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George Oppen Papers
MSS 0016  
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Collection Details
 
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Acquisition Information
  • Preferred Citation
  • Publication Rights
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Creator: Oppen, George
    Title: George Oppen Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1958-1984
    Extent: 14.40 linear feet (34 archives boxes, 33 rolls black and white microfilm and 1 oversize folder)
    Abstract: Literary papers of George Oppen (1908-1984), objectivist poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1969. Most of the materials date from the period 1958-1978. Included are manuscripts and typescripts for all the poems contained in Oppen's nine published books -- DISCRETE SERIES (1934), THE MATERIALS (1962), THIS IN WHICH (1965), OF BEING NUMEROUS (1968), ALPINE (1969), SEASCAPE: NEEDLE'S EYE (1972), COLLECTED POEMS (London, 1973; New York, 1975), and PRIMITIVE (1978). Also included are drafts and fragments of unpublished poems, typescripts of published and unpublished essays, transcripts of Oppen's verse, and copies of reviews of Oppen's work. Of special interest are loose leaf pages of notes, and Oppen's personal daybooks, all of which help to reveal his thinking about diverse subjects. The largest part of the collection consists of correspondence to Oppen from family members, editors, poets and other writers, and admirers of Oppen's work. Notable correspondents include: Paul Auster, Anthony Barnett, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, William Bronk, John Crawford, Ted Enslin, Michael Heller, David Ignatow, James Laughlin, Jon Martin, Charles Reznikoff, Harvey Shapiro, John Taggart, Charles Tomlinson, Eliot Weinberger, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. The collection is arranged in ten series: 1) CORRESPONDENCE, 2) NOTES, JOTTINGS, ETC., 3) DAYBOOKS, 4) POETRY, 5) READING MANUSCRIPTS, 6) PROSE, 1962-1984, 7) INTERVIEWS, 1968-1980, 8) TRANSLATIONS OF OPPEN'S POETRY, 9) REVIEWS AND EPHEMERA, and 10) MICROFILM. The additions processed in 1989 include Oppen's letters to critic Henry Weinfield and John Crawford, two letters from William Bronk, a typescript of a poem based on a phrase from a poem by Charles Reznikoff, a transcript of a 1973 BBC interview, a brochure from a 1986 exhibit of "This In Which," a program from Oppen's "75th Birthday Tribute" at the Poetry Center (1983), an "In Memorium" article by Hugh Kenner, a Certificate of Honor presented to him by the city of San Francisco, a typescript of Naomi Replansky's "The Darkening Green", a mock up of Mark Linenthal's "Growing Light", published versions of THE MATERIALS and THIS IN WHICH with author's annotations and editions, and a small collection of newspaper articles written about the poet. The 1989 additions are not on the microfilm.
    Repository: University of California, San Diego. Geisel Library. Mandeville Special Collections Library.
    La Jolla, California 92093-0175
    Collection number: MSS 0016
    Language of Material: Collection materials in English

    Access

    The George Oppen papers, except for the 1989 accession, can be used only in microfilm. Microfilm of the collection is currently housed in FB-070-01. Researchers wishing to use the original materials must first obtain the permission of the Director of the Mandeville Special Collections Library. This restriction does not apply to the materials processed in 1989.

    Acquisition Information

    Not Available

    Preferred Citation

    George Oppen Papers, MSS 0016. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UCSD.

    Publication Rights

    Publication rights are held by the creator of the collection.

