Cover image for Susan Sontag : the making of an icon
Title:
Susan Sontag : the making of an icon
Author:
Rollyson, Carl E. (Carl Edmund)
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, [2000]

©2000
Physical Description:
xiv, 370 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Language:
English
Personal Subject:
Added Author:
ISBN:
9780393049282
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

The first--and unauthorized--biography of the so-called dark lady of American letters. Ever since she took American culture by storm with the publication of her Notes on Camp in 1964, Susan Sontag has been a star. Her austere glamour has been a critical factor in her success, making her a role model for intellectual women, a sex symbol for brainy men. She has never ceased to fascinate the public: as brilliant wunderkind, bringing the latest in French thought to America; as sophisticated analyst of her own experience with cancer in Illness as Metaphor; as champion of free speech in the Rushdie Affair; as theater director in besieged Sarajevo; and, with the publication of The Volcano Lover, as best-selling historical novelist. Yet she has both courted that fascination and insisted on holding it at a distance, demanding control over her public image. This first--and most definitely unauthorized--biography delves beneath the surface to examine the forces that made Susan Sontag an international icon. Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock explore her public persona and private passions, including the strategies behind her meteoric rise to fame and her political moves and missteps. Above all, they show how the life of Susan Sontag reveals to us the way we live now.


Author Notes

Carl Rollyson is a professor of English at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. He has written several biographies of prominent writers and has contributed essays to numerous reference works. He lives in Cape May, NJ.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Known variously (and with varying degrees of kindness) as "the Beatnik Boadicea," "the Paganini of criticism " and "the most curious person alive," Susan SontagÄcritic, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, public intellectualÄhas consistently provoked awe, distrust, veneration and fear as one of the most perceptive, talented and controversial of American writers and thinkers. Although she has occupied a central place in the twin worlds of literary and popular culture since her influential first essays appeared in the Partisan Review in the early 1960s, this is the first full-length biography and one of the few critical studies of the author and her work. Rollyson and Paddock have unearthed a deluge of information on Sontag's personal lifeÄon her early years and family life, her lesbianism (which she has only recently publicly acknowledged), her relationship with son David Rieff and her battles with breast cancer. While the authors provide an intelligent, though not strikingly original, analysis of her work, they are best at detailing how Sontag and her publishers have marketed her image as much as her thought. Often the book has a casual feel that undercuts its seriousness, and Rollyson and Paddock frequently seem willing to quote anyone who will criticize Sontag (Camille Paglia's remarks come off as petty and self-promoting). Yet in the end, this is a respectful, informed first look at an important writer's life. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Choice Review

Whereas earlier studies of Sontag--Sohnya Sayres's Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist (CH, Jan'91) and Liam Kennedy's Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (CH, Mar'96)--have focused strictly on the body of Sontag's work, the current volume sets that work in the rich context of Sontag's life. Because this first biography of Sontag was written without her cooperation or approval, one might expect the authors to be more antagonistic toward their subject than they are. Rollyson and Paddock do give Sontag's adversaries--e.g., Camille Paglia--ample space in which to air their views, but the authors also give generous space to Sontag's supporters. In general, the book does a good job of summarizing both the background of and critical response to Sontag's books, essays, and films and her shifting politics, lesbianism, and "iconic" status--i.e., the image she projects of the avant-garde, cosmopolitan, glamorous, sexy, mysterious intellectual, an image that Sontag seems simultaneously to cultivate and to reject. Though Sontag's few, brief autobiographical essays are extremely good, she may never write a book-length autobiography. But even if she does, this engaging, well-written book will maintain a central position in the secondary literature on one of the major US writers of the second half of the 20th century. All collections. G. Grieve-Carlson; Lebanon Valley College


