Mary Oppen

American, 1908 -1990

Mary Oppen was an American activist, artist, photographer, poet and writer.

Mary and her husband took up residence in New York City in the late 1920s. There they joined a circle of artists and writers, among whom were the poets Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky. During the 1930s, the Oppens involved themselves in leftist political movements and joined the Communist Party USA in 1935 after the seventh World Congress of the Communist Parties called for intellectuals to join in a united front against fascism and war.

After World War II, in which George Oppen was severely wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, the Oppens were persecuted by the US government for their leftist activities during the Depression. Rather than testify against friends and associates, the Oppens decided to flee to Mexico in 1950, where they found their way to Mexico City’s United States emigre and refugee circle. In the late 1950s George Oppen began writing again after a 25-year hiatus and the Oppens soon relocated back to New York City. 

In 1970 Mary Oppen resumed writing poems and continued painting and work in collage. By 1975 she was in the full-swing of the composition of her memoirs, eventually to published as Meaning a Life: An Autobiography by Black Sparrow Press in May, 1978. In this work, Mary Oppen makes apparent how completely she and George shared the risks, adventures and commitments of their itinerant and artistic life.

This included their harrowing, life-changing trip to Israel in September 1975. They had been invited by the Mayor of Jerusalem to be his guests at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a residence facing the walls of the Old City, for distinguished artists, writers and musicians from abroad. After their return from this trip, Mary noticed a decline of her husband in his health and a waning in his artistic authority. In 1977, she provided secretarial help so George could complete his final volume of poetry Primitive. According to Rachel Blau DuPlessis, this “help” was atypical of their practice and was related to George’s decline. During this time, George’s final illness begins to manifest itself with confusion, failing memory, and other losses. In 1980, the Montemora Foundation published her book Poems & Transpositions. Mary Oppen died on May 14, 1990 of ovarian cancer at Alta Bates-Herrick Hospital in Berkeley, California, aged 81. She had been living in Albany, California.