Susan Sontag

This poet, author, and modernist emphasizes the role of interpretation in understanding art.

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Sontag was the subject of intense media scrutiny throughout her career, despite her own consistent rejection of the biographical as a means of understanding a work. "I don't want to return to my origins," she told Jonathan Cott in an interview. "I think of myself as self-created--that's my working illusion." Her distrust of the potentially reductive nature of personal criticism was magnified by her insistence that she herself did not "have anything to go back to."

Early Life

Susan Sontag was born on January 16, 1933, in New York City, the older of Jack and Mildred (Jacobson) Rosenblatt's two daughters. Her early years were spent with her grandparents in New York while her parents ran a fur export business in China.

When she was five, her father died of tuberculosis and her mother returned from China. A year later, mother and daughters moved to Tucson, Arizona, in an effort to relieve Susan's developing asthma.

In 1945, Mildred Rosenblatt married Army Air Corps captain Nathan Sontag, the daughters assumed their stepfather's last name, and the family left Arizona for a suburb of Los Angeles. Although her parents were Jewish, Sontag did not have a religious upbringing, and she claims not to have entered a synagogue until her mid-twenties.

Sontag's one autobiographical essay, "Pilgrimage," depicts her long-standing sense of rootlessness and fragmentation as "the resident alien" in a "facsimile of family life." It also expresses her feeling of intellectual isolation and her fear of "drowning in drivel" in suburban America. "Literature-intoxicated" from a very young age, she read the European modernists to escape "that long prison sentence, my childhood" and to achieve "the triumphs of being not myself."

Many of these issues--the fierce individualism of the intellect, the pleasure and nourishment to be derived from knowledge, and the question of what it means to be modern--became central themes in Sontag's fiction and essays.

At age 15, Sontag discovered literary magazines at a nearby newsstand, and she describes her excitement in an interview with Roger Copeland by explaining that "from then on my dream was to grow up, move to New York, and write for Partisan Review." She achieved this dream in 1961, after twelve years in the academic world.

Transitions

Having graduated from high school at age fifteen, Sontag spent one semester at the University of California at Berkeley before transferring to the University of Chicago for the remainder of her college study. There she met Philip Rieff, a sociology lecturer, while auditing a graduate class on Freud. They married ten days later, when Sontag was seventeen and Rieff twenty-eight. Their only son, David, who would later for some time be her editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was born in 1952.

That same year, Sontag entered Harvard as a graduate student in English and philosophy. After receiving master's degrees in both fields (1954 and 1955, respectively), Sontag spent two years studying at Oxford and the Sorbonne, although she did not complete a dissertation.

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Tresa Grauer is a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her recent publications include "Identity Matters: Contemporary Jewish American Writing," in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, eds. Michael Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher, and "'The Changing Same': Narratives of Contemporary Jewish American Identity," in Mapping Jewish Identities, ed. Larry Silberstein.