Booklist Review

Unauthorized biographies of the living are often defensive in tone, and Rollyson and Paddock write with a siege mentality, as though the shadow of Sontag's wrath already edged the page. They chronicle Sontag's unusual life (her book-enthralled girlhood, her acceptance to the University of Chicago at 16 in 1949, her marriage to a professor at 17, the birth of her son, and divorce by the age of 26, followed by her gutsy life as an independent intellectual and writer) with deft rapidity, keenly aware that the best they can do is craft a blueprint for the more in-depth studies sure to follow. But for all their haste, their portrait is not shallow, tawdry, or unbalanced. They bring all of Sontag's provocative works back into crisp focus within their cultural and political contexts, and they celebrate her remarkable achievements as a bridge-builder between high art and popular culture. They also respectfully document her term as president of PEN, her valiant battles against cancer, and her steady evolution as a thinker, essayist, and novelist. But the authors do expose Sontag's contrariness, her self-mythologizing and fanatically maintained mystique, and her refusal to publicly acknowledge her lesbian relationships, including her ongoing involvement with photographer Annie Liebovitz. By piercing the armor of her sexy yet off-putting image, Rollyson and Paddock don't just reveal her mercurial and manipulative personality, they connect the iconographic aspect of her persona to her passions for photography, film, dance, and theater; chart her impact on the zeitgeist; and track the deepening of her work from dazzling displays of precociousness and nerve to the shrewd romance of her last two novels, especially In America [BKL F 1 00], which is, in some ways, a self-portrait. --Donna Seaman


