(Masterpieces of American Literature)

For a writer often deeply critical and even dismissive of her native land in essays such as “What’s Happening in America” (included in Styles of Radical Will), In America is another surprise. Setting her novel in nineteenth century America, however, allows her to gain some perspective on her ambivalent feelings toward her native land.

On one hand, Zalewska has unrealistic expectations, thinking that she can create and sustain a commune formed of those followers (most of them male) who have followed their charismatic leader to the new world. On the other hand, her mission reflects the grandeur of America, where no dream seems impossible to fulfill. The epigraph for Sontag’s novel is poet Langston Hughes’s ecstatic remark “America Will Be!”

This sense that the United States has an unlimited future is what draws emigrants to the new land, even though many of them, such as Maryna, fail to achieve their dreams. In her case, she abandons her commune for a return to the theater, providing Sontag with wonderful comic moments as Maryna tours the United States and is exposed to an amusing array of eccentric characters.

Sontag’s last novel reflects her desire to write fiction that unifies her interests in art and politics. It also reflects her own self-dramatizing personality and her often-stated view that the United States, for all its faults, is a world in which individuals feel they can invent and reinvent themselves.

Critical opinion divides sharply on this novel, with a minority feeling it is Sontag’s best work and the majority considering it rather static and lacking in the deft handling of narrative and characters exemplified by The Volcano Lover. Nevertheless, the novel won the National Book Award.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (February 1, 2000): 997.

The Boston Globe, March 5, 2000, p. D2.

New Statesman 129 (June 5, 2000): 57.

New York 33 (March 13, 2000): 88.

The New York Review of Books 47 (April 27, 2000): 16.

The New York Times, February 29, 2000, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (March 12, 2000): 6.

The New Yorker 76 (March 6, 2000): 68.

Publishers Weekly 247 (January 31, 2000): 80.

Time 155 (March 13, 2000): 88.