Margaret Atwood – Letter to America
Margaret Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, to parents of Nova Scotian origin. When she was seven, her family moved to Toronto but continued to spend the warmer months in the remote northern areas of Ontario and Quebec, where her father, an entomologist and zoology professor, studied tree-eating insects. Atwood’s fascination with the Canadian wilderness, which is present in so much of her writing, dates from this period. She was eleven before she attended school on a full-time basis.
She received her bachelor’s degree from Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto, in 1961. Upon the recommendation of her mentor, Northrop Frye, she decided to pursue a graduate degree at Radcliffe College, which joined Harvard University while Atwood was studying there. At that time, Harvard was starchy and ultraconservative and Atwood’s experiences as a graduate student helped shape her feminist views and opposition to the Americanization of Canadian culture. In 1962, she earned her master’s degree, and although she stayed at Harvard intermittently over the next several years, she left the program before completing her Ph.D. By 1967, she was already becoming famous as a writer.
While studying in Boston, she published her first collection of poetry, The Circle Game (1966), which was awarded the prestigious Governor General’s Award. In 1969, she published her first novel, The Edible Woman, an edgy satire about a young woman working at a marketing firm. Over the next few years, she continued to alternate between poetry and prose, often publishing one work in each genre in the same year. In 1972, she published a critical work called Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, which greatly influenced the ways Canadians understand their literary traditions. Still taught in many Canadian schools, Survival advanced an environmental interpretation of Canadian literature and portrayed Canadian writers as victims still imprisoned by a colonial dependency—caught between America to the south and the vast wildernesses to the north. That same year, Atwood published her second novel, Surfacing, in which the protagonist must escape to the northern wilderness before rejoining society.
After two broken-off engagements and a five-year marriage to an American, Jim Polk, Atwood settled down with the Canadian writer Graeme Gibson in 1973. After several years of being professionally involved with the Toronto-based publishing house, House of Anansi Press, as well as intermittent teaching engagements, she and Gibson bought a farmhouse outside Alliston, Ontario, where they lived off and on for many years. In 1976, the year she published her third novel, Lady Oracle, Atwood gave birth to a daughter, Jess Atwood Gibson. Over the next few years, she dabbled in television screenwriting; produced a history book, Days of the Rebels: 1815–1840 (1977); and published a collection of short stories, Dancing Girls (1977).
Following more or less temporary residencies in Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, Berlin, Edinburgh, London, and the south of France, Atwood and her family settled in Toronto on a permanent basis in 1981. The previous year, Atwood had become vice-chairperson of the Writers’ Union of Canada, a position perfectly suited to her interest in Canadian nationalism, which her years in the United States, as well as her commitment to publish Canadian writers through Anansi, had strengthened. Atwood explored the theme of Canadian identity, with varying levels of explicitness, in many of her works. Committed to forging a “Canadian literature,” Atwood has cited fellow Canadian poets of her generation, including Michael Ondaatje and Al Purdy, as the strongest influences on her poetry. More than twenty years after publishing Survival, Atwood expanded on this subject in Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995).
Internationally, Atwood is celebrated for the blunt feminism of her books. From her first novel, The Edible Woman, to her dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the book that sealed her international fame, Atwood has shown a tremendous interest in the restraints society puts on women—and the facades women adopt in response. The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood refuses to label as “science fiction,” depicts a society in which women are shorn of all rights except the rights to marry, keep house, and reproduce. After The Handmaid’s Tale made Atwood a major international celebrity, she wrote a series of novels dealing with women’s relationships with one another, including Cat’s Eye (1988) and The Robber Bride (1993). In 1992, she published Good Bones, short, witty pieces about female body parts and the constraints that have been placed on them throughout history. Atwood explores women’s historical roles in other works, including her renowned poetry collection, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) and her novel Alias Grace (1996). Both re-imagine the lives of famous pioneer women in Canadian history.
