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.
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).
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...
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