the Erie Canal. In New York, they met Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff, whose friendship and influence were to shape Oppen’s poetry significantly over the years. These poets, with the encouragement of Williams and Pound, formed themselves into the Objectivists, one of the most significant groupings...
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