Margaret Atwood Has Very Spidery Handwriting, and Other Lessons Learned from Archival Research

After traveling to Toronto and Cambridge to visit archival libraries, I learned the hard way that the archives are not always helpful or relevant to your project, even if they appear to be so in their online descriptions and finding aids. And in a surprising and lucky turn of events, the unhelpfulness of some of these archives was actually one of the most helpful things about this research experience. While I was looking through manuscripts, letters, and notes by Atwood and others, I realized that although I am still unsure of the exact path my thesis will take, I was still able to relatively easily discern which information would be helpful to me and which would not. Being able to make these distinctions in the mass of information I was interpreting actually gave me a lot of confidence in my project and the direction I want to take. So while far fewer documents than I thought ended up being helpful to me, I am more confident in my project now than I was before this trip.

Still, there were many helpful things I saw in the archives. At the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto, the most interesting document for me in Atwood’s archives was a binder of newspaper clippings from the period while she was writing The Handmaid’s Tale. While Atwood has always been explicitly clear that all the horrors included in her novel are taken from real life, it was helpful for me to see what specific events and occurrences in the ‘80s and late ‘70s she was pulling in for her novel. It definitely bolsters my theory that Atwood’s novel is a partial and crucial response to anti-women attitudes of the ‘80s. And while not directly helpful, it was awesome to see Atwood’s original handwritten manuscript of The Handmaid’s Tale. She has exactly the handwriting I would imagine her to have based on her writing – it’s very spidery and scribbly, a beautiful mess – which was awesome.

At the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, I loved reading the letters submitted to Ms. magazine in the 1980s. It was so interesting to see these letters, written by hand or by typewriter, and get an inside look into the thoughts and concerns of real women – meaning regular, non-literary women actually living in the real world as opposed to realistic characters in fictional works – in the period my novels were written. Similarly, the transcriptions of interviews with important feminist figures (I looked at interview with Gloria Steinem, Mary Eastwood, and Marguerite Rawalt, among others) were extremely helpful in giving me first-hand accounts of feminist concerns and thoughts of the time. I think it’s really important as I conduct literary analysis of my three main works that I have this more sociological/historical context, and I’m so glad I could read these documents and get this background knowledge.

One of the most exciting and somewhat random things that I found were documents linking, albeit loosely, Atwood, Kingsolver, and Walker. In one exchange between Atwood and her assistant, when discussing candidates to be considered to write the introduction for the new Everyman edition of her book, Kingsolver’s name is listed as a possibility. Atwood does not star Kingsolver as someone she thinks would be well-suited to the job, which I was amused by but definitely understood, as they have very different styles. The second document was a book list sent to Atwood by a NZ bookseller. It was the fifty-fifty women list, listing the top 50 women writers of the last 50 years (1955-2005) as voted by thousands of NZ readers nationwide. Atwood ranked 1st on the list with The Handmaid’s Tale and Blind Assassin. Kingsolver took 2nd, with The Poisonwood Bible (not The Bean Trees, which I’m focusing on, but I still thought this was an interesting link). And Walker took 16th, with The Color Purple! It was cool to see all three of my authors linked in this way. I don’t think either of these things are documents or evidence I would ever use in my thesis but I really loved seeing these links exist, it was reassuring to me that I’m on the right track in linking and comparing these authors.


  1. Mary Grutta says:

    Dana, your project seems really interesting. I love Margaret Atwood and I definitely want to learn more about what you discover. I think doing research on someone who is still alive is very fascinating because you can still learn from them today. I understand how frustrating it is to look for resources that are not as helpful as you hoped they would be. I spent many hours in the Library of Congress without finding what I was looking for but it is definitely important to use what you can find to your advantage. Good luck with your research!

  2. Hi Dana, that’s very cool that you saw so much primary source material in the archives. How has the direction of your thesis changed over the course of your research? Have any major shifts in approach occurred as you found new sources?

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