    Biography

    Oppen was born in 1908 in New Rochelle, New York, the son of George A. Oppen and Elsie Rothfeld Oppen. He died in 1984 in San Francisco, a victim of Alzheimer's Disease.
    When Oppen was 10 years old, his father remarried and moved the family to San Francisco where he opened a profitable chain of movie houses. Although his family was well-to-do, Oppen attended Californian public schools, and in 1926 he enrolled in the Agricultural College, presently Oregon State University, at Corvalis. Soon after his arrival at Corvalis, Oppen met Mary Colby, formerly of Grants Pass, Oregon. Both George and Mary were forced to leave the university before the end of their first semester--George for a semester and Mary for good--because of violating the girl's dormitory curfew while on their first date. Oppen returned to San Francisco to work for his father for a short time. Shortly after Mary joined him in San Francisco, the two decided not to return to university studies, or to accept the middle class comforts that Oppen's father offered. As Mary Oppen explains in her autobiography MEANING A LIFE:
    We were constantly searching--searching in our
    travels in our pursuit of friends and in our
    conversation concerning all that we saw
    and felt about the world. We were searching
    for a way to avoid the trap that our class
    backgrounds held for us if we relented in our
    attempts to escape from them...We had learned
    at college that poetry was being written in
    our own times, and that in order for us to write
    it was not necessary for us to ground ourselves in
    the academic; the ground we needed was the
    roads we were travelling.
    In 1927 George and Mary left San Francisco and were married in Dallas, Texas while on their way to New York City.
    The Oppens arrived in New York City in 1928 and soon fell into company with Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff, two New York City Jewish poets who, following the example of William Carlos Williams, were intent on reclaiming Pound's Imagism from the influence of Amy Lowell and other "Amygists." Out of the nexus of like-minded poets the Objectivist movement was born. The term was first employed in Zukofsky's essays "Program: 'Objectivist', 1931" and "Sincerity and Objectification," which Zukofsky included at the end of an issue of Poetry he had edited for Harriet Monroe. Besides Zukofski, Oppen, Williams, and Reznikoff, the issue also included work by Carl Rakosi, Kenneth Rexroth, Basil Bunting, Robert McAlmon, and several other poets whose work Zukofsky believed to exemplify the Objectivist program.
    In 1929 the Oppens moved to France where they established To, Publishers. Though they published work by Pound, Williams and a larger version of Zukofsky's Objectivist anthology, the venture failed because American booksellers considered their books paperbacks and, thus, refused to stock them. After returning to the United States in 1933, the Oppens again tried their hand at publishing with the establishment of the Objectivist Press. Besides additional works by Pound and Williams, the press published Oppen's volume of poetry, Discrete Series, which had been written in 1929 before the Oppens left for France and revised shortly after their return to the States.
    The Objectivist Press may have succeeded if it had been the Oppen's foremost concern. However, the suffering brought on by the Depression and evident throughout the country captured their attention. "Apprehesion mixed with elation," Mary Oppen writes, "as we disembarked at Baltimore and began the drive to New York City. As we approached the first stoplight, grown men, respectable men--our fathers--stepped forward to ask for a nickle, rag in hand, to wipe our windshield. This ritual was repeated every time we paused, until we felt we were in a nightmare, our fathers impoverished." In 1935 the Oppens turned their backs on their lives as artists and for the next five years worked as strike organizers, first in Brooklyn and later in Utica, New York, for the Communist Party of the United States of America. According to Mary Oppen, "we decided to work with the Communist Party, not as artist or writer because we did not find honesty or sincerity in the so-called arts of the left....We said to each other, 'Let's work with the unemployed and leave our other interest in the arts for a later time'" Oppen's own explanation to L.S. Dembo in 1968 is more to the point: "If you do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, then you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering...In a way I gave up poetry because of the pressures of what for the moment I'll call conscience."
    The "later time" did not occur until 1958. The years of political activism were followed by the birth of the Oppens' daughter Linda. Oppen then worked as a die cutter in a factory until 1942 when he was drafted into the United States Army. Shortly before V-E day, he suffered multiple wounds from an exploding shell. After the war, the Oppens settled in Huntington Beach, California where Oppen employed himself first as a housing contractor then as a maker of hi-fi cabinets. Oppen was forced to give up his business and flee to Mexico with his family in 1950, after the FBI began to threaten him and Mary with imprisonment for their refusal to betray their friends. Soon after arriving in Mexico City, Oppen joined with a native of Mexico in operating a furniture factory and entertained thoughts of entering the Mexican real estate market. Those thoughts were put to rest when Oppen wrote his first poem in twenty-five years. In 1958, he and Mary returned to New York City where they lived until the late 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, until Oppen's affliction with Alzheimer's disease prohibited his travelling, the Oppens spent their summer months on Deer Isle, Maine and the rest of the year in San Francisco.
    It is difficult to say whether Oppen's return to writing poetry signifies the synthesis of his artistic and political impulses or his confession that political activism is no more useful to changing the world than art is. Regardless of how critics have responded to this question, they typically share the opinion that Oppen's return to writing resulted in the production of a formidible and important collection of poetry "whose craft and inquiring intelligence are a significant influence on contemporary American poetry." In 1962 Oppen published THE MATERIALS, his second collection of verse. It was followed three years later by THIS IN WHICH (1965). In 1968, his third collection of verse, OF BEING NUMEROUS, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. SEASCAPE: NEEDLE'S EYE was published in 1972 and was followed in 1973 with the appearance of the Fulcrum Press edition of his COLLECTED POEMS. In 1975, New Directions brought out a more complete edition of Oppen's collected work, which also included a section of the work titled "Myth of the Blaze." Finally, Oppen's last collection, PRIMITIVE, which was edited by Mary Oppen, appeared in 1978.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Accession Processed in 1985
