Laureation address: Margaret Atwood

Lauren Sykes
Wednesday 29 November 2023

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Professor Phillips O’Brien, School of International Relations

Wednesday 29 November 2023 – morning ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood has observed that “a writer is doomed once he or she starts believing the billboards”. How fortunate for us that Margaret has somehow managed to ignore those declaring her ‘a literary icon’, ‘one of the all-time great storytellers’, ‘Canada’s national treasure’ and much more. Indeed, Margaret has sustained an astonishing level of excellence and productivity over the course of her six-decade-long career. As a novelist, poet, literary critic, and public intellectual, she has made a profound impact on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – and in the lives of her millions of readers around the world.

Dazzling as they are, the billboards cannot capture the intensity and pleasure of engaging with Margaret Atwood’s work. Let me share a personal glimpse of that with you. I have long admired her brilliant and incisive poetry. Among my favourites of her poems is The Loneliness of a Military Historian.

It begins:

Confess: It’s my profession
that alarms you.
This is why few people ask me to dinner,
though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary

As a military historian myself, I find the lack of dinner invitations crack a little too on-the-nose, but you need not be a historian to experience the intimate tone and very human connection that Margaret establishes with her reader right off the bat. What I also love about this poem is that it sheds light on Margaret’s astonishing breadth of scholarship.

It continues:

But rats and cholera have won many wars.
Those, and potatoes,
or the absence of them.
It’s no use pinning all those medals
across the chests of the dead.
Impressive, but I know too much.
Grand exploits merely depress me.

Again, as a military historian, I rather thrill at Margaret’s understanding of the importance of the mundane systems of war – logistics, potatoes, cleanliness, etc., – over the grandeur of bravery. And what is more, her ability to make poetry out of it! These remarkable twin talents underscore not only her incredible skill as a writer but also her vital role as an observer of the human condition.

Margaret Atwood’s journey to be with us today began in Ottawa, Ontario, where she was born the second of three children to Carl Edmund Atwood and Margaret Dorothy Killam Atwood. Because of her father’s research as a forest entomologist, Margaret spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec, eschewing full-time school until she was 12 years old. During these early years, she also participated in the Brownie Program of the Girl Guides of Canada, an experience that she has written about in many of her works.

Margaret graduated from Leaside High School in Leaside, Ontario. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English (with honours), with minors in French and Philosophy, from Victoria College in the University of Toronto and a Master of Arts from Radcliffe College at Harvard University.

She has taught at universities all over the world, including the University of British Columbia, York University, the University of Toronto, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Macquarie University in Australia, and New York University. Until his death in 2019, she enjoyed a long and loving partnership with prominent Canadian author Graeme Gibson and she is the proud mother of Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson.

Let me share with you just a few more splendid things about Margaret Atwood. Perhaps best known for the global phenomenon that is The Handmaid’s Tale, she is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, critical essays, and graphic novels – as well as a chamber opera. Her work has been published in more than 45 countries. She is one of only four authors to win the Booker Prize twice and she is the recipient of the PEN Pinter Prize, which is bestowed on a writer who ‘casts an unflinching, unswerving gaze upon the world and shows a fierce intellectual determination… to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.

To all this, I am delighted that she will add an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of St Andrews.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her outstanding contributions as a novelist, poet, literary critic, and public intellectual I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on Margaret Atwood.

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