Study Guide

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226302-Sontag.jpgSusan Sontag Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Susan Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City. Her businessman father died in China when she was only five, and her mother moved the family to Arizona, where she hoped the climate would alleviate her daughter’s asthma. Sontag and her sister Judith spent their early years in Tucson, where they were educated in the public schools. Already evincing signs of her formidable intellect, Sontag began school in the third grade.

She drew on memories of her early years in her short-story collection, I, Etcetera (1978), where she mourns the loss of her father and describes herself in her Tucson backyard trying to dig a hole to China. In “Project for a Trip to China,” included in this volume, she imagines going to the land where her father died—a trip she later took after she wrote this autobiographical story, which reveals how as a young girl she tried to fill the emptiness and loneliness of her childhood through reading and an intense imagination. Sontag felt the need to draw deeply on her own resources because of what she described as an aloof and alcoholic mother.

Sontag’s mother remarried Nathan Sontag when her daughter was twelve, and both Susan and Judith were given their stepfather’s last name. The family moved to Canoga Park, California, where Sontag attended North Hollywood High School. A brilliant student who wrote for the student newspaper and was already developing an avid taste for music, art, and literature, Sontag was easily bored—as she recounts in her autobiographical essay “Pilgrimage,” published in The New Yorker on December 21, 1987.

The precocious Sontag graduated from high school at the age of fifteen and spent a semester at the University of California, Berkeley, a compromise choice because her mother feared her daughter was too young to attend the University of Chicago, her daughter’s first choice because of its radical reputation.

However, after only one semester, Sontag departed for Chicago, attracted to its intense intellectual atmosphere and the chance not only to enroll in philosophy and literature classes but also...

(The entire section is 869 words.)

Susan Sontag Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Sontag’s novels have earned considerable critical praise, her essays remains the most significant part of her work—not only for their intrinsic merits as dazzling dialogues of ideas but also for their historical importance, since they played a significant role in shaping the cultural discussions of her era. Sontag herself seemed aware of her special place, since, in spite of her avowed desire to write only fiction, she continued to produce provocative essays, collected in Where the Stress Falls (2001).

Susan Sontag Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City on January 16, 1933, Sontag, her younger sister, and their mother moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1939, shortly after her father died. Sontag attended local schools in Tucson. Her mother remarried in 1945. The family moved to Southern California, where Sontag took her stepfather’s last name and attended North Hollywood High School.

A precocious student, Sontag graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. After spending a semester at the University of California at Berkeley, she transferred to the University of Chicago, earning a B.A. degree in two years and marrying Philip Rieff, a sociology professor. The couple moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Sontag began work on a graduate degree at Harvard and Rieff taught at Brandeis University. After a year of study abroad at Oxford University and the Sorbonne, Sontag returned to the United States in 1959, divorcing Rieff and taking custody of their son, born in 1952.

In New York City, Sontag taught at Columbia University and other schools while writing her first novel. It was the publication of her essays, however, that brought her recognition as a new young critic with provocative ideas. She quickly established herself as a cultural commentator and independent intellectual. She quit teaching in 1964 and made her living as a writer, lecturer, and filmmaker. Sontag died of leukemia in 2004 at the age of 71.

Susan Sontag Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111205505-Sontag.jpgSusan Sontag Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Susan Sontag invigorated American criticism and fiction in the 1960’s with a series of essays on popular culture and on the new wave of film directors in France and in other European countries. She claimed that American critics are too moralistic and tend to intellectualize works of art. A novel or film is not, she argued, a series of moral statements or merely a presentation of ideas. Art is an experience, and it has a form that creates meaning. Critics reduce art to a list of summary propositions that they may endorse or reject. This kind of interpretation is what Sontag opposed in her famous essay, “Against Interpretation.”

Sontag was one of the first critics to train an expert eye on the mass media without breaking down culture into high and low, or into categories such as serious and popular. She has written about the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre but also about pornography and science-fiction films. For her, the culture, the critics, and the artists can grow only by acknowledging new forms of art. Indeed, the identity of art is all about change.

Older critics attacked Sontag as a young revolutionary who would indiscriminately embrace all forms of entertainment and dub it art. She was viewed as an enfant terrible, deliberately challenging the critical establishment and writing novels that had more in common with experimental European writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute than with American issues. Sontag’s novels have a philosophical thrust that was relatively new to American fiction. She was less concerned with the psychological states of her characters than with their responses to the nature of existence. In this respect, she had more in common with French existentialists than she does with her fellow American novelists.