    SERIES 1: CORRESPONDENCE
    The first series, CORRESPONDENCE, is divided into three sub-series: family correspondence, general correspondence, and miscellaneous correspondence. The bulk of the family correspondence contains Oppen's letters to his sister and once editor June Oppen Degnan and letters from his daughter Linda Oppen Mourelatos. (The letters between Oppen and Diane [Andy] Meyer and Eve Haight, Oppen's niece and grand-niece respectfully, have been incorporated into the general correspondence since they were acquired at a later date and after photographing of the family correspondence had occurred.) The family correspondence also includes letters from Oppen's son-in-law Alex Mourelatos and between Mary Oppen and Linda Oppen Mourelatos.
    The general correspondence is arranged alphabetically, and chronologically where possible, in accordance with the arrangement of Oppen's letter file. The list of correspondents is extensive and far-ranging. There are letters from many of Oppen's contemporaries such as William Bronk, David Ignatow, Charles Reznikoff, Charles Tomlinson, Williams Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky; and from numerous younger poets, among them Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ten Enslin, Michael Heller, John Taggart, and Sally Appleton Weber. The publishers of the American and English editions of Oppen's COLLECTED POEMS, Fulcrum Press and New Directions, are both substantially represented, a sare the literary critics Donald Davies, L.S. Dembo, and Hugh Kenner. There are numerous letters from friends and readers expressing their admiration for Oppen's work. For Instance, there are letters from Max Pepper, whose daughter Sara is referred to in the poem "Sara in Her Father's Arm" (CP, 30): and from Robert and Carolyn Goodman, thanking Oppen for commemorating their son in his poem "The Book of Job and a Draft of a Poem to Praise the Paths of the Living" (CP, 236). Mitchell Goodman was one of the three civil rights activists murdered in Mississippi in 1964.
    The miscellaneous correspondence consists primarily of unidentified letters and manuscripts, but it also includes three folders of letters and materials pertaining to Oppen's death and memorial service in 1984.
    As expected, the chief subject of a great portion of the correspondence to Oppen concerns Oppen's poetry. Numerous letters are requests for manuscripts, while others discuss matters of typesetting, copyrights, and royalty payments. Still other letters pertain directly to the poetry, Oppen's compositional procedures and choice of themes, as well as his literary and philosophical influences. Also present are letters form Oppen to various correspondents which discuss Oppen's life: his relationship with his wife Mary, his role as a publisher of Objectivist writing in the 1930s, his and Mary's political convictions and activities, the reasons for his 25 year silence, and, finally, his response to many major events during the 1960s and 1970s such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the escalation of the Vietnam war, and the infamous Altamont rock concert. It should also be noted that many of Oppen's letters contain, or are themselves, seed poems, the most famous example being the two or three letters between Oppen and the British poet Charles Tomlinson in 1964 which resulted in the collaborative poem "To C.T." (CP, 142).
    SERIES 2: NOTES, JOTTINGS, ETC.
    NOTES, JOTTINGS, ETC., the second series, consists of, unlike the bound daybooks in series three, single unbound leaves or slips of paper on which diverse notes have been written. For the most part, these materials date from 1960-1980, though there are a few leaves that can be dated as late as 1982 while others might have been written as early as 1958.
    At the outset, chronological and then subject arrangements for the notes were considered. Oppen appears to have used blank yellow and white standard size typing paper during ca. 1958-1962. From 1962 to 1966, he seems to have favored cheap 8 1/2 x 11 pulp paper. After 1966, he began to write primarily on fine quality letterhead, first for his New York address and subsequently for his San Francisco address. It became clear, however, that such an arrangement according to this evidence would be faulty ,as there are numerous instances of pulp paper being used in the 1970s and of the New York letterhead being used well after the Oppens had relocated in San Francisco. The subject arrangement was rejected simply because many of the leaves contains numerous subjects: subject arrangement would have required an extensive index of cross-references or the production of numerous photocopies. Given the difficulties of the two possible arrangements, it was decided to leave the notes in the sequence in which they were received. Notes received in later accessions or discovered elsewhere in the collection were simply filled in at the end of the series.
    The notes and jottings, as well as the daybooks, reveal many facets of Oppen's work and life which are not readily evident in his poetry and only hinted at in some of the interviews. They include reflections about his poetic career and writing practices, and about the work of contemporaries such as Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Charles Reznicoff, and especially Louis Zukofsky. A number of the notes reflect on Oppen's philosophical positions and his reading of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and other philosophers.
    SERIES 3: DAYBOOKS
    DAYBOOKS, series three, are several collections of notes and drafts of poems which Oppen bound together. The daybooks are distinct from the reading manuscripts listed in series five. The former contain discrete notes much like those found in the notes and jottings series. But they also contain drafts and fragments of poems, as well as drafts of letters. They have the definite feel of a journal composed over an extended period of time. In contrast, the reading manuscripts were constructed for the occasion of a particular reading.
