Who is Canada's Sweetheart? Getting to know Margaret Atwood

Who is Canada's Sweetheart? Getting to know Margaret Atwood


Whether you know a lot or a little about Canadian literature, Margaret Atwood would probably be one of the first names that comes to mind if someone were to ask you about Canadian authors. Atwood not only sells books internationally, but gets recognized by many scholars as an influential literary figure. No matter what discussion you might find yourself having about Canadian literature or Canadian identity, Atwood would probably end up being a big part of it. How did this come to be the case? What do we really know about the author that brings Canada so much attention from the rest of the world? I have heard varying opinions on Atwood's personality, literary theories, and ideas, but no one can refute her popularity and influence, good or bad.

Born in Ontario, Atwood spent a great deal of her childhood travelling due to her father's work line of work. Since her father did research in the field of entomology, the study of insects, this meant that Atwood spent a lot of time very close to the Canadian wilderness which would later be seen to be a source of inspiration for not only her fiction and poetry, but also her academic theories related to Canadian identity. Due to the isolated areas of Quebec and Ontario that Atwood's family often lived in, Atwood did not follow a traditional learning path. Until she was twelve, Atwood did not complete a full year of school, but instead relied on her parents to guide her education. Later, at sixteen, Atwood made a decision to become a writer for a living. This brought her to study English literature at the University of Toronto before moving on to complete a graduate degree at Harvard University.

Living as an ex-patriot in Massachusetts during her university career, Atwood worked not only on her thesis in Victorian literature, but started thinking about Canadian identity. Though Boston was not far from Canada and America was seen to be similar to Canada in many ways, Atwood began to look at why Canadian literature stood out as its own topic deserving to be studied. Thus, some of Atwood's most famous literary ideas were born. These ideas later led to the publication of Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature in 1972. Still studied widely today in Canadian literature classes, this book talks about a preoccupation with survivalism in Canadian literature. Atwood argued for Canadian literature as its own field because many of the text deals with surviving in the wilderness, living through the winter, and the trials of nature overall. Many spoke out against these ideas as an oversimplification of Canadian literature, but for good or bad, Atwood made it clear that Canadian literature was distinct and important enough to be talked about at all.

After moving back to Canada for a short time, Atwood returned to the United States to begin a dissertation. It was around this time that her creative writing career took off. A jump start to her career came about through being awarded the Governor General's Award for her collection of poetry entitled The Circle Game. This award led her to make important connections in the literary community which resulted in further opportunities for writing, and publication. These endeavours moved her career away from academic study which resulted in her dissertation remaining incomplete, though she has received a number of honorary degrees throughout her life. Atwood soon became a well-known name, publishing such important books as The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake.
With success, Atwood began not only to put Canadian literature on the map, but also to use her fame in various political ways. Therefore, many know Atwood as a supporter of the environment, a feminist, an advocate for the arts, and an important advocate for numerous other causes. At the age of 73, she continues to be a great player in the literary scene with new works continuing to be published, distributed, and talked about on an international scale.

Though not my favourite Canadian author, Atwood's reputation makes her a name to know if you're going to talk about Canadian literature. With fame, Atwood became one of the most important literary figures, but also one of the least accessible. A quick look over her website will tell you she now has little time to review books, appear as a guest speaker, or get involved with her fans in any personal way. Despite this lack of engagement with her audience, Atwood continues to accept to be interviewed in some cases, especially when promoting a book. In one interview she meditates on the word icon to say that, "all these things set a standard of behaviour that you don't necessarily wish to live up to. If you're put on a pedestal you're supposed to behave yourself like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around." Many people, myself included, remain baffled by Atwood's ability to stay so current and important. Stories about Atwood's difficult personality, views on Canadian identity, and many other issues can be taken as good or bad depending your view, but through her successful career, all have to agree that she established herself a central role in Canadian literature which will not soon be forgotten.









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