The Academy’s Emerson-Thoreau Medal is awarded to an individual for overall literary achievement. Named for Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the prize was first awarded to poet Robert Frost in 1958, and has since been presented seventeen times, including to T. S. Eliot, Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth, and, most recently, Toni Morrison in 2016.
The Academy awarded the 2020 Emerson-Thoreau Medal to Margaret Atwood for her distinguished achievement in the field of literature. The virtual award ceremony included remarks by Academy President David Oxtoby; a video message from The Honorable Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada and Minister of Finance; and a reading of the Emerson-Thoreau Medal citation by Chair of the Academy’s Board Nancy C. Andrews. Following the presentation of the medal, Margaret Atwood delivered brief acceptance remarks and then joined author Gish Jen in a conversation. Margaret Atwood’s acceptance remarks and an edited version of her conversation with Gish Jen follow.
2098th Stated Meeting | March 24, 2021 | Virtual Event
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. Her work includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and The Testaments, which won the 2019 Booker Prize. She has been an International Honorary Member of the American Academy since 1988.
Thank you, dear Academy of Arts and Sciences. I am so honored to have been given this award, one with a truly illustrious group of past recipients, one that celebrates the importance of the written word at a time when words have become increasingly important, and one that is especially meaningful for me. When I began writing, as a teenager long ago in the 1950s, I did not know that such an award existed. However, I would have recognized the name of Thoreau: my father, a biologist and canoe expert born in 1906 in a very rural location, was a huge fan of Thoreau, and we had Walden and also A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in the house. My father was especially keen on the idea of self-reliance, and appreciative of Thoreau’s willingness to go to jail in defense of principles in which he believed. He is indeed one of the grandfathers of peaceful protest.
When I made it to New England, land of my ancestors, in 1961, one of the things I did – apart from visiting Salem, so deeply of interest to us of witchy reputation – was to visit Walden Pond, where the outline of Thoreau’s cabin or shack was still visible. I thought it was a bit small compared to the father-constructed cabins and shacks I’d spent much of my childhood in, but unlike ours it was for only one person. When we were making a little woodland memorial for my father, we put on it one of his favorite quotes from Thoreau: “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”
My connection with Emerson was more tenuous, but as a Toronto undergraduate I studied him with a New England professor who was surely channelling him. I was never sure exactly what Transcendentalism was, but it seemed benign, as was the professor. He had a dreamy way of looking out the window while saying something impenetrable that I will never forget. I can’t say that I fixated much on Individualism and Freedom back then – as a young person, I took them for granted – but I am focusing on them now, as these concepts badly need revisiting. As for Nature, need I say more, in this time of climate crisis? Emerson and Thoreau, you were ahead of your time. Way ahead.
So, I thank you, dear American Academy of Arts and Sciences, for this award, so touching to me personally. And Mr. Thoreau and Mr. Emerson, I especially thank you. You embodied the positive currents of your time and place, which is all any of us can be expected to do. And thank you too for daring to be different. We need that example. As Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Nowadays he would have said “person,” but now is not then. If you could pop awake, gentlemen, and discover who has just been given this wonderful award in your names, would you be very surprised?
I have faith in you. I think not. You yourselves were viewed as eccentrics in your day. I believe you would have taken me in stride. Maybe we could go on a canoe trip, Mr. Thoreau. Though not Mr. Emerson. He would have been too absent-minded. While contemplating the higher truths he would have toppled overboard, I fear. Though Mr. Thoreau and I being more practical, would have fished him out.
I thank you all, most sincerely, once again.
Gish Jen, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2009, is the author of the novels Typical American, Mona in the Promised Land, The Love Wife, World and Town, and The Resisters; a collection of stories, Who’s Irish? and the books The Girl at the Baggage Claim: A Tale of Two Selves and Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.
