Margaret Atwood

On this date in 1939, novelist and poet Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada. As a youngster, she spent many months of each year in the wilderness with her parents, due to her father’s job as a forest entomologist. Atwood, fittingly, was descended from Mary Webster, accused of witchcraft in Salem, Mass., and sentenced to be hanged in 1685 but allowed to live after the rope broke. Atwood made her ancestor the subject of her poem “Half-Hanged Mary.”

Atwood earned a B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1961, her M.A. from Radcliffe College and attended Harvard for two years of postgraduate study. She held a variety of positions at various colleges and has been published in 14 volumes of poetry, including Margaret Atwood Poems (1965-1975), published in 1991.

Her novels include Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), The Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), Oryx and Crake (2003), the first novel in a series that also includes The Year of The Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), which would collectively come to be known as the MaddAddam Trilogy. 

The Handmaid’s Tale, about a theocratic takeover of the United States, inspired the 1990 movie adapted by Harold Pinter. Atwood published Hag-Seed, a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” in 2016Her 2019 novel The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was a Booker Prize finalist. 

She has called herself an agnostic: “A doctrinaire agnostic is different from someone who doesn’t know what they believe. A doctrinaire agnostic believes quite passionately that there are certain things that you cannot know, and therefore ought not to make pronouncements about. In other words, the only things you can call knowledge are things that can be scientifically tested.” (Quoted in Humanism as the Next Step by Lloyd and Mary Morain, 1954.)

She was named Canadian Humanist of the Year in 1987 and the American Humanist Association’s 1987 Humanist of the Year. She married American writer Jim Polk in 1968. They divorced in 1973 and she formed a relationship with novelist Graeme Gibson. They moved to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, where their daughter Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson was born in 1976.

Photo by Larry D. Moore under CC BY 4.0.

Freedom From Religion Foundation