Among the literary stars of the radical 1960s, Susan Sontag (born 1933) produced numerous works evaluating and commenting on contemporary life and literature. Her essays appeared in nearly every major publication beginning in 1962, and her assessment of topics such as "camp," pornography, and the Vietnam war earned her a wide readership, well into the 1990s.
Susan Sontag was born on January 28, 1933, in New York City, the daughter of a travelling salesman and a teacher. She recalled that as a child her ambition was to be a chemist, although she had always spent a great deal of time writing. When the family moved to California, she entered North Hollywood High School, graduating at 15. She then entered the University of California at Berkeley, but soon transferred to the University of Chicago. She received a B.A. in philosophy in 1951, a year after her marriage to Philip Rieff, a sociologist. Their son, David, was born in 1952.
Sontag studied at Harvard, receiving her M.A. from the graduate school there and completing all but her dissertation for a Ph.D. She taught at various schools, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Harvard. In 1957 she was awarded a grant from the American Association of University Women which allowed her to study at the Sorbonne, in Paris. The following year she and Rieff divorced, although they collaborated on Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, published in 1959.
Sontag worked as editor of Commentary and settled in New York City with her son. In 1961 she wrote The Benefactor, a novel in the style of the French récit (a type of narrative). She also began contributing regularly to such publications as the Partisan Review, the Nation, and the New York Review of Books. Observers soon hailed Sontag as a leading voice in contemporary criticism, and in 1964 she won Mademoiselle magazine's merit award.
Her statements on "camp" in the fall 1964 issue of Partisan Review were received with delight as she exploded then-current myths concerning the meaning and content of art. In a collection of essays published in 1966 (Against Interpretation) Sontag said, "The function of criticism should be to show how the work of art is what it is … rather than to show what it means."
Although sometimes accused of "intellectual snobbery," she was generally accepted as the enfant terrible on the New York intellectual scene in the 1960s. She received the George Polk Memorial Award in 1966, along with a Guggenheim fellowship. That same year she was also nominated for a National Book Award for Arts and Letters. In 1967 Sontag was a juror at the Venice Film Festival, and she selected movies for the New York Film Festival. Her own film-making efforts led to Duet for Cannibals (1969); Brother Carl (1971); Promised Lands (1974); and Unguided Tour (1983). In 1976 Sontag received further awards, including the Arts and Letters Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was a MacArthur Foundation Fellow from 1990-1995.
Sontag wrote Trip to Hanoi in 1968 in which she explored her reactions to a two-week trip to North Vietnam, and in 1969 she published Styles of Radical Will. The latter discussed, among other things, the value of pornography as a distinct literary form. Another of her fiction works, Death Kit (1967), permitted Sontag to contrast her views on reality and dream, but the book was reviewed in the New York Times as one that "skips, shuffles, and snoozes."
Making her home in New York City, in an apartment that overlooked the Hudson River, Sontag travelled extensively. She spent a number of months each year in Europe, and although she was a sought-after lecturer, she appeared only rarely. Sontag limited her speaking engagements since they were, in her word, often "exploitative."
Sontag published On Photography in 1977 and I, etcetera, a collection of short stories, in 1978. Also in 1978 she brought out Illness as Metaphor, which was prompted in part by her own battles with cancer.
In 1992, Sontag published her first novel in 25 years, The Volcano Lover. During the 1990s, she also published a collection of stories, The Way We Live Now (1991); some essays, Paintings (1995); and a play, Alice in Bed (1993). In 1996, she edited, Homo Poeticus by Danilo Kis, a compilation of essays on social conditions and trends. Also in 1996, Sontag wrote a long commentary for the New York Times Magazine, entitled The Decay of Cinema, which discusses the death of cinephilia—the love of movies as an art form.
Further Reading on Susan Sontag
For a biography of Susan Sontag, see Liam Kennedy's Premature Postmodern—Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (Manchester, 1995). Sontag's own earlier works were perhaps the best insight into her character. They included: The Benefactor (1963); Death Kit (1967); Against Interpretation (1966); Trip to Hanoi (1968); Styles of Radical Will (1969); and Illness as Metaphor (1978).