Margaret, that was just wonderful. Let me say what an honor it is to talk to you. And I want to tell you that we have something in common. We both studied with the great Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye. Back in the 1970s, he taught a seminar at Harvard on the Bible, in conjunction with which there was a reception for him at Kirkland House, which I dutifully attended. Unfortunately, I did not realize it was Daylight Savings Time, so I arrived an hour early. And even more unfortunately, there was one other guest who also missed that it was Daylight Savings Time, namely Professor Frye. So, there I was, twenty years old, about to have a one-hour tête-à-tête with Northrop Frye. I stood up as tall as I could. I took a deep breath. And in an attempt to make learned conversation, I asked him whether there was any Canadian literature to speak of. Of course, my head came off and went rolling on the floor as Northrop Frye explained to me about the great figures who were emerging. And the very first name out of his mouth was Margaret Atwood. That was the very first time I heard your name; it is a great honor to be sharing a screen with you today.
Since we are here in Massachusetts, at least virtually, I thought we might talk about the origins of The Handmaid’s Tale, some of which do lie here in Massachusetts, as you signal in the dedication to the book. You dedicate the book to two people, the first of whom is Mary Webster – “Half-Hanged Mary.” I wonder if you might talk a little bit about her.
ATWOOD: Half-Hanged Mary was accused of witchcraft just before the Salem trials really got going. She was taken from Hadley, Massachusetts, to Boston, where she was tried and then exonerated. Back she goes to her hometown, where they still believed she was a witch, so they strung her up. But it was before the drop had been invented, so they didn’t drop her. They just held her up, sort of like a flag. She must have had a very tough neck or been quite thin because she didn’t die. When they came to get her in the morning, thinking they were going to be cutting down a corpse, she was still alive. I guess they thought she was really in league with the Devil on that occasion. But they didn’t re-kill her. She lived another fourteen years. Guess what she was accused of? Making an old man old. Witches do that.
On Mondays, my grandmother – whose maiden name was Webster – would say she was a relation of ours. But on Wednesdays, she might re-think it and say, “No, no, she wasn’t.” So, it has always been a topic of conversation in our family. We can’t really find out if we are related because we can’t determine whether she had any children. If she didn’t have any children, she can’t be an ancestor. She might just be a collateral, like Daniel Webster, the lawyer, who is a collateral. But Noah Webster is a direct. So, it goes like that. People on the East Coast are really into their genealogies. I had some aunts who were like that. They devoted quite a bit of time to this, and anything they found out, they would dutifully send along.
JEN: Well, she was certainly your spiritual ancestor. And you dedicated your book to her, as well as to a second person – the great American intellectual historian, Perry Miller, who worked so much on the Puritans, and whose course you took during your graduate work at Harvard.
ATWOOD: I took the classical tradition in American literature. And I took another course with him, which was American Romantics. And to fill in my gap of the eighteenth century – in which not a lot of writing went on; there was a sort of warfare going on at that time – I studied with Alan Heimert, who was an intellectual descendant of Perry Miller. That was deeply interesting to me, and certainly was some of the background for The Handmaid’s Tale, because like middle-American pyramids, they never actually tore down a pyramid, they just built on top of it. And I think cultures do that. They don’t completely eradicate whatever was there before. They build on top of it. So, we think of America as eighteenth century, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, etc. But that’s built on top of an earlier pyramid, which is seventeenth-century Puritanism. And every once in a while, it comes up again, as it did during the Great Awakening in the nineteenth century – and as you have been seeing recently in the United States, with the resurgence of the religious right, which began in the 1980s as a political force.
JEN: Yes. And, of course, it comes up very much in The Handmaid’s Tale, where a lot of the rhetoric and many of the cultural practices in the Republic of Gilead – which, of course, is the regime that has taken over the United States in The Handmaid’s Tale – appear to come from the Puritans. Did you discover all of this in Miller’s work?
ATWOOD: Well, being Canadian, we had the Bible in school. We didn’t have separation of church and state. It’s a very odd arrangement. There’s a Catholic school board, and there’s a Protestant school board, which is basically secular. But in my day, it wasn’t. And we had Bible readings in school. Being a curious child – and despite the wishes of my parents – I went off to Sunday school as well.