Today, Atwood is one of the best-known living writers in the world. Atwood’s work has been published in more than twenty-five countries, and she has received a number of prestigious awards for her writing, including the Booker Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Molson Award, and a Canada Short
Civilization vs. Wilderness
Atwood constantly pits civilization against the wilderness surrounding it and society against the savagery from which it arose. She considers these oppositions to be some of the defining principles of Canadian literature. They also provide a metaphor for the divisions within the human personality. Society, civilization, and culture represent the rational, contained side of humanity, while the wild forest represents the very opposite: the irrational, primeval, and carnal impulses that exist in every living being. In The Animals in That Country, Atwood dramatizes the civilized urge to ignore the wildness lurking just over the horizon: in “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer,” she captures this theme with particular vividness: “In the darkness the fields / defend themselves with fences / in vain: / everything / is getting in.”
Atwood elaborates on the uselessness of defending oneself against the wilderness in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, an account of a European immigrant’s struggles to navigate the wildernesses of Canada, her adopted home. Almost every poem deals with this tension in some form. In “This is a photograph of me,” the serene natural setting presents a startling contrast to the human tragedy it masks. The glossy “[m]ountains and lakes and more lakes” depicted on the wall in “At the Tourist Centre in Boston” succeed only in reminding the viewer of the gritty reality beneath the pictures. In “Siren Song,” the jagged cliffs pulverize carefree sailors, who are in, but not fully of, nature. In “Postcards” and other poems of that era, cosmetic improvements to the natural world do little to mask the savagery that preceded human intervention. Landscapes in Atwood’s poems are harsh and brutal, wild and unconquerable, like the heart of darkness within all humans.
The Inevitability of Death
Atwood demonstrates a remarkable determination to confront death in her poetry. In “Another Elegy,” she asks: “Fine words, but why do I want / to tart up death?” No aspect of life occurs without some reminder of death. She is most interested in the decay of the body—or, as she cautions in “Circe/Mud Poems,” “this body is not reversible.” The historical poem “Marrying the Hangman” includes a related observation: “There is only a death, indefinitely postponed.” The body is enslaved to time and somehow disconnected from the person inside of it. “Time is what we’re doing,” Atwood writes in “Time.” In “Bedside,” she curses “the murderous body, the body / itself stalled in a field of ice.” Atwood confronts the inevitability of death most explicitly in the last section of another collection, Morning in the Burned House. “Man in a Glacier” echoes the themes of “Bedside,” as it literally represents a human body suspended in ice. “A Visit” mourns the passage of her father’s days of activity and lucidity. In “Flowers,” the speaker observes a dying father and realizes that she will undergo the same experience. Nothing can stop the relentless march of death.
In her poems, Atwood uses photographs to explore identity, particularly the facades women adopt to conform (at least superficially) to society. “This is a photograph of me,” the first poem in her first collection, plays with the conventional equation of appearance and reality. The photograph obscures, rather than reveals, the speaker’s mysterious identity and history. Similarly, the speaker of “In the Tourist Centre in Boston” reflects on the perceived discrepancy between photographic images of Canada and her own memories of the place. The speaker’s “private mirage” takes precedence over the glossy colorized certainties depicted in the photographs. In the poem “Girl and Horse, 1928,” from Procedures for Underground, the speaker contemplates an old photograph of a girl, “someone I never knew,” and tries to imagine what the girl was thinking. In the end of the poem, the speaker turns over the photograph, whereupon the girl waves and rides “out of sight.” Thus photographs are no longer static recorders of a fixed history in which “nothing can change, grow older.” Instead, photographs represent the truths a viewer chooses to invent. More than a decade later, in “Postcards,” Atwood describes a photograph only to comment on its inability to capture the realities of a place.
Traditionally a symbol of sexuality and wisdom, the figure of the snake pervades much of Atwood’s work. In the section of Interlunar dedicated exclusively to variations on the appearance of the snake, Atwood offers a bold reason for this recurring interest: “O snake,” she says in the first line of “Psalm to Snake,” “you are an argument / for poetry.” To Atwood, this slithering beast symbolizes the unseen forces driving the universe. According to the poem “Bad Mouth,” a snake is also “fanged,” carnivorous, and prone to “gorge on blood,” characteristics much in keeping with the violent worldview presented in much of Atwood’s poetry.
