Sontag, Susan

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Sontag, Susan

Susan Sontag (sŏn´täg), 1933–2004, American writer and critic, b. New York City. She grew up in Arizona and California, studied philosophy at the Univ. of Chicago, Harvard, and Oxford, absorbed Gallic culture in Paris, and settled (1959) in New York City. Regarded as a brilliant and original thinker and highly visible as one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the second half of the 20th cent., Sontag became known for her vividly written critical essays on avant-garde culture in the 1960s. Most of these were collected in Against Interpretation (1966), in which she popularized the word camp, referring to exaggerated reproductions of the style and emotions of pop culture.

Sontag's essays on radical politics are collected in Styles of Radical Will (1969). She meditated on the nature of photography in On Photography (1977), explored the ways in which disease is demonized in Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), analyzed various modernist writers and filmmakers in Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), and reassessed her ideas on photography's relationship to human suffering in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Many of her short nonfiction pieces from the 1980s and 90s were collected in Where the Stress Falls (2001). The late essays and speeches in the posthumous collection At the Same Time (2007) reflect her often less than sanguine views of post-9/11 political life and culture.

Her other works include short stories and such novels as The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), and the best-selling historical fictions The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000). Sontag also wrote and directed four motion pictures, including the chamber drama Duet for Cannibals (1969) and the documentary Promised Lands (1974), directed theatrical productions, and was the author of a play, Alice in Bed (1992).

See journals and notebooks ed. by D. Rieff, her son (2 vol., 2008–); L. Poague, ed., Conversations with Susan Sontag (1995) and J. Cott, Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (2013) by J. Cott; memoirs by D. Rieff (2008) and S. Nunez (2011); biography by C. E. Rollyson and L. Paddock (2000); studies by S. Sayres (1990), L. Kennedy (1995), C. E. Rollyson (2001), C. Seligman (2004), and B. Ching and J. A. Wagner-Lawlor, ed. (2009).

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