JEN: So it seems that Perry Miller reinforced things that you had already been quite steeped in.
ATWOOD: There was Northrop Frye’s Bible course. You had to know the Bible if you were studying honors English, because it began with Anglo-Saxon and went all the way up to T. S. Eliot. And unless you know the Bible, you’re not going to get a lot of the references. That’s true of American literature until recently as well.
JEN: But it’s particularly a lot of the Puritan practices that resurface in The Handmaid’s Tale.
ATWOOD: The Puritans were not very women friendly.
JEN: Exactly. It also seems – though maybe this is wrong – that you shared Miller’s view that the classical tradition in American literature, from the Puritans on down, has a political focus – that it’s about how people relate to a power structure and vice versa. To what degree was this idea one you had before you ever came to Perry Miller’s class? Was this also something reinforced by his class?
ATWOOD: Well, you can’t study literature from Beowulf on up without figuring that out. And it’s whether the author intends it or not. Messages of books are supplied by readers, essentially. But language itself has moral valences: weed is a plant you don’t want. Flower is a plant you do. That is how language is arranged. And you can’t speak or write without moral implications. I think about the closest we came to getting rid of that was a French writer called Robbe-Grillet, who wanted to do away with character and plot and message and everything else. And I don’t know whether you have ever read him, but it is really like reading about a cafeteria menu. Because we are human beings, we actually like plot and characters and moral outcomes. And any child, if you’re reading them a fairy tale, they know who is supposed to be disapproved of. It’s right in the story. So, you can’t get rid of that. But also you should not prescribe it. You should not have a situation in which the state is telling writers what to write. If you have that, it’s just going to be propaganda. But, of course, we have had censorship through the ages. The reason there are no religious swear words in Shakespeare is that they were censored. You could not do that on the stage. It’s why he gets so inventive with his swearing.
JEN: Well, he certainly managed to get a great many things on the stage in any event.
ATWOOD: That was the point of them. Some words were verboten at the time. And you can follow this story through various civilizations and various cultures and see it in the play. But there has never been a time when people felt that art was morally neutral. It’s just a question where the line is drawn and whether you are going to consider artists in harness to the stage – which they have been from time to time – or whether you are going to take the Romantic view and say that they are writing against power. And that goes back and forth. So, eighteenth century, hooray, the aristocracy, king, great, love it. Nineteenth century, not so.
JEN: Would you talk a little bit about your experiences at Harvard? When you were there, women were not allowed in Lamont.
ATWOOD: Yes, and that is where all the poetry was. That is how I came to be in the cellar of Widener, reading about witches, because the witches were in Widener. There were pluses and minuses, as there always are. Because the Harvard English department did not hire women, you weren’t the competition. The men who were in my class were given a much harder time. They had much harder orals. My orals were a walk in the park, because the three men on the committee spent all the time talking to themselves. I just had to sit there. For the men, there was nothing at stake when it came to women who were going to graduate from Harvard. They would never be the competition as far as they were concerned. That changed. But in the 1960s, that is the way it was.
JEN: I love what you once said about that time: “For a woman to say she planned to be a writer was like saying you were going to pee in the men’s bathroom.” In the green room just before our program began, you mentioned a women’s dorm on Appian Way in which you lived.
ATWOOD: It was actually a graduate dorm in a house. And that house was the basis for the house in The Handmaid’s Tale. Everything in The Handmaid’s Tale has a basis in a building either at Harvard or around Harvard. I am the kind of writer who has to visualize where the characters are. I seem unable to just completely make that up.
JEN: I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about your experiences in this dorm. I understand there was a Peeping Tom, whom you cornered and had prosecuted, right?
ATWOOD: And the year after I left, they would phone – this was before the Internet – the graduate women’s dorm and say obscene things. So, they got a dog whistle. I also met some interesting women who lived there. And some of them have been my lifelong friends. You must have come across the book called The Equivalents about the Institute for Independent Study at Radcliffe that was founded in the 1960s. Tillie Olsen and Anne Sexton and people like that were in it that first year. It’s pretty fascinating.
