Margaret Atwood’s novels, short stories, and poetry have won for her many readers south of the Canadian border; Americans interested in literary and cultural history will find both discriminating analysis and a consistently lucid voice in Atwood’s Second Words, a collection of lectures and essays. The chronological arrangement creates a portrait of the developing artist from 1960 through 1982; indeed, one can read this book as an intellectual autobiography. Through the essays, one meets a precocious undergraduate who once took a course in John Milton from an unintimidating Northrop Frye, a Harvard University English graduate student who studied American Romanticism with Perry Miller, an author coping with the popular success and hostile literary reviews of her landmark study of Canadian literature, a published poet and novelist whose work has firmly established her literary reputation, and an activist for human rights. In these essays, Atwood examines recurrently three topics: Canada’s nationalistic responses to cultural imperialism (British and American), the voices created by literary women, and her own passionate dedication to writing, both to renew language and to make a moral and ethical critique of society. Defining the interrelationships among these three topics, Atwood offers a map, or perhaps an anatomy, of her literary culture. Second Words sketches a personal literary history of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Atwood divides her collection into three parts. Part 1, 1960-1971, includes student essays written for the literary magazine at Victoria College, University of Toronto, and book reviews written by a beginning novelist for academic, popular, and avant-garde periodicals. Part 2, 1972-1976, records, in impressive diversity, Atwood’s response to her growing reputation as a poet and her scandalous success as a critic of Canadian literature, and documents her increasing awareness of women writers’ significance in literary culture. Part 3, 1977-1982, reveals Atwood’s dedication to human rights, her commitment to appropriate critical reviews of Canadian and women writers, and her reflections on literary influence.
In her earliest essays, Atwood expresses her fascination with Canadian literature. Praising the barren solemnity of Margaret Avison’s poems, Atwood, in 1961, writes in a collegiate style stuffed with figures of speech. Her prose style improved dramatically over the next twenty years, but her discriminating intelligence is evident even in her first published essays. Her 1962 review of J. P. Matthews’ Kangaroo & Beaver: Tradition in Exile, a comparative study of two “colonial” literatures, Australian and Canadian, reveals both her bias and her analytic brilliance. Although she praises the book’s comprehensiveness and documentation, she faults Matthews for preferring Australian literature to Canadian. Succinctly, she explains that the gaps in Matthews’ categories and his uneven selection of certain Canadian authors have undercut the value of his conclusions. This review was one of several which Atwood published in Alphabet, a little magazine that specialized in Canadian literature. James Reaney, poet and editor of Alphabet, was one of Atwood’s mentors; she pays tribute to Reaney in three separate essays. The magazine lasted for nineteen issues and eleven years, and, on the occasion of Alphabet’s final issue, Atwood wrote a discriminating analysis of the Canadian habit of mind, contrasted with the English and the American. Her analysis assumes the importance of historical and cultural roots for any writer, and her perspective on Canadian writers commands critical respect. In “Nationalism, Limbo and the Canadian Club” (1971), she further describes her own generation of Canadians, who received a public school education in British imperial history and a popular education in the cultural and economic dominance of the United States. Atwood remembers that Canada defined itself negatively, as failing to be the United States. Re-creating her years of graduate study at Harvard University, she diagnoses the self-defeating attitudes of Canadian students at Harvard Business School, who imbibed too much Canadian whiskey, earnestly discussed whether they should pursue profitable careers in the United States, and repeatedly played a record of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Atwood chose another path. As an undergraduate at Toronto University, she had studied English and American literature in her classes, but outside class she discovered...
(The entire section is 1857 words.)