Margaret Atwood, one of the twentieth century's most forceful, innovative poets, novelists, and humanistic Cassandras, delights in a Connecticut relative, Mary Webster. After being hanged for witchcraft, Webster revived and escaped a second date with the noose. Such resilience and tenacity is the stuff of Atwood's fiction, as demonstrated by one of her most enigmatic characters, Offred, the resourceful, enduring heroine of Atwood's nightmarish The Handmaid's Tale (1986). As a result of the novel's success, the author has assumed a place among science fiction writers in the wing reserved for eminent dystopians.
Margaret Eleanor "Peggy" Atwood, multitalented Canadian essayist, scriptwriter, children's author, fiction writer, and social critic, reached world-class status with the bestselling novel The Handmaid's Tale, a complex and disturbing futuristic thriller that placed the author among the twentieth century's leading feminist writers. The second of three children of native Nova Scotians — Margaret Killam Atwood and Carl Edmund Atwood, a forest entomologist for the Department of Agriculture — Margaret Atwood was born November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario. From infancy through most of her childhood, she and her older brother, Harold, backpacked in the north Quebec cutback half the year, abandoning the city and missing weeks of school as her family took to the woods, where her father studied insects. (Atwood's sister Ruth was not born until 1951.)
At the age of six — a year before the family moved from Sault Ste. Marie and settled in Toronto in order to be nearer Carl Atwood's job on the staff of the University of Toronto — Atwood displayed her precocity by composing a self-illustrated verse series, "Rhyming Cats." To vex her free-thinking parents, she attended United Church of Canada services and dabbled in Unitarianism, Quakerism, and spiritualism.
The Atwoods, both voracious readers, stimulated their pixieish, articulate daughter's intellect without suggesting any particular outlet. Atwood read comic books, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Beatrix Potter classics, and the standard children's canon before attacking heavier classics, among them James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Sherlock Holmes' mysteries, Twain's adventure novels, Bible stories, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, and Moby Dick. A child of World War II, she read in her pre-teen years the war histories, Rommel in the Desert, Mein Kampf, and Churchill's writings as well as Brave New World, 1984, and Animal Farm. Her interest in writing, encouraged by her aunt, Ann Blades, dates to 1944, then inexplicably enters a dry period to begin again in Atwood's mid-teens, when she wrote for the Leaside High School literary magazine, Clan Call.
Developing the Poet's Voice
After graduating in 1957, Atwood entered Victoria College of the University of Toronto to complete a B.A. in English. She was determined to write, even though she doubted that a Canadian could succeed in the U.S. dominated fiction market. During this fertile period, she read original verse at the Bohemian Embassy (a local coffeehouse) and penned satiric cartoons for This Magazine under the pseudonym Bart Gerrard. In 1961, she graduated with honors and published her first poetry collection, Double Persephone (1961), which earned the E.J. Pratt Medal. A Woodrow Wilson Fellow, she obtained an M.A. from Radcliffe and initiated graduate studies at Harvard from 1962-63. At the same time, she worked in market research and wrote for the CBC the libretto of composer John Beckwith's The Trumpets of Summer.
Serving her artistic muse compromised Atwood's unfettered lifestyle. In a mock serious article for Ms. magazine, she noted, "My choices were between excellence and doom on the one hand, and mediocrity and coziness on the other. I gritted my teeth, set my face to the wind, gave up double-dating, and wore horn-rims and a scowl so I would not be mistaken for a puffball." The beginning of the feminist movement in the 1960s changed her attitude toward a self-destructive mindset that she later labeled a "post-Romantic collective delusion." Atwood discovered Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir and, at the same time, her own evolving poetic voice. She contributed poems and articles to Alphabet, Blew Ointment, Acta Victoriana, and The Strand, but found no outlets for a novel or for a collection of poems that remain unpublished.
For a year, Atwood taught writing and literature at the University of British Columbia, publishing a second volume of poetry, The Circle Game (1966), and returned to Harvard from 1965-67 on a Canada Council grant, but gave up on completing a Ph.D. and abandoned a thesis on fantasy/adventure literature. In 1967, buoyed by the Governor-General's Award and first place in the Centennial Commission Poetry Competition, she chose stability over bohemianism, married James Polk, and returned to teaching, this time at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, then for two years at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. In 1970, she took a break from her schedule of writing and teaching by touring England, France, and Italy.
Deemed a major poet by the late 1960s, Atwood returned to Toronto in 1971 to serve as York University's writer-in-residence and editor for House of Anansi Press. Her marriage to Polk ended in 1973, when she settled on an Alliston, Ontario, farm with novelist and colleague Graeme Gibson, about whom she reveals little more than that he possesses a solid ego. Atwood's literary models — all male — include Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Eugene Ionesco, and Robert Graves. She also profited from the influence of critic Northrop Frye and poet Jay MacPherson, a strong female role model and friend.
A Critical Success
From her pursuit of a demanding writing schedule, Atwood was elected chair of the Canadian Writers' Union and reaped an astounding list of awards and accolades — the Bess Hoskins Prize, Union Poetry Prize, City of Toronto Book Award, St. Lawrence Award for Fiction, Periodical Distributors of Canada Short Fiction Award, and the Canadian Bookseller's Association Award. Her most provocative novels and short stories focus on themes of exploitation and victimization. One of her children's books, Up in the Tree (1978), is dedicated to Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson, her daughter, who was born in May 1976. A second book for young readers, Anna's Pet (1980), Atwood wrote in collaboration with Ann Blades.
Chief among Atwood's studies of people — mainly women — who refuse to be sexual or political pawns is her dystopian feminist fable, The Handmaid's Tale, a futuristic satire that sold over a million paperback copies in the United States alone. The novel, which has been translated into twenty languages for distribution in twenty-five countries, remained on the bestseller list for twenty-three weeks, and won her the Los Angeles Times Book Award, a second Governor-General's Award, nomination to the Ritz-Paris Hemingway Prize, and the title of Ms. magazine's Woman of the Year. Subsequent honors include the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Commonwealth Literature Prize, the Welsh Arts Council International Writer's Prize, and Chatelaine magazine's Woman of the Year. In 1990, The Handmaid's Tale was filmed by Cinecom Entertainment Group. The movie, scripted by Harold Pinter and set in a grim New England stronghold, features Natasha Richardson as Offred, Aidan Quinn as Nick, and Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway as Commander Fred and Serena Joy.
In recent years, Atwood, who resides on Admiral Road on the outskirts of Toronto, continues to lecture and give public readings. Her liberal views find voice in Amnesty International, PEN, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, of which she served as director from 1971-73. She takes an interest in various forms of artistic expression; one of her hobbies is inscribing greeting cards with rhymed verse. Continuing her balanced production of prose and poetry, in 1992, she published Good Bones, a collection of verse, essays, and short fiction, and in 1993, the bestselling novel The Robber Bride. A current resident outside Alliston, Ontario, she remains active in women's issues and literary circles, particularly the Canadian Authors Association. A respectable collection of Atwood criticism resides in the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. Her manuscripts are collected at the university's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. A Margaret Atwood Society thrives in the U.S., fueled by studies in feminism and fiction.