JEN: Yes, it is amazing. So, you were never a Radcliffe Fellow or a Bunting Fellow?
ATWOOD: I was too young to have been in that cohort. And I then was leading too peculiar a life for that to have been possible.
JEN: It’s not too late. I think the Radcliffe Institute would love to have you.
ATWOOD: Yes, but I would be taking the place of somebody else who would need it more than me.
JEN: Very true. We see a lot of Harvard in Gilead: something suggestive of the red Harvard doctoral gowns on the women, the hangings on the Harvard Yard wall, and Harvard Yard as the site for the women’s reeducation center.
ATWOOD: I think I put that at the other Radcliffe dorm. But the Brattle Theatre is where they get their outfits. And the various shops were repurposed as Loaves and Fishes. And, of course, I wanted people hanging on the wall. When we came to film the first movie, however, we did it at Duke, because Harvard was not amused at that time. They have become more amused since. We are filming the TV show in Toronto and Hamilton. And in Hamilton, there is a very convenient wall. And that is the wall that they are using. I did some research for The Testaments last time I was there. Walking here and there in the Yard, what can you see from this or that vantage point? I wanted to be accurate, because if you don’t get those things right, you will get the outraged letter.
JEN: I noticed that you did take the veritas off the library. All of which, I must say, suggests something very fitting about you receiving the Emerson-Thoreau Medal, since you seem to have felt about as enthusiastic about Harvard as they did.
ATWOOD: I actually did feel enthusiastic about Harvard, because although there were these downsides – and there are downsides to everything – I did have some wonderful professors. And I went there in the first place because I wanted to study Victorian literature, which was not fashionable at the time. But there was one person who was an expert in it: Jerome Hamilton Buckley, a fellow Canadian. This was a time when they were actively recruiting people to go to graduate school, because they knew the baby boom was about to descend on them. And they didn’t have enough of anything. They were actively looking for people who could fill these teaching slots and doctor slots and just about any slot you could think of. It does really influence your life what year you are born. So, for characters in my books – and I’m sure you do the same thing – you choose their birth date, and then you put the years across the top. And you figure out what was happening when they were ten, what was happening when they were twenty, etc., because that will have quite an influence on what is possible for them and how they will be thinking.
JEN: Well, speaking of dates, when we think about The Handmaid’s Tale – and you’ve said this yourself – a very important date is when you were born, which was in 1939.
ATWOOD: That’s correct. In 1939, Canada had just entered World War II. My story is that’s why I’m so short. There was rationing. That’s a joke! The United States didn’t enter until Pearl Harbor, which was the end of 1941. So, there were a couple of years – 1940 and 1941 – when Britain was struggling pretty much by itself. And aid came from places like Canada and from the States, too; FDR managed some aid despite the resistance of Congress to be involved. And, of course, people of my generation spent their early childhood in the war. For me, the war wasn’t really over until about 1949, because the rationing continued. And that gives you quite a different view and makes you, indeed, somewhat more resilient when times get tough, because you’ve been through tough times. And as for vaccines, a lot of the important ones were in the 1950s. Polio was still rampaging when I was a child. There was still Smallpox. There was still Diphtheria, which killed four of my cousins. Quarantine signs on houses: that was normal. I think for very much younger people, to whom nothing like this has ever happened, the pandemic today is like the end of the world. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened. How will I ever endure it? But now, they have endured it.
JEN: I read that if people wanted to read one book related to The Handmaid’s Tale, your recommendation was that they read The Rise of the Nazi Party.
ATWOOD: It’s a TV show. But they can watch it. It’s very deep.
Jen: So you grew up in the shadow of Mein Kampf. There is a line in The Testaments, “Stupid, stupid, stupid. I believed all that claptrap about life, liberty, democracy, the rights of the individual.” All this stuff has been on your mind your whole life. And you sit down to write a novel in 1984, of all years, and of all places, in Berlin.
