Susan Sontag

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

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Shortly after her return to the United States in 1959, she divorced Rieff and moved to New York City, with "seventy dollars, two suitcases and a seven-year-old [her son]." As she explained in the interview with Jonathan Cott: "I did have the idea that I'd like to have several lives, and it's very hard to have several lives and then have a husband...[S]omewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project."

In New York, Sontag began establishing herself as an independent writer while teaching philosophy in temporary positions at Sarah Lawrence, City College, and Columbia University, and working briefly as an editor at Commentary.

Writings and Accomplishments

She published twenty-six essays between 1962 and 1965, as well as an experimental novel, The Benefactor, in 1963. Although best known for her nonfiction, Sontag has worked in many creative genres. The 1960s and 1970s saw the production of a second novel, Death Kit (1967), a collection of short stories, I, Etcetera (1978), and the script and direction of three experimental films: Duet for Cannibals (1969), Brother Carl (1971), and Promised Lands (1974). Promised Lands, a documentary on the Yom Kippur War, was the only one of Sontag's works that dealt explicitly with Jewish issues.

Sontag's career-long series of essays--or 'case studies,' as she called them in Against Interpretation--revealed an expansive and democratic definition of art, encompassing such diverse subjects as photography, illness, fascist aesthetics, pornography, and Vietnam. A self-described intellectual generalist, Sontag explained in an interview with Roger Copeland that her overarching project was to "delineate the modern sensibility from as many angles as possible."

Her essays ranged freely from high modernism to mass culture, from European to American artistic figures, from the aesthetics of silence to the contemporary media proliferation of images and noise. Her career as a writer was characterized by the tension between such oppositions: "Everything I've written--and done," she explained, "has had to be wrested from the sense of complexity. This, yes. But also that. It's not really disagreement, it's more like turning a prism--to see something from another point of view."

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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.