Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821
Margaret Eleanor “Peggy” Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on November 18, 1939, the second of three children of Margaret Dorothy (Killam) and Carl Edmund Atwood. Her father was an entomologist who conducted research in the bush country of Quebec and Ontario. Therefore, Atwood spent many of her summers at the family cottage exploring the Canadian wilderness until her family would return to Toronto for the school year. This connection to and exploration of the natural world would have a dramatic effect on her later writing.
Atwood’s passion for the creative arts began at a young age. Between the ages of eight and sixteen, she was more interested in painting and designing clothing than in writing. She jokingly calls this time her “dark period” because beyond these years, she was devoted to writing; however, she would go on to illustrate some of her books of poetry and to win respect as a painter.
Atwood wrote for the school paper during her teens at Leaside High School and contributed to the school magazine Clan Call. From 1957 to 1961, she attended the University of Toronto, where she pursued her B.A. in English. During her undergraduate career, she formed a bond with teacher and critic Northrop Frye. Her mentor introduced her to the poetry of William Blake, which would subsequently impact her own poetry. Even the titles of some of her books, such as Double Persephone (1961) and Two-Headed Poems (1978), reveal a double vision of mythic contradictions that stems from the influence of Blake’s writings. Even more important was her friendship with professor and poet Jay Macpherson, whose irony and formal choices are also reflected in Atwood’s work. After graduating with honors from her undergraduate studies and publishing numerous poems in the college’s magazines, Atwood completed her master’s degree in English at Radcliffe College, Harvard University, in 1963.
That year, Atwood took a position at a marketing research firm, which would give her context for her novel The Edible Woman (1969). During this period, she wrote poetry that would appear in various literary journals and would make her one of Toronto’s new literary voices in the 1960’s. At this time, she also worked on a novel, Up in the Air so Blue, which remains unpublished. In 1964 she provided CBC radio with The Trumpets of Summer, a choral composition with music by John Beckwith.
She then moved to Vancouver and taught English at the University of British Columbia for one year. This was the first of many temporary teaching positions and writer-in-residence positions she would hold, including those at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University), the University of Alberta, York University in Toronto, and the University of Toronto. Also, in 1964 she wrote her novel The Edible Woman in six months, though mistakes made by her publishers would delay the novel’s release for five years.
Atwood returned to Radcliffe from 1965 to 1967 to pursue her doctorate. During this time she proposed a thesis, “The English Metaphysical Romance,” but never finished the degree. At Harvard, she met James Polk, an American. In 1967 the two married, and this relationship would be an influence on Atwood’s love poetry. Nevertheless, they would separate in 1972 and eventually divorce. After separating from Polk, Atwood began a relationship with novelist Graeme Gibson. The couple moved to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, and their daughter, Eleanor Jess, was born on May 17, 1976.
In 1967 Atwood was awarded the General’s Award, Canada’s most esteemed literary honor, for her book of poems The Circle Game (1966). The poetry in this collection established major themes in Atwood’s work including Canadian identity and the conflict between humans and nature. Atwood also gained recognition for Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, which she published in 1972. This piece became a work of importance for Canada’s cultural nationalists. In 1973 she was made an officer of the Order of Canada; she was promoted to companion in 1981. Throughout Atwood’s career, she has been active in the Writer’s Union of Canada, having helped to establish the union in the early 1970’s, and in the Anglophone Canadian division of PEN International; she has served as president of both. Also, she is a member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Union and the editorial board of the influential Toronto-based House of Anansi Press.
Atwood’s writing has influenced readers across the globe. Her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) was noted as the most widely taught novel in America in 1996. Atwood has been the recipient of various literary awards, including honorary degrees from Smith College (1982) and the University of Toronto (1983), among many others. She has also received the City of Toronto Book Award, the Canadian Booksellers Association Award, and numerous other honors. Two of Atwood’s novels have been selected for CBC Radio’s Canada Reads competition: The Handmaid’s Tale, supported by former prime minister Kim Campbell in 2002, and Oryx and Crake (2003), supported by Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow in 2005.
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