Library Journal Review

The writer Susan Sontag has turned down very little publicity over the years since setting American criticism on its ear with her essay "On Camp" in 1964. But, while the authors of this first life of Sontag acknowledge her uneasiness with the possible disclosures of biography, perhaps this reluctance has more to do with a legitimate fear of being trivialized. Rollyson and Paddock are far more deft on the subject of Sontag's evolving celebrity and famously glamorous book jacket photos than on her contributions to cultural criticism (e.g., Against Interpretation, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor) or fiction (Death Kit, "The Way We Live Now," The Volcano Lover). The authors follow Sontag from her lonely, bookish childhood in Tucson, AZ, through her brilliant days at the University of Chicago and Harvard, early marriage and motherhood, divorce, life in Europe and New York, and journeys to China, Vietnam, Israel, and Sarajevo. The book sometimes has a tone of reluctant chattiness in discussing her literary rivalries or romantic quarrels with male and female lovers, and Sontag's lack of cooperation shows especially in the childhood sections that draw on published interviews. Her trademark hair turns up so often in the journalistic narrative that it gains a kind of sidekick status by book's end. An optional purchase, especially for libraries already owning A Susan Sontag Reader (1982). [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/00.]DNathan Ward, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One My Desert Childhood 1933-1945 One of her earliest memories--she is about four--is set in a park. She listens to her Irish nanny talking to another giant in a starched white uniform: "Susan is very high-strung." Susan thinks: "That's an interesting word. Is it true?"     She is "remembering" an event that occurred circa 1937, an event she describes in her Paris Review interview of 1995. The park is in New York City, the nanny's name is Rose McNulty, and she is illiterate. It is Susan's impression that Rose does not know what to make of her temperamental charge. Sontag will spend her first five years in New York living with her grandparents and being cared for by relatives.     What Sontag wants to tell us is that she felt alone at a very early age, bored with her environment, and that her inner life--the only one she had control over--became paramount. Already at four, she claims, she was engaging in critical analysis, wondering about that word "high-strung." Sontag has preferred to use the word "restless" to describe her child self, one who felt that "childhood was a terrible waste of time."     Where were her parents? In China most of the time. Jack Rosenblatt had a fur-trading business, the Kung Chen Fur Corporation. When Susan was born, on January 16, 1933, in Woman's Hospital in Manhattan, her parents had a residence at 200 West Eighty-sixth Street. She was their first child. Mildred had been nervous about giving birth overseas, but not long after Susan was safely delivered, Mildred returned to China to be with her husband. Another pregnancy brought her back to Manhattan, where she gave birth to a second daughter, Judith, on February 27, 1936, in New York Hospital. By this time, the family had a home in Great Neck, Long Island.     Susan's parents had money, they were young, and they were very much involved in their business. Jack was only twenty-eight, and his wife Mildred, née Jacobson, only twenty-six, when Susan was born. On the company's books Mildred is listed as president-treasurer. Jack, or Jasky (as he was named on his birth certificate), had come a long way from 721 East Sixth Street in lower Manhattan, where his father, Samuel, and his mother, Gussie, née Kessler, both Jews from Austria, had begun a fur business and raised five children, two daughters and three sons. Mildred's family, Jews from Russian-occupied Poland, were also involved in the clothing trades. Her father, Isaac, a tailor, and his wife, Dora, née Glasskovitz, raised seven children. Mildred, born at home (139 Cook Street), was the second-youngest child and the only girl. She and Jack met at Grossinger's, a resort in the Catskills where Mildred had a waitressing job.     On October 19, 1938, just before midnight, Jack Rosenblatt died of pulmonary tuberculosis in the German American Hospital in Tientsin, China. He was not quite thirty-five. Mildred, staying at the Astor House Hotel in Tientsin, telegraphed his father and brother Aaron the next day, and she made arrangements to begin the journey back to New York a week later.     Sontag remembers that her mother waited several months to tell her that her father had died, and then was brief, saying only that he had died of pneumonia.     Then five-year-old Susan experienced her first asthma attack. Asthma is an alarming disease for anyone but is especially frightening in children. Coughing attacks usually occur at night, between the early hours of two and six; the child gasps for air and sometimes regurgitates a sticky mucus.     In 1939 Mildred decided to remove her small family from New York in search of a better climate for Susan, and a doctor recommended Miami. Recalling her family's brief residence in that city for an interviewer, Sontag presented brief vignettes: a house with coconut palms. She is in the front yard with a hammer and screwdriver trying to open the tropical fruit. An obese black cook takes her to a park and Susan notices a bench marked "For Whites Only." She turns to the cook and says, "We'll go sit over there and you can sit on my lap." It all seemed so nineteenth-century, Sontag told the interviewer. The city's humidity only made Susan's asthma worse, and after a few months the family left Miami.     Mildred was only thirty-one when she moved her family to Tucson. In interviews, Susan portrays Mildred as a vain, self-absorbed woman who did not know how to act like a mother, who worried instead about growing old and losing her looks. Mildred told Susan not to call her "Mother" in public because she did not want anyone to know she was old enough to have a child. Susan, puzzled, wondered what her mother did with her time, for even after Jack Rosenblatt's death Mildred would be absent from home for long periods, "parking" Susan and Judith with relatives.     