Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

Past Event: Tuesday, March 14, 2000

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One of America’s best known and most admired writers, Susan Sontag has been a shaper of contemporary literature for over 30 years. She was born in New York City in 1933 and grew up in Tucson, Arizona. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1951, Sontag received her M.A. from Harvard and continued her graduate work at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. She began working as a critic for prestigious publications, including Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books. During the 1960s Sontag produced a diverse array of works, including a couple of novels, a screenplay, and a film. But it was her nonfiction work, with essays ranging from politics to “camp” to the relationship between art and criticism, that established her reputation as a writer and a public intellectual.

A near fatal case of cancer interrupted Sontag’s career in the early 1970s. While recovering, she wrote two of her most critically acclaimed works of nonfiction, On Photography (1977), an analysis of the profound changes photographic images have made on our way of looking at the world, and Illness as Metaphor (1978), an examination of the deep and often irrational cultural associations associated with illness and disease. Its sequel, AIDS and Its Metaphors, was published in 1989. The New York Times Book Review wrote, “[Her] subjects bear witness to Ms. Sontag’s range as well as her diligence. She keeps up—appears, at times, to do the keeping-up for a whole generation . . .”

In recent years, Sontag’s fiction has received more critical acclaim and commercial success. Her much anthologized story “The Way We Live Now” (1987) was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and Sontag’s third novel, The Volcano Lover(1992), became a national bestseller, a book The New York Times called “a delight to read.” Like The Volcano Lover, her book, In America (2000), is a historical novel that tells an epic story of Polish immigrants settling in Southern California in the late 1800s.

Sontag has won numerous awards for her work, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism and a National Book Award nomination. In addition, she has been a human rights activist for more than two decades, directed four feature-length films, and directed plays in the U.S. and Europe. Sontag lives in New York City.

Excerpt from In America (1999)
She didn’t miss their dark Polish woes, or even the dark weather, although the fabled southern California climate, which seemed to them to consist in an absence of weather, had not ceased to surprise. There seemed to be only two seasons here: a hot dry summer, followed by a long temperate spring called winter. They kept expecting something more, a violence of nature, an obstacle. By now, back in Poland, fields and mountains, churches and theatres lay under the wide wet grey sky of real winter—the road to Zakopane would once again be impassable—while Sunnyland’s azure days and starry nights augured easier and easier transit from one place to another, one life to another.

Health is a promise of more future, while possessions reinforce ties to the past. Each day, Maryna was feeling stronger, more fit, which is what the boosterish books about southern California guaranteed to everyone who would make the trip, settle here, fill up empty land. To begin with, there had been gold; now there was health. California bestowed health, Calfornia encouraged working at being healthier. But you’ll be at your most fortifed, your fittest, when the furor of need subsides; when needs give way to soothing, vigorous indifference; when you are simply grateful to be alive, alive again. As you are when just awake, those first unhinged moments—dawning to light, grazing in a thicket of pristine feelings, your body still sodden with sleep while your mind, even as it disentangles itself from a dream (whose plot diverged so alarmingly or comically from the life you recall that you live), your mind floats free.

Selected WorkIn America (1999)Volcano Lover (1992)AIDS And Its Metaphors (1988)Under the Sign of Saturn (1980)Illness as Metaphor (1978)I, Etcetera (1978)On Photography (1977)Against Interpretation (1966)The Benefactor (1963)

LinksSusan Sontag’s official web siteAn article on Susan Sontag from The Guardian newspaperAn interview with Susan Sontag