Susan Sontag Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)


(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).

(The entire section is 81 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 224 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 375 words.)