In “Eating Snake,” the speaker rejects the common comparison of the snake to the phallus (insisting on “two differences: / snake tastes like chicken, and who ever credited the prick with wisdom?”). In “She,” the poet dismisses the easy analogies (a whip, a rope, the phallus) and describes the snake as a far more complicated creature “with nothing in it but blood.” Atwood uses the masculine pronoun to describe this bloodthirsty creature, admitting in the last line that she does so out of habit. The poem ends with the line “It could be she,” suggesting that women are equally capable of predatory behavior. For a poet obsessed with the individual’s capacity for self-concealment, the snake’s “gradual shedding”—its regular trading of one skin for another—offers an exceptionally rich metaphor for human transformations, undertaken for survival or amusement.
Of the many symbols Atwood takes from the natural world, the moon is among the most malleable. Traditionally invoked as a female goddess, the moon offers a vehicle for Atwood’s interest in darkness and the brief illuminations that interrupt it. In her poetry, the moon can symbolize totality, mystery, menace, and oblivion. In “You Begin,” from Selected Poems II: 1976–1986 , a child’s mouth is compared to “an O or the moon.” In “A Red Shirt,” from Two-Headed Poems, she describes the male desire for woman to be “bloodless / as a moon on water.” In “Night Poem,” also from Two-Headed Poems, the moon becomes a “beige moon damp as a mushroom.” In “Mushrooms,” from True Stories, Atwood echoes this image in her description of mushrooms as “poisonous moons, pale yellow.” In the title poem from this collection, the ever-elusive nature of “truth” can only be approximated in list form, as “a moon, crumpled papers, a coin.” In “Landcrab I,” she speaks of “that dance / you do for the moon.”
The moon sees all but never comments. It is the silent, inscrutable, and probably an indifferent observer of the human comedy unfolding below. Atwood emphasizes this point in “Landcrab II,” in which the subject identifies itself as a “category, a noun / in a language not human, / infra-red in moonlight / a tidal wave in air.” In “Last Day,” Atwood writes, “Everything / leans into the pulpy moon,” suggesting the tug of this “pulpy,” murky object just beyond human reach. To Atwood, the moon symbolizes several layers of contradictions, the spirit of multiplicity and ambiguity that animates all her poetry. It is visible but mysterious, massive but ephemeral, cyclical but unpredictable. As she puts it in “Sunset II”: “Now there’s a moon, / an irony.” The moon can be anything the viewer decides it is, as in “Against Still Life,” when an “orange in the middle of the table” is transformed into, among other items, “an orange moon.” The moon is the proof of human subjectivity, “the reason for poetry.”
The Female Body
The female body represents servitude and entrapment, victimization and imprisonment—otherness as defined by a men. It is a battlefield of violence, as in the section “Torture” from “Notes Towards A Poem That Can Never Be Written,” from True Stories, in which the speaker describes a woman’s body as a “mute symbol” of grotesque weakness: “they sewed her face / shut, closed her mouth / to the size of a straw, / and put her back on the streets.” In another poem in this series, “A Woman’s Issue,” a young girl is “made to sing while they scrape the flesh / from between her legs, then tie her thighs / till she scabs over and is called healed.” The area between a woman’s legs is “enemy territory”; when violated, it is proof of man’s “uneasy power.” A woman’s body is the theater on which men’s brutal rituals are enacted, as they vie for supremacy.
The female body also demonstrates the unbreakable connection between the Earth and women, proof of a woman’s vulnerability and mortality. In “You Begin,” the speaker emphatically identifies the child’s hand to teach her that her body is ultimately her own. “Five Poems for Grandmothers” observes, sons “branch out, but / one woman leads to another.” While the female body can represent continuity, sensual pleasure, and self-reliance, in most of Atwood’s work, there is some disjunction between substance and spirit, between flesh and essence. In “The Woman Makes Peace With Her Faulty Heart,” the narrator characterizes a woman’s relationship to her body as an “uneasy truce, / and honor between criminals.”
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Margaret Atwood’s Poetry.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2006. Web. 9 Apr. 2014.
Questions to Consider for Writing:
- How does Atwood characterize the America she used to know?
- What is the impact of the mythological references throughout the letter? How do they help establish the writer’s ethos, or character?
- To whom is the letter addressed, the American government or the American people? Explain your response using specific reference to the letter.
- How does the relationship between the United States and Canada affect Atwood’s perceptions of the direction the United States is taking?