ATWOOD: And, of course, the wall wasn’t down yet. So, it was West Berlin. I went to Czechoslovakia. They were still all Iron Curtain countries. And at that time, nobody could see that ending. I think the only person who saw it was Ryszard Kapuściński. He said, “The cracks in the wall are going to appear in Poland first.” And he was right. Of those countries I went to, East Germany was the tightest, Czechoslovakia second, and Poland was already pretty loosey-goosey. And why was that? Because there was a big official opposition. And that was the Catholic Church.
JEN: So there you are. You are touring these places, it’s 1984, and it occurs to you that you might like to write a dystopia, which at the time must have been the craziest idea ever.
ATWOOD: Yes, it was a crazy idea. But in 1980, Ronald Reagan gets elected. And you see the rise of the religious right. And one of the things they said was women belong in the home. And being a practical person, like Mr. Thoreau, I thought how are you going to get them there? How are you going to stuff them all back in? So, what do you do? You roll back laws about 150 years, and you’re there.
JEN: Harold Bloom said of you, “This author has been concerned with Survival from the beginning, and surviving is inherent in her identities as a woman, an author, and a Canadian.” Agree or disagree?
JEN: Congratulations! You have now survived the interview portion of receiving the Emerson-Thoreau Medal.
ATWOOD: It was fun!
JEN: And now we will turn to a few questions from our audience. “Hello, Ms. Atwood. I am a creative writing university student from England. And I’m wondering if you have any tips or hints at all for success for a new writer?”
ATWOOD: The first thing you have to do is finish the book. And people often get discouraged about that. Some people are actually afraid of publishing because they are afraid of being judged. And then they stop because by that time, they are afraid of the page. So, too much anticipation of the future is probably going to kill you right there. The good thing about writing, unlike being a live opera singer, is if you make a mistake, nobody’s going to see it.
JEN: That’s what the delete button is for.
ATWOOD: It’s what it’s for, or even the blue pencil or the wastepaper basket. You get a load of second chances. And you can work away at your piece of writing until it convinces you, because that’s important. Now let’s pretend you have finished the book. What do you do then? If I knew that, I would bottle it and sell it and make a lot of money. There’s no formula for success. But there are four possibilities: 1) good books that make money; 2) bad books that make money; 3) good books that don’t make money; and 4) bad books that don’t make money. And of those four, you can live with three.
JEN: Our next question: “The Handmaid’s Tale was written as a bit of a cautionary tale. And then, the television show ended up being both that and also a guide to resistance through the Trump years. Could you sense the book taking on a new importance in the wake of the election, and what kind of impact do you think it had both recently and at its original publication?”
ATWOOD: Much more impact recently, because, at its original publication, a lot of people were still saying America is this wonderful democracy. We would never allow that to happen. By the time The Handmaid’s Tale launched in 2017, Trump had been elected. We had heard a lot of that rhetoric, and people were no longer so sure that it was not possible in the United States of America. People started looking back at history and seeing that actually there was quite a big Nazi Party in the 1930s.
There was a plot to assassinate twenty-three television producers in Los Angeles. My feeling has always been you should not say of any place, “It can’t happen here,” because given the right circumstances, anything can happen anywhere. And we know what happened to the Weimar Republic. Who said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”? You would think it was one of the founding fathers, but it was somebody else. Anyway, it’s a pretty good saying. I think one should be aware of tendencies in that direction and never ever think it – namely a totalitarian, repressive government – can’t happen here. It can happen anywhere, including Canada.
JEN: Yes, of course, we just saw the Capitol riots, and are all too aware that you are correct.
ATWOOD: It was a close call. If martial law had been declared, that would have been the end of the story as far as an elected democracy goes for a while. We have seen what happened in Chile, what happened in Argentina. These are all events of my lifetime as were many more autocracies and massacres here and there.
JEN: We have another question: “Could you please talk about the dystopian environment in your books?” Having grown up in Canada, and with a father who was interested in trees and insects, I’m wondering if these things are connected. We are all concerned about climate change. But is that a particularly deep topic for you?