Sontag was involved with the issues of her time—the war in Vietnam, the pervasive influence of photographs on the viewer’s understanding of reality, the mythology that surrounds diseases such as cancer and acquired immune deficiency syndrome. She was a model of the engaged intellectual, producing a play by Samuel Beckett in besieged Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, and in the 1960’s taking trips to Hanoi and Cuba. By the time of her death of leukemia in 2004, Sontag was a leading American intellectual.

Susan Sontag Biography (American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

0111205505-Sontag.jpgSusan Sontag (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Early Life

Susan Sontag grew up in Arizona and California and attended a semester at the University of California, Berkeley, before departing for the University of Chicago, where she was schooled in a great books view of criticism and philosophy that she applied to the cultural developments of the 1960’s. She pursued graduate work at Harvard, earning a master’s degree in 1957, and taught briefly at several colleges.

The 1960’s

Sontag’s watershed year was 1964. Her essay, “Notes on Camp,” was published in the Partisan Review and received national attention in Time magazine. With an encyclopedic list of events and attitudes, the essay formulated a thesis that attempted to capture the dynamism of the 1960’s and its playful sensibility. At the end of the year, The Evergreen Review published her essay, “Against Interpretation,” which argued that critics had devalued contemporary art by concentrating on its content—reducing it to a series of statements or messages. Sontag argued that art was not reducible to points in a critical essay and that the efforts of content-driven critics ignored the style and tone of art, depriving readers of the whole experience that only art can provide.

In 1965, Commentary published Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster,” a searching investigation of the appeal of science-fiction films, which made this popular genre a noteworthy benchmark for the discussion of postwar culture. After the success of her first book, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), Sontag became a full-time writer, lecturing at universities and speaking at public cultural events in Europe and the United States. The publication in 1967 of “The Pornographic Imagination” and “The Aesthetics of Silence” enhanced her reputation not only as a commentator on contemporary culture but as a critic/philosopher who was extending the work of modern European and American masters of literature and criticism. Sontag recounted her controversial trip to Vietnam in Trip to Hanoi (1968) and collected her most important essays of the late 1960’s in Styles of Radical Will (1969). She also wrote and directed two films in Sweden, Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1972).

Later Life

In 1975, Sontag was hospitalized for breast cancer. Based on her struggle with that disease, she wrote Illness as Metaphor (1978), followed by AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989). On Photography (1977) received the National...

(The entire section is 1069 words.)

Susan Sontag Biography (Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

0111205505-Sontag.jpgSusan Sontag (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Author Profile

Susan Sontag’s essay collections have earned her a place as one of the most important nonfiction writers in the United States. While only a few of her essays are explicitly feminist, her outspoken criticism of the political establishment in Trip to Hanoi (1969) and of modern medicine in Illness as Metaphor (1978) seems to spring from a feminist and contrary nature. She is less admired as a novelist, although her romantic historical novel The Volcano Lover (1992) was a surprise best-seller. Sontag remains a touchstone figure for contemporary thinking on radical politics. Sontag died in New York City in December, 2004 after battling leukemia.

...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Susan Sontag Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Susan Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City in January, 1933, the daughter of Jack Rosenblatt, a trader-merchant based in China, and Mildred Jacobsen, a teacher and business partner of her husband. Sontag’s father died in China when she was only five years old. She felt his loss keenly and wrote about it in an autobiographical story, “Project for a Trip to China,” in I, Etcetera.

Sontag’s restless mother moved the family briefly to Florida and then to Arizona in the hope of curing her daughter’s asthma. Sontag received her early education in Tucson, where her mother met and married air force captain Nathan Sontag. Susan adopted his last name at the age of twelve.

The Sontags...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Susan Sontag Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111205505-Sontag.jpgSusan Sontag Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although Susan Sontag has written novels and short fiction and considers herself a creative writer, her work as a critic is what has established her as one of the most important American writers of her time. She was born in New York City but grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California. She was a precocious student, thinking herself a writer at the age of eight, reading the Partisan Review in high school, and attending college by the time she was fifteen years old. Her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago and her master’s degrees in English literature and philosophy from Harvard University are reflective of her desire to understand the principles behind the subjects she studies. At...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

Susan Sontag Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Sontag was born on January 16, 1933 in New York City. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona and Los Angeles, California. A serious and precocious...

(The entire section is 376 words.)