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Douglas Fetherling - Stalking the Stalkers
by Douglas Fetherling

In 1990, two prospective literary biographers, both new to the genre, were competing to see who could come out first with a life study of Elizabeth Smart. An expat Canadian much of her life, Smart wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept before falling into a long literary silence-a silence that was just beginning to shatter when she died in 1986. Some punters put their money on Kim Echlin, then a producer of literary documentaries at CBC Television, and now, of course, a respected novelist, author of the wonderful Elephant Winter (Penguin, $13.99 paper). But Echlin abandoned her project when Rosemary Sullivan beat her to the punch with By Heart-A Life of Elizabeth Smart. Sullivan then went on to write The Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen, which won the Governor General's Award in 1995.

With her new book, however, Sullivan is once again stalked by a competitor. The jacket-flap copy of The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out (HarperCollins, $32) calls it "the first major portrait of Canada's most famous writer." Presumably, this is to distinguish it from the decidedly minor likeness that appears at almost the same instant-Margaret Atwood: A Biography by Nathalie Cooke (ECW Press, $24.95), billed as "the first complete biography" of Atwood.

We're getting down to hair-splitting here. The point is that the two books, while of course covering the same material and sometimes even using the same sources, are as different as chalk and cheese. The dissimilarities say a lot about the two authors' levels of ability as well as their differing intentions. With The Red Shoes, whose style has a suppleness not quite apparent in Sullivan's two earlier biographies, the author has created harmony out of the frustration, sameness, and muddle that is anybody's life as seen only from the inside. By comparison, Cooke takes a gossipy line. While Sullivan takes the high road, Cooke sometimes gets down and dirty even with people who helped her. Juxtaposed, the combination of respectful reticence on the one hand and tabloid tattle on the other makes for an interesting-and sometimes confusing-contrast.

Sullivan, for example, says that the reason that Atwood's romance with fellow-student Jim Polk (her future husband) didn't flower while they were at Harvard together was that Atwood was still engaged to someone named Jay Ford back in Toronto. Cooke's explanation is that Atwood was still engaged to the Toronto poet, David Donnell (who turns up in Sullivan's book only in a list of young Canadian poets).

What should the reader make of such variant interpretations? What this reader makes of them is that Sullivan is trying to write seriously of Atwood's roots, the influences on her, and her exact place in the cultural history, while Cooke, though by no means a sensationalist, is nonetheless often tempted to operate on a lower plane. I find it significant, for example, that while neither The Red Shoes nor Margaret Atwood, A Biography (works of similar length) is a critical biography per se, Sullivan nevertheless does trace most of Atwood's core ideas back to the poetry while Cooke concentrates rather more on the prose.

Maybe such differences are good for the consumer. After all, the simple schematics of Atwood's life are familiar enough. She was born in 1939 into an exceptional family of scientists and strong women, a clan with roots extending back to Loyalist times and, before that, to colonial New England (where one of her ancestors was a defendant in the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century).

The story of Sullivan's Atwood-while one of struggle against male domination, American cultural bombast, and other obstacles-is a tale of growth through persistence and persistence through growth. In this version (which rings true to me, an admiring Atwood acquaintance of thirty years), the current Atwoodian virtues of hard work, ambition, wry humour, and pastoral outreach are the same ones with which she started out; the difference is that now she's famous for them.

Sullivan writes acutely of the cultural changes in Canada that made Atwood such a force-especially the period between the 1950's and the 1970's-and she fits Atwood perfectly into the narrative of her literary generation. What's even more difficult, she knows just where to provide social context that's truly useful and not just biographical filler-for example, what it was like to be a Canadian student at Harvard in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cooke, by contrast, has a far less subtle hand in the writing of her subject.


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