Sontag Essays in Single Collection

By Koeppel, Fredric | The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), January 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

Sontag Essays in Single Collection


Koeppel, Fredric, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)


When Susan Sontag's critical essays started appearing in The New York Review of Books and Partisan Review in 1962 and '63, readers of those journals were treated to a voice that even today resonates with ferocious intelligence and the author's ability to formulate ideas and insights that insinuated themselves into the cultural currency.

It was as if this striking, intense, phenomenally well-read young woman had lined up the Marxist critics and the Freudian critics and the practitioners of the New Criticism and made them irrelevant with a snap of her chilly fingers or the smack of her sarcastic prose. Perhaps Sontag's most important role was in erasing lines that traditionally separated so-called high and low art, so that she brought equal seriousness and fervor to the study of, say, Jean- Paul Sartre as well as to the science-fiction movies that proliferated in America in the 1950s and '60s.

"Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s" (Library of America, $40) is the 246th entry in the valuable and increasingly diverse Library of America series. It was edited by Sontag's son, David Rieff, who also edited two volumes of his mother's journals and notebooks. The collection includes the complete texts of the books "Against Interpretation" (1966); "Styles of Radical Will" (1969); "On Photography" (1977) and "Illness as Metaphor" (1978), as well as six uncollected essays.

While Sontag delivered herself of many great and provocative thoughts, she was not a great thinker, in the sense that a great thinker is systematic, organized and progressively thorough.

Always precocious, Sontag began reading at 3. Entering first grade in New York in 1939, she was quickly advanced to third grade. After the family moved west, and her widowed mother remarried, the 14-year-old entered North Hollywood High School in 1947 and began the intense preoccupation with cultural, artistic and intellectual affairs that characterized her life. She graduated from high school in January 1949, enrolled at University of Chicago that fall and the next year, while auditing his class, met the Freud scholar Philip Rieff, who asked her to lunch and 10 days later married her; Sontag was 17. (She divorced Rieff in 1958.)

Sontag was not the first to assert the importance of form over content in art, as she consistently does in the essays in "Against Interpretation. …

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