ATWOOD: Biologists study systems. But they also study the interconnectedness of things. My father was a very broad reader, both in biology and in history. Rachel Carson was a total and complete pioneer. I have written a couple of things about her quite recently. Before her, people were saying DDT was safe. My uncles, who were apple farmers, both got cancer. We’re not a cancer family. We’re a heart and stroke family. And I’m sure it’s because they were breathing this stuff in like perfume. Chemical companies were saying, “Oh, it’s perfectly safe.” The latest news is that sperm rates are declining precipitously, as indicated in The Handmaid’s Tale. People are thinking about this a lot. There are a lot of scientists and people who study ecosystems who are thinking about it. But the big question for us is, “Will they be in time?”
JEN: Our next question is from Maria Tatar. She asks, “You once wrote about how fairy tales taught you that words can change us – the power of language has both an upside and a downside. Can you say something about the redemptive power of language, and also about how language can be weaponized and used to subordinate, oppress, and disenfranchise?”
ATWOOD: When there’s a coup, and people are taking over, what’s the first thing they do? They arrest the Gang of Four. Let’s use that as an example. The second thing they do is they take over the communication systems: radio, TV, and the Internet. You grab hold of the means of communication, so that only your message gets out. Anybody staging a coup, or even contemplating staging a coup, knows that you have to grab the megaphone. A friend of mine at Harvard said, “Let’s go for a walk. It’s a beautiful Sunday.” Little did I know that the destination of our walk was one of the first peace marches. So, we’re marching along. People are coming out of bars and yelling and screaming. When we get to the Boston Common, there is a group of pacifists and they have a megaphone. And the Nazi Party comes along and grabs their megaphone. But they’re pacifists, so they didn’t know how to grab it back. Can you do fisticuffs to get your megaphone back? A big debate went on. But this is the problem. And that is why it was kind of mega that Twitter shut down President Trump because that was his megaphone.
JEN: And Facebook as well. This next question is from a professor from Israel: “I’m curious to hear your stand on silence. Is it only to do with powerlessness or, more specifically, is silence monotonous, variable, or valuable?”
ATWOOD: Silence can have many dimensions. If you are very powerful and are being accused of this or that, you don’t need to say anything, because you’re very powerful. If you’re very powerless, speaking up can get you into a lot of trouble. That is why people formed labor unions and why they formed mass movements, so that there wouldn’t be just one person. Writers have always been targets because they are solitary. You can pick them off one by one. There are not thousand-person marches of writers. Who gets to say what, when, and with what consequences? And that is one of the primary issues of our time. What do we mean by freedom of expression? I think PEN USA and Suzanne Nossel, who has a book called Dare to Speak, have a pretty good fix on that. But if you came up through Amnesty International and PEN International, as I did, what you were usually defending in those organizations was people who were in jail or being exiled, being silenced, or being killed for having expressed views that were not popular with those governments. I think we always, in the United States, go back to de Tocqueville. The biggest oppressor is public opinion. We are still in that era of de Tocqueville. What happens when you don’t have an autocrat, when you don’t have a king, when you don’t have a permanent powerful structure that’s oppressing the peasants? Who is going to determine what can or can’t be said, because in every society, there are things that can or can’t be said – and they shift. They shift a lot. And if you’re caught on the wrong side of that shift – at the moment when that shift happens – and you put up the wrong big character poster on the wall and opinion has changed – uh-oh.
JEN: Our next question: “Can you talk about the importance of imagination or storytelling, or the value or urgent need of sustaining these in our contemporary STEM-focused society?”
