Susan Sontag (/ˈsɒntɑːɡ/; January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004) was an American writer and filmmaker, professor, literary icon, and political activist. Beginning with the publication of her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp'”, Sontag became an international cultural and intellectual celebrity. Her best known works include On Photography, Against Interpretation, The Way We Live Now, Illness as Metaphor, Regarding the Pain of Others, The Volcano Lover and In America.
Sontag was active in writing and speaking about, or travelling to, areas of conflict, including during the Vietnam War and the Siege of Sarajevo. She wrote extensively about photography, culture and media, AIDS and illness, human rights, and communism and leftist ideology. Her often provocative essays and speeches sometimes drew criticism. The New York Review of Books called her “one of the most influential critics of her generation.”
Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City, the daughter of Mildred (née Jacobson) and Jack Rosenblatt, both Jewish. Her father managed a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis in 1939, when Susan was five years old. Seven years later, her mother married U.S. Army Captain Nathan Sontag. Susan and her sister, Judith, were given their stepfather’s surname, although he never adopted them formally. Sontag did not have a religious upbringing and claimed not to have entered a synagogue until her mid-twenties. Sontag remembered an unhappy childhood, with a cold, distant mother who was “always away”, first living in Long Island, New York, then in Tucson, Arizona, and later in Los Angeles, where she took refuge in books and graduated from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15. She began her undergraduate studies at Berkeley but transferred to the University of Chicago in admiration of its famed core curriculum. At Chicago, she undertook studies in philosophy, ancient history and literature alongside her other requirements (Leo Strauss, Richard McKeon, Peter von Blanckenhagen and Kenneth Burke were among her lecturers) and graduated with an A.B.
At 17, Sontag married writer Philip Rieff, who was a sociology instructor at the University of Chicago, after a ten-day courtship; the marriage lasted for eight years. Upon completing her Chicago degree, Sontag taught freshman English at the University of Connecticut for the 1951–52 academic year. She attended Harvard University for graduate school, initially studying literature with Perry Miller before moving into philosophy and theology under Paul Tillich, Jacob Taubes, Raphael Demos and Morton White. After completing her master of arts in philosophy, she began doctoral research into metaphysics, ethics, Greek philosophy and Continental philosophy and theology at Harvard. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse lived with Sontag and Rieff for a year while working on his 1955 book Eros and Civilization. Sontag researched and contributed to Rieff’s 1959 study Freud: The Mind of the Moralist prior to their divorce in 1958. The couple had a son, David Rieff, who later became his mother’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as a writer.
Sontag was awarded an American Association of University Women’s fellowship for the 1957–1958 academic year to St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she traveled without her husband and son. There, she had classes with Iris Murdoch, J. L. Austin, Stuart Hampshire and others. Oxford did not appeal to her, however, and she transferred after Michaelmas term of 1957 to the University of Paris. In Paris, Sontag socialized with expatriate artists and academics including Allan Bloom, Jean Wahl, Alfred Chester, Harriet Sohmers and María Irene Fornés. Sontag remarked that her time in Paris was, perhaps, the most important period of her life. It certainly provided the basis of her long intellectual and artistic association with the culture of France. She moved to New York in 1959 to live with Fornés for the next seven years, regaining custody of her son and teaching at universities while her literary reputation grew.
The publication of Against Interpretation (1966), accompanied by a striking dust-jacket photo by Peter Hujar, helped establish Sontag’s reputation as “The Dark Lady of American Letters.” She met the writer and director Woody Allen (she makes a prominent appearance in his film Zelig), philosophers like Arthur Danto, and politicians like Mayor John Lindsay.
In 1968, Sontag signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. Like Jane Fonda, Sontag went to Hanoi, and wrote of the North Vietnamese society with much sympathy and appreciation in, for example, “Trip to Hanoi” in Styles of Radical Will. She maintained a distinction, however, between North Vietnam and Maoist China and the Soviet Union, as well as East-European communism, all of which she later criticized as “fascism with a human face.”
Sontag’s mother died of lung cancer in Hawaii in 1986.
Sontag died in New York City on 28 December 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome which had evolved into acute myelogenous leukemia. She is buried in Montparnasse cemetery, in Paris. Her final illness has been chronicled by her son, David Rieff.
Sontag’s literary career began and ended with works of fiction. While working on her fiction, Sontag taught philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and City University of New York and the Philosophy of Religion under Jacob Taubes in the Religion Department at Columbia University from 1960 to 1964. Sontag held a writing fellowship at Rutgers University for 1964 to 1965 before ending her relationship with academia in favor of full-time, freelance writing.
At age 30, she published an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963), following it four years later with Death Kit (1967). Despite a relatively small output, Sontag thought of herself principally as a novelist and writer of fiction. Her short story “The Way We Live Now” was published to great acclaim on November 26, 1986 in The New Yorker. Written in an experimental narrative style, it remains a significant text on the AIDS epidemic. She achieved late popular success as a best-selling novelist with The Volcano Lover (1992). At age 67, Sontag published her final novel In America (2000). The last two novels were set in the past, which Sontag said gave her greater freedom to write in the polyphonic voice.
