Meaning a Life: An Autobiography

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Maggie Nelson does a good job summing up this autobiography of Mary Oppen in The Argonauts, how fully Oppen vanishes into the couple she is for fifty-seven years with George Oppen, the poet and trust-fund kid of the 1920s-30s. It’s hard to whip up admiration for the free-wheeling couple as they spend their way across the U.S., hitchhiking and taking free food from strangers in order to make Oppen’s inheritance last longer. They land in France and buy a horse and buggy to wander the countryside. Mary briefly touches on her own work with sketching and painting, and also is brief about George’s writing. They galumph around the world, or at least California to NYC to Paris to Mexico, befriending poets and artists and writers in their wake, puffed up on their self-importance of creating new art.

Best parts were her childhood reminiscences of Seattle and San Francisco in the 1920s, along with description of life in a small Oregon town where her family “loses class” as soon as her father dies. Overall, a mostly skippable tale of privilege woefully unaware of its own inconsistencies and luck.