January 16, 1933, is the birthdate of Susan Sontag – novelist, intellectual provocateur and cultural icon, who inspired admiration in some, loathing among others, but rarely indifference. In her obituary, in 2004, The New York Times listed 41 adjectives that had been used to characterize her over the years, including, “original, derivative, nave, sophisticated sincere, posturing right-wing, left-wing, profound, superficial ” – you get the idea.
She was born Susan Rosenblatt, in New York, to the former Mildred Jacobson and Jack Rosenblatt. Jack owned a fur-export company based in Tientsin, China, and he and Mildred returned there after their daughter’s birth. Susan and later her sister Judith were raised by their grandparents and a variety of nannies.
Tired of being called 'dirty kike'
In 1939, Jack died of tuberculosis in China, and Mildred returned to the U.S. Because of Susan’s asthma, the family moved, first to Miami and then to Tucson, Arizona.
There, Mildred met and married a retired Army Air Corps pilot named Nathan Sontag, and they moved to Canoga Park, a Los Angeles suburb.
Susan and Judith both took the name “Sontag” for themselves, although Nathan did not adopt them. She later explained that she was tired of being called “a dirty kike” at school, and she thought “Sontag” sounded less Jewish.
Susan was just 15 when she graduated from North Hollywood High School, and after one semester at the University of California, Berkeley, she transferred to the University of Chicago, where her intellectual journey began in earnest.
It’s also where she married a young sociology instructor, Philip Rieff, when she was still 17 (with her “black hair spilling down her back,” according to the Times, “word swept around campus that Dr. Rieff had married a 14-year-old American Indian.”) They divorced after eight years, and had one son, David Rieff.
After graduating Chicago in 1951, Sontag taught college English, picked up two master’s degrees at Harvard, in English and philosophy, and had a fellowship that brought her to Oxford and then to Paris, which became something of a second intellectual home for her, after New York, to which she returned in 1959.
Visit to Hanoi
Though she is best remembered as an essayist, Sontag thought of herself primarily as a fiction writer, and her first books were the novels “The Benefactor” (1963) and “Death Kit” (1967).
Her first big splash, however, came with the publication of “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in Partisan Review, in 1964, in which she argued against the distinction between high art and low, and embraced a sensibility that until the time had largely been limited to gay society.
Sontag was an engaged intellectual: She visited Hanoi in 1968 and returned writing favorably about communist North Vietnam; in 1989, as president of the PEN American Center, she led the organization to support Salman Rushdie, who had been sentenced to death in absentia by the Iranian government; in 1993, she spent a period in Sarajevo, then under siege by Serbian forces, and directed a production of “Waiting for Godot.”
In 2001, she angered many readers of the New Yorker when she suggested that the 9/11 terror attacks were not simply a “’cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty,” but had been “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.”
Sontag was curious about every aspect of modern culture, using her own experience as a cancer patient (she first developed breast cancer in 1975), for example, in writing the book “Illness as Metaphor,” which also addressed the meaning of AIDS. Her 1977 essay collection “On Photography” examined the growing ubiquitousness of cameras and photographic images, and their impact on society.
She made three non-fiction films, one of which, the 1974 “Promised Lands,” looked at Israel during and in the wake of the Yom Kippur War (it was banned in Israel because of its harsh scenes of treatment for soldiers suffering from shell shock).
In 2001, she also braved sharp criticism from the left by coming to Israel to accept the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, and then antagonized others on the right by using her visit to criticize Israel for the occupation.
Susan Sontag died on December 18, 2004, of acute myelogenous leukemia, several weeks short of her 72nd birthday.
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