She wrote and directed four films and also wrote several plays, the most successful of which were Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea.
It was through her essays that Sontag gained early fame and notoriety. Sontag wrote frequently about the intersection of high and low art and expanded the dichotomy concept of form and art in every media. She elevated camp to the status of recognition with her widely-read 1964 essay Notes on ‘Camp’, which accepted art as including common, absurd and burlesque themes. It expounded the “so bad it’s good” concept of popular culture for the first time.
In 1977, Sontag published the series of essays On Photography. These essays are an exploration of photographs as a collection of the world, mainly by travelers or tourists, and the way we experience it. In the essays, she outlined her theory of taking pictures as you travel:
The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures. (p. 10)
Sontag writes that the convenience of modern photography has created an overabundance of visual material, and “just about everything has been photographed”. This has altered our expectations of what we have the right to view, want to view or should view. “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notion of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe” and has changed our “viewing ethics”. Photographs have increased our access to knowledge and experiences of history and faraway places, but the images may replace direct experience and limit reality. She also states that photography desensitizes its audience to horrific human experiences, and children are exposed to experiences before they are ready for them.
Sontag continued to theorize about the role of photography in real life in her essay “Looking at War: Photography’s View of Devastation and Death”, which appeared in the December 9, 2002 issue of The New Yorker. There she concludes that the problem of our reliance on images and especially photographic images is not that “people remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs … that the photographic image eclipses other forms of understanding – and remembering. … To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture” (p. 94).
She became a role-model for many feminists and aspiring female writers during the 1960s and 1970s.
During 1989 Sontag was the President of PEN American Center, the main U.S. branch of the International PEN writers’ organization. After Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa death sentence against writer Salman Rushdie for blasphemy after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses that year, Sontag’s uncompromising support of Rushdie was critical in rallying American writers to his cause.
A few years later, during the Siege of Sarajevo, Sontag gained attention for directing a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in a candlelit Sarajevo theatre in the city, that the Daily Telegraph called “mesmerisingly precious and hideously self-indulgent”.
Sontag drew criticism for writing in 1967 in the Partisan Review that “Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.” According to journalist Mark M. Goldblatt, Sontag later recanted this statement, saying that “it slandered cancer patients”.
In “Sontag, Bloody Sontag”, an essay in her 1994 book Vamps & Tramps, Camille Paglia describes her initial admiration and subsequent disillusionment:
Sontag’s cool exile was a disaster for the American women’s movement. Only a woman of her prestige could have performed the necessary critique and debunking of the first instant-canon feminist screeds, such as those of Kate Millett or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose middlebrow mediocrity crippled women’s studies from the start. No patriarchal villains held Sontag back; her failures are her own.
Paglia mentions several criticisms of Sontag, including Harold Bloom’s comment on Paglia’s doctoral dissertation, of “Mere Sontagisme!” This “had become synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing”.[page needed] Paglia also describes Sontag as a “sanctimonious moralist of the old-guard literary world”, and tells of a visit by Sontag to Bennington College, in which she arrived hours late, ignored the agreed-upon topic of the event, and made an incessant series of ridiculous demands.[page needed] Similar behavior was reported when she staged her Godot; one observer recalled, “I have never seen anything as degrading and insufferable as her conduct towards the Sarajevans. . . . [S]he never listened to any of them but only uttered lordly pronouncements as she held court in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, while outside scores daily died.” 
Ellen Lee accused Sontag of plagiarism when Lee discovered at least twelve passages in In America that were similar to, or copied from, passages in four other books about Helena Modjeska without attribution. Sontag said about using the passages, “All of us who deal with real characters in history transcribe and adopt original sources in the original domain. I’ve used these sources and I’ve completely transformed them. There’s a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions.”
At a New York pro-Solidarity rally in 1982, Sontag stated that “people on the left”, like herself, “have willingly or unwillingly told a lot of lies”. She added that they:
believed in, or at least applied, a double standard to the angelic language of Communism.. Communism is Fascism—successful Fascism, if you will. What we have called Fascism is, rather, the form of tyranny that can be overthrown—that has, largely, failed. I repeat: not only is Fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies—especially when their populations are moved to revolt—but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face… Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or [t]he New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
Sontag’s speech “drew boos and shouts from the audience”. The Nation published her speech, excluding the passage comparing the magazine with Reader’s Digest. Responses included accusations that she had betrayed her ideals.
Sontag received angry criticism for her remarks in The New Yorker (September 24, 2001) about the immediate aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks. In her commentary, she criticized U.S. public officials and media commentators for trying to convince the American public that “everything is O.K.” Specifically, she argued that the perpetrators “were not cowards” and that we should acknowledge that “that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions”.
Sexuality and relationships
Sontag became aware of her bisexuality during her early teens and at 15 wrote in her diary, “I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this)”. At 16, she had her first sexual encounter with a woman: “Perhaps I was drunk, after all, because it was so beautiful when H began making love to me…It had been 4:00 before we had gotten to bed…I became fully conscious that I desired her, she knew it, too”.
