Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia
with permission of the author and the
Jewish Women’s Archive
When her essays first began appearing on the American critical scene in the early 1960s, Susan Sontag was heralded by many as the voice–and the face–of the Zeitgeist. Advocating a “new sensibility” that was “defiantly pluralistic,” as she announced in her groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, Sontag became simultaneously an intellectual of consequence and a popular icon, publishing everywhere from Partisan Review to Playboy, and appearing on the covers of Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine.
She rejected the traditional project of art interpretation as reactionary and stifling, and called instead for a new, more sensual experience of the aesthetic world: “an act of comprehension accompanied by voluptuousness.” Challenging what she saw as “established distinctions within the world of culture itself–that between form and content, the frivolous and the serious, and… ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture,” Sontag stood as a champion of the avant-garde. Contemporary literature, she proclaimed, was too burdened by the weight of edification. Rather, the visual arts were “the model arts of our time.”
Perceptions of Sontag
As the only woman among the 1960s world of New York Jewish intellectuals, Sontag was both venerated and villainized, depicted as either a counter-cultural hero or a posturing pop celebrity. In a 1968 essay in Commentary, Irving Howe saw her as the “publicist” for a young generation of critics that was making its presence felt “like a spreading blot of anti-intellectualism.”
Focusing on the woman rather than the work, other critics dubbed her “Miss Camp” and “The Dark Lady of American Letters.” Indeed, in his book Making It, Norman Podhoretz snidely attributed her popularity to her gender and to the fact that she was “clever, learned, good-looking, capable of writing family-type criticism as well as fiction with a strong taste of naughtiness.” While Sontag’s public image shifted from that of sixties radical to nineties neo-conservative, neither representation accounts for either the complexity of her views or the significance of her contribution to contemporary cultural debates.