ATWOOD: So, STEM provides tools. But what we do with those tools depends on our human imagination. It depends on the things we have always wanted. And if you want to know about the things we have always wanted, you read a lot of folk tales, because it’s all in there: wishes, fulfillments, fears. You can pretty much compile that list from the good things that people get in fairy tales and the bad things that happen in fairy tales. Yes, we’ve always wanted a self-covering table that cleans itself up. We’ve always wanted the bag of gold that always renews itself. We’ve always wanted the seven-league boots so that we can travel very fast. We’ve always wanted the cloak of invisibility. Do you remember Andrew Lang? Andrew Lang compiled folk tales. He has The Red Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, The Brown Fairy Book, The White Fairy Book, The Pink Fairy Book.
JEN: I remember those books. I loved those books.
ATWOOD: Now, I gobbled those up as a child, in addition to Grimms’. And I keep adding. In addition to my little corner of witches, I also have a big corner of folklore. A lot of the motifs seem to recur or move from culture to culture. For instance, animal transformation. The wife who is really a goose, a swan – and one of my favorites, a snail.
JEN: There are many advantages to being a snail.
ATWOOD: Yes, that’s true.
JEN: Next, we have several questions about your #MeToo op-ed.
ATWOOD: Oh, that’s still ongoing in Canada. The issue is simply that in the case that I was involved in, nobody knew anything. It is very different when things are known. Harvey Weinstein, we knew what the accusations were. There was a trial. Jeffrey Epstein, we knew. Bill Cosby, we knew. About this case, nothing was known, because it was one of these university deals, in which you weren’t allowed to know what the person was accused of. You weren’t allowed to know what the evidence was. And when the verdict came out and said “No, it didn’t happen,” you weren’t allowed to know why. So, of course, it created a completely polarized situation. If you happen to believe in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as I naively do, it says, “Everyone is entitled to an open and fair process.” So, who’s against that? Put up your hand, please. I don’t think anybody is against that. Or are they? If they are, we are in the land of totalitarianisms, because that is the thing totalitarianisms do – the Star Chamber, secret trials.
I’m stuck on the French Revolution. It is a template for revolutions, unlike the American Revolution, which is atypical of revolutions. In the French Revolution, we have the Terror up until the point at which they decided they had had enough of that, and they chop off the head of Robespierre. And then you have something called the Thermidorian Reaction, in which people turn around and start chasing the other way. And they start chopping off the heads of people who have chopped off the heads. So, I would say, in this situation, you want to prevent the Thermidorian Reaction, and come back instead to a place of reasoned discourse, based on telling the truth, and deciding that, “If this is true, is this other outcome fair?” But you can’t do that until you know what the truth is. And that’s why they say, “Truth and Reconciliation.” Truth first, then reconciliation.
JEN: Our final question is from poet Henri Cole: “Are there feelings more suitable for poetry than prose?”
ATWOOD: I think any feeling is suitable for anything, including graffiti on a wall. But with poetry, what you’re doing is evoking. It’s not that you are expressing yourself. You are evoking emotions for the reader because we must not forget that writing of any kind is a time machine. It travels from the person who has done it across space and time into the hands of the person who is “reading” it. But reading for me is like a musical performance. You are interpreting a score. You, the reader, are the musician of the book. And you, the reader, are the musician of the poem. It’s the same poem – the words are the same on the page – but every interpretation of it is going to be different, because you, the reader – with your mental violin – are going to be playing that score somewhat differently. And you are going to be bringing to it everything that you have experienced. And that’s going to be different for each person. The writer writes the message, puts it in the bottle, chucks it in the ocean. And it comes to shore. The person opens the bottle and either says, “I can’t make anything out of this” and throws it back in, or “Maybe this message is for me,” or “I understand what the person might have been trying to say in this message, but I’m interpreting it differently.” And that is what reading and writing are.
JEN: So eloquently put. Thank you, Margaret. This has been wonderful. I think you yourself have been a source of wonderful music this hour. Everybody will be taking away different things and interpreting them in different ways. But I’m sure that everybody will be thinking about them for quite a long time. Thank you so much.
ATWOOD: It has been a real pleasure. Now, I’m going to read all your books.
© 2021 by Margaret Atwood and Gish Jen, respectively
To view or listen to the presentation, visit www.amacad.org/events/margaret-atwood-medal.