George Oppen (AHP-uhn) was one of the principal participants in the small but influential group of poets called Objectivists in the 1930’s, but a combination of personal uncertainty and political necessity led to a withdrawal from literature for nearly a quarter of a century. His return to an active writing life resulted in nearly two more decades of poetry and eventual recognition by the community of American letters that he was one of the most innovative and intellectually interesting poets of the twentieth century.
Oppen was born near New York City, the son of a prosperous wholesale diamond merchant, George August Oppenheimer (who changed the family name in 1927), and Elsie Rothfeld, a troubled woman who committed suicide when Oppen was four. In 1917 his father remarried and a year later relocated the family to San Francisco, where Oppen attended a military academy. Oppen’s youthful artistic inclinations (he had already stated in adolescence that he wanted to be a writer) clashed with his family’s expectations, and his difficult relationship with his stepmother caused a continuing tension that was sometimes expressed in moments of violent behavior. In 1925, he was driving when a serious crash took the life of one passenger, six weeks before he was scheduled to graduate, and Oppen was expelled from the academy for drinking. After a brief trip to Europe, he finished his high school education requirements at a local prep school and followed a friend to enroll at Oregon State University.
There, in a class in literature, he became fascinated by Conrad Aiken’s anthology of modern poetry. He also met Mary Colby, who shared his interests in the arts and who “saved” and “freed” him, as he put it, from the “wounds and limits” of his social background. Forming what was to be a lifelong commitment, Oppen and Colby left college together following mutual curfew violations. They hitchhiked across the United States in 1927 and were married in Dallas. The couple moved to New York City in 1929, when Oppen turned twenty-one and began to receive a small legacy from his mother’s and maternal grandmother’s estates.
Oppen began to write the poems of his first book, Discrete Series, and by 1930 he had a manuscript of...
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