From 1957 to 1965, she lived with María Irene Fornés, a Cuban-American avant garde playwright and director, and was later involved with the American artist Jasper Johns. During the early 1970s, Sontag was involved romantically with Nicole Stéphane, a Rothschild banking heiress turned movie actress, and later choreographer Lucinda Childs, Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, other women, and finally photographer Annie Leibovitz, with whom Sontag maintained a relationship throughout her last decade.
In an interview in The Guardian in 2000, Sontag was quite open about being bisexual: “‘Shall I tell you about getting older?’, she says, and she is laughing. ‘When you get older, 45 plus, men stop fancying you. Or put it another way, the men I fancy don’t fancy me. I want a young man. I love beauty. So what’s new?’ She says she has been in love seven times in her life, which seems quite a lot. ‘No, hang on,’ she says. ‘Actually, it’s nine. Five women, four men.'” Many of Sontag’s obituaries failed to mention her significant same-sex relationships, most notably that with Annie Leibovitz. In response to this criticism, New York Times Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, defended the newspaper’s obituary, stating that at the time of Sontag’s death, a reporter could make no independent verification of her romantic relationship with Leibovitz (despite attempts to do so). After Sontag’s death, Newsweek published an article about Annie Leibovitz that made clear references to her decade-plus relationship with Sontag, stating that they “first met in the late ’80s, when Leibovitz photographed her for a book jacket. They never lived together, though they each had an apartment within view of the other’s”.
Sontag was quoted by Editor-in-Chief Brendan Lemon of Out magazine as saying “I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the ‘open secret’. I’m used to that, and quite OK with it. Intellectually, I know why I haven’t spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven’t repressed something there to my detriment. Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, but it’s never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody’s in drastic need. I’d rather give pleasure, or shake things up.”
- (1963) The Benefactor ISBN 0-385-26710-X
- (1967) Death Kit ISBN 0-312-42011-0
- (1977) I, etcetera (Collection of short stories) ISBN 0-374-17402-4
- (1991) The Way We Live Now (short story) ISBN 0-374-52305-3
- (1992) The Volcano Lover ISBN 1-55800-818-7
- (1999) In America ISBN 1-56895-898-6 – winner of the 2000 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction
- The Way We Live Now (1990) about the AIDS epidemic
- A Parsifal (1991), a deconstruction inspired by Robert Wilson’s 1991 staging of the Wagner opera
- Alice in Bed (1993), about 19th century intellectual, Alice James, who was confined to bed by illness
- Lady from the Sea, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1888 play of the same name, premiered in 1998 in Italy. Sontag wrote an essay about it in 1999 in Theatre called “Rewriting Lady from the Sea“.
Collections of essays 
- (1966) Against Interpretation ISBN 0-385-26708-8 (includes Notes on “Camp”)
- (1969) Styles of Radical Will ISBN 0-312-42021-8
- (1980) Under the Sign of Saturn ISBN 0-374-28076-2
- (2001) Where the Stress Falls ISBN 0-374-28917-4
- (2002) Regarding the Pain of Others ISBN 0-374-24858-3
- (2007) At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches ISBN 0-374-10072-1 (edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, with a foreword by David Rieff)
Sontag also published nonfiction essays in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Granta, Partisan Review and the London Review of Books.
- (1977) On Photography ISBN 0-374-22626-1
- (1978) Illness as Metaphor ISBN 0-394-72844-0
- (1988) AIDS and Its Metaphors (a continuation of Illness as Metaphor) ISBN 0-374-10257-0
- (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others ISBN 0-374-24858-3
- (1969) Duett för kannibaler (Duet for Cannibals)
- (1971) Broder Carl (Brother Carl)
- (1974) Promised Lands
- (1983) Unguided Tour AKA Letter from Venice
- (2002) Liner notes for the Patti Smith album Land
- (2004) Contribution of phrases to Fischerspooner’s third album Odyssey
- (2008) Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963
- (2012) As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980
Awards and honors 
- 1978: National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography
- 1990: MacArthur Fellowship
- 1992: Malaparte Prize, Italy
- 1999: Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France
- 2000: National Book Award for In America
- 2001: Jerusalem Prize, awarded every two years to a writer whose work explores the freedom of the individual in society.
- 2002: George Polk Award, for Cultural Criticism for “Looking at War,” in The New Yorker
- 2003: Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels) during the Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse).
- 2003: Prince of Asturias Award on Literature.
- 2004: Two days after her death, Muhidin Hamamdzic, the mayor of Sarajevo announced the city would name a street after her, calling her an “author and a humanist who actively participated in the creation of the history of Sarajevo and Bosnia.” Theatre Square outside the National Theatre was promptly proposed to be renamed Susan Sontag Theatre Square. It took 5 years, however, for that tribute to become official. On January 13, 2010, the city of Sarajevo posted a plate with a new street name for Theater Square: Theater Square of Susan Sontag.