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 1931, he and Zukovsky, who functioned as editor, began the press To Publishers, which issued important modernist texts by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Zukovsky. The Oppens returned to the United States in 1933, and Oppen was instrumental in establishing the cooperative The Objectivist Press. The Oppens joined the Communist Party in 1935 to work for social change. In response to the controlled, propagandistic manipulation of artists by the party, and in response to the realization that he had no real experience from which to write, Oppen began an almost quarter-century of poetic silence. Oppen describes this period as “a poetic exploration at the same time it was an act of conscience.”
Oppen maintained an active membership in Communist Party activities from 1936 to 1941. In 1942, after the birth of his daughter Linda Jean, he gave up a military exemption to provoke his induction into the armed services. He was driven by anger at the Adolf Hitler-Joseph Stalin pact, which nearly forced him out of the party, and perhaps by guilt that he had not volunteered to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Oppen saw active duty in Europe in 1944 and 1945 in an antitank company, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and later suffering a severe wound. He won numerous decorations, including the Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars.
After the war, the Oppens settled in California, where George worked as a carpenter. Following four years of federal harassment during the Joseph McCarthy era, the Oppens moved into exile in Mexico in 1950; there, Oppen worked briefly for General Electric and did no writing. In 1958, Oppen was granted a U.S. passport, signaling the end of McCarthy’s persecution. Following a session with a therapist, Oppen had a revelatory dream that, in a sense, unblocked his artistic inclinations. In May, 1958, he wrote the poem “Blood from the Stone” to initiate his new writing life. For the following two decades, Oppen worked diligently at both poetry and an extensive literary correspondence.
The Oppens returned to the United States in 1960; that same year, Oppen’s sister Elizabeth committed suicide. In 1961, he worked closely with Reznikoff on a volume of selected poems, and in 1962 he published The Materials, his first book of poetry in thirty years. That volume was followed by This in Which (1965) and Of Being Numerous (1968), which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1969. His Collected Poems was published in England in 1972, and an American edition followed in 1975.
In 1977, Oppen completed his final book, Primitive (1978), but he required his wife’s assistance, as his health had begun to decline. He accumulated further honors in the early 1980’s (including the PEN/West Rediscovery Award in 1982), but when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he entered a nursing home in January, 1984. He died in July of that year.
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 in the field of twentieth century poetry, and began publishing one another’s work.
In 1930, the Oppens traveled to France and Italy, meeting Pound and Constantin Brancusi; returning to the United States, the couple became involved in labor organizing and other left-wing political movements, an involvement which for Oppen ultimately led to a twenty-five-year hiatus from writing poetry. In 1940, they had a daughter, and two years later, Oppen was fighting in Europe with the Allied forces.
After the war and living in California, the Oppens were investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their old left-wing politics. This situation led the Oppens to flee to Mexico during the McCarthy period, where Oppen began to write poetry again. This work, collected in The Materials, and touching on the themes of Oppen’s past, his travels, and his sense of contemporary urban life, brought Oppen immediate recognition as a unique and powerful voice in contemporary poetry.
In 1960, the Oppens returned to the United States, living alternately in New York, San Francisco (where they eventually settled), and Maine, places which play a prominent role in Oppen’s poetry. Oppen died in Sunnyvale, California, southeast of San Francisco, in 1984.