    The daybooks have been named according to their bindings, e.g. "Pipe Stem Cleaner Daybook," and are arranged in chronological sequence. However, the chronology, as well as the suggestion that the groupings constitute meaningful units, must be eyed with a certain degree of suspicion as it is entirely possible that Oppen bound discrete leaves of material together to make their handling and storage more manageable.
    SERIES 4: POETRY
    The manuscripts and typescripts are filed in series four, POETRY, and are arranged in three sub-series. Those of poems collected in one of Oppen's nine published books make up the first subseries; they are arranged first chronologically according to the date of their first publication, and then according to where they appear in the book. Those of poems published in magazines but not collected in a book constitute the second sub-series; they are too arranged chronologically according to their dates of publication. The third subseries consists of manuscripts and typescripts of unpublished poems; they are listed alphabetically by title or first significant word. The three sub-series overlap to some extent, since group manuscripts (collections of several poems in a "dummy book") occasionally include poems that were later excluded from the book. Group manuscripts are listed chronologically, usually after individual poems and before the photocopy of the published book.
    SERIES 5: READING MANUSCRIPTS
    As noted above, READING MANUSCRIPTS, series five, consists of collections of poems, usually bound in some manner, that Oppen prepared for several readings he gave during the 1960s and 1970s. They consist of manuscripts, annotated typescripts, and, most often, page proofs of published poems pasted onto standard typing paper. Directions noting time allotted for reading a poem, and poems that might be omitted if necessary, are written on the manuscripts, while introductory remarks are usually written on separate leaves and interspersed among the manuscripts or pasted to the covers of the grouping. (NOTE: the manuscript for the reading at the Guggenheim, one of the more interesting bindings fashioned by Oppen, was unwittingly disassembled during microfilming of the collection.)
    SERIES 6: PROSE 1962-1984
    PROSE 1962-1984, the sixth series, contains photocopies of the few essays, reviews, and statements that Oppen published after returning to the United States in 1959. There are no complete manuscripts or original typescripts of these works in the collection, statements related, and perhaps seminal to a particular prose work, are scattered throughout the correspondence, notes, and daybooks.
    The prose works have been arranged chronologically according to date of the first publication. This would seem to approximate closely the chronology composition with the exception of "Statement of Poetics," written in 1975 for an interview by Reinhold Schiffer but not published until 1984. Also included in this series is a draft of an unfinished and unpublished essay titled "The Romantic Virtue." Not included are the several blurbs Oppen wrote for books by William Bronk, Rachel Blau Duplessis, David Fisher, Jonathon Griffin, David McAleavey, and Sally Appleton Weber.
    SERIES 7: INTERVIEWS 1968-1980
    Series seven, INTERVIEWS 1968-1980, consists of typescripts and photocopies of the interviews Oppen permitted during the last 15 years of his life. These are perhaps the best source for his comments on his poetic practices and contemporary poetry in general.
    The interviews are listed in chronological order according to the reported date of their occurrence. The Englebert-West interview probably took place in 1976 shortly after the death of Charles Reznikoff (see Englebert's correspondence to Oppen); however, in the version published in the American Poetry Review (1985), the interviewers date the conversation as taking place during the spring of 1975.
    SERIES 8: TRANSLATIONS
    In series eight are filed TRANSLATIONS of Oppen' poetry which were either present in Oppen's papers or library. The list is arranged chronologically according to date of publication, and the translator and publication in which the translations appeared have been identified.
    SERIES 9: REVIEWS
    The final series of the George Oppen papers is primarily comprised of REVIEWS sent to Oppen by the reviewers themselves or, more often, by the Literary Clipping Service. The reviews are arranged alphabetically by name of reviewer. Rather than duplicate David McAleavey's bibliography of works about George Oppen's writings, only a short description of each folder 's contents has been provided, noting the type and quantity of materials and the reviewers represented in the folder.
    SERIES 10: MICROFILM
    Accessions Processed in 1989
    The accessions processed in 1989 consist of eighteen folders and have been arranged in five series: 1) CORRESPONDENCE, 2) NOTES, 3) INTERVIEWS, 4) REVIEWS AND EPHEMERA, and 5) MISCELLANEOUS ADDITIONS.
    SERIES 1: CORRESPONDENCE
    The CORRESPONDENCE series includes letters from George Oppen written to literary critic and friend, Henry Weinfield, as well as one typescript letter to Mary Oppen from Streetfare Journal.
    SERIES 2: NOTES
    The NOTES series contains one item: a typescript of a poem based on a phrase written by Charles Reznikoff.
    SERIES 3: INTERVIEWS
    The INTERVIEWS series features a typed transcript of a 1973 interview of Oppen on the BBC.
    SERIES 4: REVIEWS AND EPHEMERA
    The REVIEWS AND EPHEMERA series contains items collected by Mary Oppen at the end of her husband's life or following his death in 1984. In this series are a citation of honor from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a program of a 1986 exhibit of "This In Which," a program from his "75th Birthday Tribute," a copy of an "In Memorium" article by Hugh Kenner, a certificate from National Endowment for the Arts, and a small collection of newspapers articles written about the poet.
    SERIES 5: MISCELLANEOUS ADDITIONS
    The MISCELLANEOUS ADDITIONS series includes an annotated typescript of Naomi Replansky's "The Darkening Green"; a mock-up of Mark Linenthal's GROWING LIGHT; two Oppen volumes with author's annotations and editions--THE MATERIALS and THIS IN WHICH; a letter from George Oppen to John Crawford inscribed on the inside cover of a copy of "West End"; and two letters from William Bronk, one dated 8 may 1968 to George and Mary, the other dated 23 July 1976 to George.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.

