Viva Margaret Atwood! the Author of the Handmaid's Tale Is No Statist Ideologue

By Birzer, Bradley J. | The American Conservative, November-December 2016 | Go to article overview

Viva Margaret Atwood! the Author of the Handmaid's Tale Is No Statist Ideologue


Birzer, Bradley J., The American Conservative


If one were merely to glimpse the life, work, and reputation of Margaret Atwood, one could not be blamed--or then again, easily forgiven--for thinking she's just another radicalized ideologue from the bygone days of the 1960s, one of the many cookie-cutter feminists who invaded academia in the subsequent decades.

When she published The Handmaid's Tale in 1985, professors of women's studies across North America embraced her with a sycophantic love bordering on the cultish. And many of the sources she employed in her famous six Cambridge University Empson Lectures in 2000--as a typical example of her academic work--reek of predictability: Isaiah Berlin, E.L. Doctorow, Peter Gay, John Irving, D.H. Lawrence, Claude Levi-Strauss, Alice Munro, Sylvia Plath.

Ugh. Utterly boring and disappointingly unoriginal.

But a closer look at her Cambridge lecture sources reveals a bit more. In addition to the unenlightened and unimaginative list of scholars above, there also lurk the works and ideas of L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, Graham Greene, Stephen King, and, most wonderfully, Ray Bradbury and Ursula LeGuin.

Peter Gay? Again, ugh. But Peter Gay and Ray Bradbury? Far more interesting.

Then, browsing even the first several pages of the first Cambridge lecture, the reader is struck by a profound truth about Margaret Eleanor Atwood (b. 1939). Whatever dubious intellectual company she keeps, she is rather gloriously and absolutely her own person.

Physically quite striking as a woman in the latter half of her 70s, she likes to joke that while she might look like a "kindly granny," she is anything but. Her neighbors even tease her that she looks best with a broom, sweeping the blustery October leaves. "Witch," however, would not be the best word to describe her. These words work, however: brilliant, genius, quirky, funny, merciless, odd, gothic, rational, individual, personal, moving, witty, maddening, and eclectic. Whatever one might say or write about her, she is not and never was boring.

Thinking about her childhood, spent moving from place to place in the lesser-known reaches of Canada, she explains what she believes to be the source of her imagination:

   Because none of my relatives were people I
   could actually see, my own grandmothers
   were no more and no less mythological than
   Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother, and
   perhaps this had something to do with my
   eventual writing life--the inability to distinguish
   between the real and the imagined, or
   rather the attitude that what we consider real
   is also imagined: every life lived is also an inner
   life, a life created.

The dreadfully uptight and haughty Peter Gay does not readily emerge from such a passage, but the irrepressible Ray Bradbury leaps from it in full ecstasy.

Yet however interesting her imagination, Atwood never dismisses or downplays her more rigorous and intellectual side. Indeed, Atwood describes herself in interviews as an 18th-century rationalist who just happens to have all kinds of voices and persons and stories floating around and interacting with one another in her head. She falls more clearly, though, into the broad camp of the humanists (Christian and otherwise). As such, she expertly sculpts, caresses, and condemns in her art the horrors and the achievements of the human person.

"Why is it that when we grab for heaven--socialist or capitalist or even religious--we so often produce hell?" she plaintively asks. "I'm not sure, but so it is. Maybe it's the lumpiness of human beings." Lumpiness, indeed. Neither Thomas More nor Russell Kirk could have said it better.

To explore the humanist aspect of Atwood, it's worth reconsidering her most famous work, The Handmaid's Tale, a story that has been made into a major motion picture as well as a forthcoming television series and that is read throughout high schools and colleges in the English-speaking world as gospel. …

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