It is likely that Mildred was depressed throughout Susan's earliest years. The massive change in lifestyle that accompanies mothering had to be especially hard on the peripatetic Mildred. Not only had she lost a husband, she had lost the income from their business, her employment, independence, and status--all of which were replaced by the insatiable demands of young children. Alcohol provided temporary relief, a cushion, perhaps even an elevation of feeling, although the image Sontag presents is of a phlegmatic mother, too drowsy or listless to read or comment on her child's all-A report cards. It is a familiar scene, repeated in the lives of many writers who begin writing as children, like the writer Anne Rice, moping at her alcoholic mother's bedside.     Sontag has said little about her upbringing in Tucson, although she remembers that as a young child she walked along the old Spanish Trail toward the Tanque Verde foothills, where she examined the "fiercest saguaros and prickly pears." She searched for arrowheads and snakes and pocketed pretty rocks. She imagined herself the last Indian, a lone ranger. Tucson in the late 1930s occupied nine square miles of broad desert valley, with rolling foothills, unusual colors, and stunning mountains with jagged peaks. The desert is no endless sea of sand dunes. There are thorny bushes and weeds, spiny saguaros, and other trees with bright red fruits and flaming orange, spiky flower buds. When it rains, the desert blooms, the sky spreads wide with double rainbows, and the landscape looks freshly scrubbed. The British writer J. B. Priestley, visiting Arizona in 1937, just two years before Mildred and Susan arrived, never forgot its haunting beauty: "Voices, faces, blue birds and scarlet birds, cactus and pine, mountains dissolving in the morning mirage or glowing like jewels in the sunset, the sweet clear air, the blaze of stars at midnight."     In 1939 these desert delights were close to home. The city had a population of less than forty thousand, although it was rapidly growing as a tourist and military site. It had only two radio stations. Walking down a street, residents heard the same radio programs coming from open windows in almost every house. There were five motion picture theaters, and a few combination book and stationery stores. There was a symphony orchestra, a little theater, music and art programs at the university, a state museum, and a Carnegie library. The pace was leisurely. The city attracted outdoor types and health seekers, with about thirty hospitals and sanitariums catering to sufferers of various respiratory illnesses. Susan's asthma improved in Tucson. She grew into a sturdily built, surprisingly sociable girl. In September 1939 the school year began with a cloud of dust, and in this haze Susan started the first grade. In retrospect, it seemed a joke: "I was put in 1A on Monday when I was 6 years old. Then 1B on Tuesday. 2A on Wednesday. 2B on Thursday, and by the end of the week they had skipped me to third grade because I could do the work." There were no classes for gifted children then. Susan studied the same subjects as everyone else: writing, spelling, reading, music, art, arithmetic, social studies, health and physical education, and elementary science. Classmates accepted her. "I was born into a culturally democratic situation. It didn't occur to me that I could influence the way these kids were," Sontag later realized. She could always find common ground, saying things like "Gosh, your hair looks great today," or "Gee, those are nice loafers."     Even at the age of six, however, Susan felt a need to dramatize her sense of separation from the other students, telling them that she had been born in China. She wanted to make an impression and to establish her connection with faraway places, and China seemed, she later remarked, "as far as anyone can go."     Already, at seven, Sontag had established a lifelong habit of reading through an author's body of work. To begin with, there was Alfred Payson Terhune: Caleb Conover, Railroader (1907), A Dog Named Chips (1931), The Critter and Other Dogs (1936). Perhaps his most famous series focuses on Lad and his exploits in rural New Jersey. Terhune's themes touch on right and wrong and the abuse of authority, as in Further Adventures of Lad (1922), in which an ignorant, overbearing sheriff threatens to shoot Lad, whose adventures usually involve redressing injustice. Anger at the unfairness and insensitivity of the adult world has often stimulated young writers and readers, and it is what drew nine-year-old Susan to more substantial novels such as Victor Hugo's Les Misérables , which she read in her mother's six-volume set. The chapter in which Fantine sells her hair made the young Susan a socialist, she would later declare.     Even more important, however, was Susan's discovery of the travel writer Richard Halliburton. One only needs to look at his frontispiece photographs to understand why: in The Royal Road to Romance (1925), he stands in front of the Taj Mahal, turbaned, arms akimbo, his legs at ease, and a broad smile on his face; in The Flying Carpet (1932) he sits atop his two-seater plane, poised for adventure; in Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels (1937), a photograph of the handsome, thirtyish-looking author is set next to a letter to the reader explaining how as a boy his favorite book was filled with pictures of the "world's most wonderful cities and mountains and temples." He loved that book because it carried him away to "strange and romantic lands."     Asked what books had changed her life, Sontag later gave Halliburton pride of first place. He showed her how "privileged" a writer's life could be, full of "endless curiosity and energy and expressiveness, and countless enthusiasms." Halliburton described climbing Etna and Popocatépetl and Fujiyama and Olympus. He descended the Grand Canyon and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge when it was still under construction. He visited Lenin's tomb in Moscow and the Great Wall of China. "Halliburton made me lustfully aware that the world was very big and very old; that its seeable wonders and its learnable stories were innumerable; and that I might see these wonders myself and learn the stories attached to them," Sontag recalled.     