One of Canada's most distinguished person of letters, Margaret Eleanor Atwood (born 1939) was an internationally famous novelist, poet, critic, and politically committed cultural activist.
Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1939, moving to Sault Ste. Marie in 1945 and to Toronto in 1946. Until she was 11, she spent half of each year in the northern Ontario wilderness, where her father worked as an entomologist. She studied at Victoria College, University of Toronto, where she received a B.A. in 1961, and at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass. (M.A. 1962). Atwood also studied at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., from 1962-63 and 1965-67.
In addition to her academic accomplishments, Atwood received many honorary degrees, including: D. Litt., Trent University, 1973; LL.D., Queen's University, 1974; D. Litt., Concordia, 1980; Smith College, Northampton, Mass., 1982; University of Toronto, 1983; University of Waterloo, 1985; University of Guelph, 1985; Mount Holyoke College, 1985; Victoria College, 1987; Université de Montréal, 1991; University of Leeds, 1994; and McMaster University, 1996.
She has received more than 55 awards, including two Governor General's Awards, the first in 1966 for The Circle Game, her first major book of poems; the second for her 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, which was also shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize and made into a fairly successful wide circulation movie. Her recognition was often reflective of the diversity of her work. Among awards, honors, and prizes was a Guggenheim fellowship, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Award, 1986; Ms. Magazine's Woman of the Year, 1986; Canadian Booksellers Association Author of the Year, 1989; Government of France's Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1994; the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence, (London, U.K.), 1994; the Humanist of the Year Award, 1987; shortlisted for the Ritz Hemingway Prize (Paris), 1987; and Arthur C. Clarke Award for best Science Fiction, 1987.
Atwood clearly—quite early—enjoyed a career of remarkable distinction and success, not only as the highly prolific author of volumes of poetry, ten novels, two books of literary criticism, four collections of short stories, and three children's books and editor of two anthologies, as well as author of much uncollected journalism, but also as a major public figure, cultural commentator, and proponent of activist views in areas ranging from Canadian nationalism, through feminism, to such international causes as Amnesty International and PEN.
Most of her fiction has been translated into several foreign languages; a new Atwood novel becomes a Canadian, American, and international best-seller immediately (only Robertson Davies, among Canadian writers, has a comparable international public). There is a Margaret Atwood Society, a Margaret Atwood Newsletter, and an ever-increasing number of scholars studying and teachers teaching her work in women's studies courses as well as North American literature courses world wide.
Atwood is not only an acclaimed writer, serious as well as popular, in several genres, but outspoken, sardonically memorable, and distinctly quotable on moral and political private and public issues and a stalwart spokesperson for Canadian literature. Her popular and influential contribution to the never-ending quest for the Canadian identity, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), is, among other things, a manifesto for her own work; what began as a polemical political comment on Canadian cultural history is now a part of that very history.
She alternated prose and poetry throughout her career, often publishing a book of each in the same or consecutive years. While in a general sense the poems represent "private" myth and "personal" expression and the novels a more public and "social" expression, there is, as these dates suggest, continual interweaving and cross-connection between her prose and her poetry. The short story collections, Dancing Girls (1977), Bluebeard's Egg (1983), and especially the short stories cum prose poems in the remarkable, overtly metafictional collection Murder in the Dark (1983), bridge the gap between her poetry and her prose.
Her first six volumes of verse—The Circle Game (1966), The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics (1971), and You Are Happy (1974)—are represented in Selected Poems (1976); the three subsequent volumes—Two-Headed Poems (1978), True Stories (1981), and Interlunar (1984)—in Selected Poems II (1986).
She wrote in an exact, vivid, witty, and often sharply discomfiting style in both prose and poetry. Her writing is often grotesque and unsparing in its gaze at pain and unfairness:you fit into me like a hook into an eye fish hook open eye (Power Politics)
"Nature" in her poems is a haunted, explicitly Canadian wilderness in which, unnervingly, man is the major predator of and terror to the "animals of that country," including himself. Her poetry works with myths, public and private; metamorphosis; process-product dualities of entrapment, like Blake's "mind-forg'd manacles"; and the vertical movement from underground to surface exemplified by such mythic figures as Persephone and Orpheus.
