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...
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