    Subjects

    Oppen, George, -- Archives
    Oppen, Mary, 1908- -- Archives
    American poetry -- 20th century
    Oppen, George, -- Archives
    Oppen, Mary, 1908- -- Archives
    American poetry -- 20th century

    Contributors

    Oppen, Mary, 1908- , -- correspondent
    Degnan, June Oppen, -- correspondent
    Oppen, Linda, -- correspondent
    DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, -- correspondent
    Bronk, William, -- correspondent
    Enslin, Theodore, -- correspondent
    Heller, Michael, 1937- -- correspondent
    Ignatow, David, 1914- -- correspondent
    Laughlin, James, 1914- -- correspondent
    Martin, John, 1947- -- correspondent
    Reznikoff, Charles, 1894-1976, -- correspondent
    Shapiro, Harvey, -- correspondent
    Taggart, John, 1942- -- correspondent
    Tomlinson, Charles, 1927- -- correspondent
    Weinberger, Eliot, -- correspondent
    Williams, William Carlos, 1883-1963, -- correspondent
    Zukofsky, Louis, 1904-1978, -- correspondent
    Oppen, George. -- Alpine
    Oppen, George. -- Collected poems
    Oppen, George. -- Discrete series
    Oppen, George. -- Materials
    Oppen, George. -- Of being numerous
    Oppen, George. -- Primitive
    Oppen, George. -- Seascape, needle's eye
    Oppen, George. -- This in which
    Oppen, Mary, 1908- , -- correspondent
    DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, -- correspondent
    Bronk, William, -- correspondent
    Enslin, Theodore, -- correspondent
    Ignatow, David, 1914- -- correspondent
    Laughlin, James, 1914- -- correspondent
    Martin, John, 1947- -- correspondent
    Reznikoff, Charles, 1894-1976, -- correspondent
    Shapiro, Harvey, -- correspondent
    Taggart, John, 1942- -- correspondent
    Tomlinson, Charles, 1927- -- correspondent
    Williams, William Carlos, 1883-1963, -- correspondent
    Zukofsky, Louis, 1904-1978, -- correspondent
    Oppen, George. -- Collected poems
    Oppen, George. -- Discrete series
    Oppen, George. -- Materials
    Oppen, George. -- Of being numerous
    Oppen, George. -- Primitive
    Oppen, George. -- Seascape, needle's eye
    Oppen, George. -- This in which