The Canadian critic Northrop Frye and the little-known, much underrated Canadian poet Jay Macpherson, were key influences on her early books. The Journals of Susanna Moodie echo the national themes of Survival, the individual's struggle with wilderness ending in a sort of defeat: "I planted him in that country/Like a flag," says Moodie of her drowned son. In Power Politics the grimmer, more mordant phases of Atwood's sex-war feminism become evident in poems with the power of a less vulnerable, more life-affirming Sylvia Plath.
Atwood's novels are social satires as well as identity quests. Her typical heroine is a modern urban woman, often a writer or artist, always with some social-professional commitment, fighting for self and survival in a society where men are the all-too-friendly enemy but women are often complicit in their own entrapment. Critics of Atwood, largely feminist in approach, see Surfacing (1972) as a Jungian "search for the essential female self" and The Edible Woman (1969) and Lady Oracle (1976) as comedies of female re-integration, the latter also being notable for its hilarious and skillful parodies of the female Gothic. Life Before Man (1979), the least comic, is slower, more somber, built on internal thought events, unified by the poetic subtexts drawn from the documentary detail of its setting in the Royal Ontario Museum.
Bodily Harm (1981) is explicitly political and feminist. Its heroine experiences violence and mutilation—bodily harm—in the double setting of the hospital where she endures her mastectomy and the tropical island from whose political violence she discovers she cannot stay aloof. She is there, it turns out, to "bear witness" to the torture inscribed on the female body of a companion, to record this mutilation in her reporter's language, and to acknowledge her own involvement through a compassion that releases the "hope" caught in "Pandora's box."
The Handmaid's Tale, a feminist rewriting (published in 1985) of the dystopia of Orwell's 1984, is, like all dystopias, not a novel of the future but a critique of the present day in which the seeds of a destructive, misogynistic puritan revival are already planted. It is Atwood's closest approach to science fiction.
Cat's Eye (1988) is a self-portrait of the (female) artist returning to the Toronto of her childhood to recover her own past and with it a resurgence of her creativity. Her flashback recollections alternate with her satiric observations of the contemporary cultural scene in a narrative pattern found in most of Atwood's novels.
More recent books include a children's book, For the Birds (1990), and two volumes of short fiction, Wilderness Tips (1991) and Good Bones (1992). In 1993 Atwood published The Robber Bride, which was co-winner of Ontario's Trillium Book Award and won the City of Toronto Award.
Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, the printed version of the four Clarendon Lectures delivered at Oxford University (England) in 1991 was published around the world in 1995. Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories were released in 1995.
Morning in the Burned House (1995) was her first book of new poetry in a decade. Alias Grace was first published in hardcover in the fall of 1996 and in the summer of 1997 as a paperback. It is the story of an infamous, 19th-century Canadian woman convicted as an accessory in the murder of her employer and his mistress. The lead character spends most of the novel in limbo between prison and an insane asylum, with doctors and psychologists attempting to diagnose her.
Atwood's literary works have also been recognized in other forms of artistic endeavor. In 1981, she worked on a television drama, Snowbird (CBC), and had her children's book Anna's Pet (1980) adapted for stage (1986).
One of the largest Atwood collections can be seen at The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, located at the University of Toronto. Manuscripts, reviews, critical responses, correspondence, and copies of both domestic and foreign editions are on display, though some areas of the collection are restricted access, requiring special permission for viewing or copying.
Atwood is known as a very accessible writer. One of her projects, the official Margaret Atwood Web site, is edited by Atwood herself and updated frequently. The Internet resource is an extensive, comprehensive guide to the literary life of the author, while also revealing a peek into Atwood's personality with the links to her favorite charities, such as the Artists Against Racism site, or jocular blurbs she posts when the whim hits. As well, the site provides dates of lectures and appearances, updates of current writing projects, and reviews she has written. The address is: http://www.web.net/owtoad/toc.htm
She is also a talented photographer and watercolorist. Her paintings are clearly illustrative of her prose and poetry and she did, on occasion, design her own book covers. Her collages and cover for The Journals of Susanna Moodie bring together the visual and verbal media.
Further Reading on Margaret Eleanor Atwood
All Atwood's novels and her collected poems are widely and internationally available, as is considerable criticism and scholarship. Two collections, Arnold and Cathy Davidson's The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism (1981) and Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden Castro's Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms (1988), along with Sherrill Grace's book Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood (1980), are good places to start exploring her, but Atwood is a very accessible writer who is perhaps best approached directly.
See the official Margaret Atwood Web site, edited by Atwood herself, as well as BDD Online, at http://www.bbd.com and other web sites.