Famous Like Me > Writer > S > Susan Sontag
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|Date of Birth:
||28th January 1933
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||New York, New York, USA
Susan Sontag (January 28, 1933 – December 28, 2004) was a well-known American essayist, novelist, left-leaning intellectual, and activist.
Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City, the daughter of Jewish-American parents Jack Rosenblatt and his wife, the former Mildred Jacobsen. After Jack, a fur trader, died in China of tuberculosis when she was five years old, Susan's mother married Nathan Sontag, and Susan and her sister Judith took their stepfather's surname.
Sontag grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She skipped three grades and graduated from high school at 15. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard and St Anne's College, Oxford.
At the age of 17 Sontag married Philip Rieff, following a ten-day courtship. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who later became his mother's editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and, subsequently, a writer. Sontag and Rieff were married for eight years and divorced in 1958.
In the late 1980s Sontag began a relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz which lasted until 2003 (as reported in the New York Post, February 14, 2003). Sontag also had committed relationships with choreographer Lucinda Childs and other women, and in 2000 Ms. Sontag was quoted in a profile of her by Editor-In-Chief Brendan Lemon of Out magazine as saying "I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the 'open secret.' I'm used to that, and quite OK with it. Intellectually, I know why I haven't spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven't repressed something there to my detriment. ... Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, but it's never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody's in drastic need. I'd rather give pleasure, or shake things up."
In an interview in the Guardian (U.K.) in 2000, Sontag disputed a romantic involvement with Annie Leibovitz but was quite open about her bisexuality:
- "Shall I tell you about getting older?", she says, and she is laughing. "When you get older, 45 plus, men stop fancying you. Or put it another way, the men I fancy don't fancy me. I want a young man. I love beauty. So what's new?" She says she has been in love seven times in her life, which seems quite a lot. "No, hang on," she says. "Actually, it's nine. Five women, four men."
Sontag died on December 28, 2004, from complications of acute myelogenous leukemia, which may have been caused by the massive doses of radiation to which she had been exposed for treatment some 30-odd years earlier during her battle with advanced breast cancer, a cancer for which Jewish women of Ashkenazi descent have a certain predisposition; she also had battled a rare form of uterine cancer.
Sontag's literary career both began and ended with works of fiction. At age 30, she published an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963), following it four years later with Death Kit (1967). Despite a relatively small output in the genre, Sontag thought of herself principally as a novelist and writer of fiction. Her short story "The Way We Live Now" was published to great acclaim on November 26, 1986 in The New Yorker. Written in an experimental narrative style, it remains a key text on the AIDS epidemic. She achieved late popular success with The Volcano Lover (1992), and at age 67 published her final novel In America (2000).
It was as an essayist, however, that Sontag gained early and lasting fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art. Her 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'" examined gay aesthetics, defining the "so bad it's good" concept in popular culture for the first time. She championed European writers such as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and W. G. Sebald, along with some Americans such as Maria Irene Fornes. Over the course of several decades she would turn her attention to novels, film and photography. In several books, she wrote about cultural attitudes toward illness. Her final nonfiction work Regarding The Pain of Others re-examined photography from a moral standpoint, speaking of how the media affects culture's views of conflict.
In 1989 Sontag was the President of PEN American Center, the main U.S. branch of the International PEN writer's organization, at the time that Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (in this instance a death sentence) against writer Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, which was perceived as blasphemous by Islamic fundamentalists. Her uncompromising support of Rushdie was critical in rallying American writers to his cause.
A few years later, Sontag gained attention for directing Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" during the nearly four-year Siege of Sarajevo. Early in that conflict, Sontag referred to the Serbian invasion and massacre in Bosnia as the "Spanish Civil War of our time" and sparked controversy among U.S. Leftists for openly advocating for U.S. and European military intervention. Sontag lived in Sarajevo for many months of the Sarajevo siege.
Sontag sparked controversy for her remarks in The New Yorker (September 24, 2001) about the immediate aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Sontag wrote:
- "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions... [I]f the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."
In the heat of passions following 9/11, this passage, which echoed many similar statements from such media figures as Bill Maher and Noam Chomsky, similarly drew a great deal of controversy and criticism, most notably from such figures as Andrew Sullivan and Ed Koch.
Many of Sontag's obituaries failed to mention her significant same-sex relationships, most notably with photographer Annie Leibovitz. This was widely reported by some blog sites and the alternative press . In response to this criticism, The New York Times' Public Editor Daniel Okrent defended the newspaper's obituary, stating that at the time of Sontag's death, a reporter could make no independent verification of her romantic relationship with Leibovitz (despite attempts to do so).
- (1963) The Benefactor ISBN 038526710X
- (1967) Death Kit ISBN 0312420110
- (1977) I, etcetera (Collection of short stories) ISBN 0374174024
- (1991) The Way We Live Now ISBN 0374523053
- (1992) The Volcano Lover ISBN 1558008187
- (1999) In America ISBN 1568958986
Collections of essays
- (1966) Against Interpretation ISBN 0385267088 (included Notes on "Camp")
- (1969) Styles of Radical Will ISBN 0312420218
- (1980) Under the Sign of Saturn ISBN 0374280762
Sontag has also published nonfiction essays in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Granta, Partisan Review and London Review of Books
- (1977) On Photography ISBN 0374226261
- (1978) Illness as Metaphor ISBN 0394728440
- (1988) AIDS and Its Metaphors (a continuation of Illness as Metaphor) ISBN 0374102570
- (2001) Where the Stress Falls ISBN 0374289174
- (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others ISBN 0374248583
Awards and honors
- 1990: MacArthur Fellowship
- 2001: Was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, which is awarded every two years to a writer whose work explores the freedom of the individual in society.
- 2003: Received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels) during the Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse).
- 2003: Won the Prince of Asturias Award on Literature.
- 2004: Two days after her death, the mayor of Sarajevo announced the city would name a street after her, calling her an "author and a humanist who actively participated in the creation of the history of Sarajevo and Bosnia."
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