This remembrance evokes something of the excitement Susan felt as a seven-year-old, realizing how much larger the world was than Tucson--and how small-minded it was of her playmates, teachers, and other adults not to yearn for that larger world. Why were adults so cautious? Susan wondered. "When I grow up I've got to be careful that they don't stop me from flying through open doors," she thought.     Reading made much of the life around Susan shrink in size. She read about the war and about modern life. She had no place in her imagination for, say, Tucson's Pima Indians: "The folklore of the Southwest was static; picturesque even to the people who lived there," she later said. If you were a small kid discovering George Eliot or Thackeray or Balzac or the great Russian novels, little Indian dolls with turquoise beads sure couldn't hold a candle to the nineteenth century novel--as far as being an experience which could blast you out of your narrow framework. If you're looking for something to take you somewhere, to expand your consciousness it's going to be a great world culture. In her love of Halliburton, Sontag speaks as an enthusiast who sees a world of marvels. She longed for just that kind of companionable parent-writer--but instead, Mildred told her articulate daughter: "In China, children don't talk." Mildred might, in the right mood, reminisce, telling Susan that in China "burping at the table is a polite way of showing appreciation," but that did not mean Susan had permission to burp.     So much of Susan's early life seemed fragmented. In those early years in Tucson, before Susan reached the age of ten, Mildred moved her family several times and Susan attended several schools. What had gone before quickly disappeared. In 1943 Mildred moved her two daughters to a neat, compact four-room stucco bungalow at 2409 East Drachman, then a dirt road. Sontag implies that her mother, pressed for money, had auctioned off many of her Chinese mementos. The house still stands, on one edge of the University of Arizona, looking exactly the same as it does in the photograph taken of it in 1943, when it was brand-new--except that now the road is paved. Susan, her sister, and her mother were its first occupants. How Mildred managed to afford the rent, support herself and her family, and pay for household help is not clear. Perhaps there was still money left from Jack Rosenblatt's business. Sontag has said her mother taught. There is no record of Mildred teaching in the Tucson public schools, though she may have been employed in one of the city's numerous private institutions.     In her backyard, Susan dug a hole with the suspiciously exact dimensions of six feet by six feet by six feet. "What are you trying to do," a maid asked, "dig all the way to China?" No, Susan replied, she only wanted "a place to sit in." She laid eight-foot-long planks over the backyard hole to keep out the intense sun. The landlord complained, saying it posed a hazard for anyone walking across the yard. Susan showed him the boards, and the entrance that she could just barely squeeze through. Inside she had dug a niche for a candle, but it was too dark to read, and she got a mouthful of dirt that came in through the cracks in her makeshift ceiling. The landlord told Mildred the hole had to be filled in within twenty-four hours, and Susan complied with the help of the maid. Three months later she dug another hole in the same spot. Taking her cue from Tom Sawyer, who got the neighborhood kids to do a chore for him--whitewash a fence--she conned three playmates into helping her, promising they could use the hole whenever she was not there.     Susan's hole was her hiding place, her miniature world. Her crude dugout also marked the border between "the scary and the safe," as she later put it in an article about grottoes. Her cave was the equivalent of the world elsewhere, of the China where her father had died. All Susan had of her father was a ring with JR on the signet, a white silk scarf with his initials embroidered in black silk, and a pigskin wallet with Jack Rosenblatt stamped in small gold letters. His record, in short, remained unwritten, an "unfinished pain" in her imagination. For this kind of pain, extroverted writers like Halliburton had no cure.     Fortunately, Sontag found her first literary father early on, before her tenth year. Sontag discovered Edgar Allan Poe. Like Halliburton, Poe conjured up a world of marvels. He wrote detective stories, hoaxes about trips to the moon and about other fantastic voyages of exploration--like The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym . But Poe also gave Susan her "first vision of inwardness, of melancholy, of obsessiveness, of the thrill of ratiocination, of morbidity, of a recklessly self-conscious temperament--another span of nascent avidities." Poe's writing is both adventurous and intellectual; his narrators are self-conscious and enclosed in their own worlds. Like the adult Sontag, his characters are devotees, metaphorically speaking, of grottoes--those caverns of the mind. As the narrator of "Berenice" confesses, "My passions always were of the mind."     Poe, like Sontag, is an American writer who sought his inspiration in Europe and in literature itself, and like her, he was obsessed with wasting diseases and death. It is not easy to catch your breath in Poe's Gothic tales, for the sense of doom is as unrelenting as his alliteration. "During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year ..."--these sonorous, mesmerizing words in "The Fall of the House of Usher" are a literary narcotic. Poe's fiction confirmed what the therapeutic climate of Tucson tried to deny: the inescapable fact of mortality. If that seems like a morbid discovery, it was also a godsend to a child who sensed what those around her were denying.     If Richard Halliburton spoke to the extroverted pleasure of roaming the world and taking from it what you liked, Poe did the same for the introvert, demonstrating that literature could be a vehicle of transportation to other worlds, and--even better--that literature could be a destination in itself. He taught her to rely on her own sensibility, excluding whatever nonliterary environment she encountered.     What neither Poe nor Halliburton could give Sontag, though, was a sense of career--an important concept for a child who thought of herself as on her own and who had come to regard herself as her own authority, a common enough feeling in children who suffer from what has been variously called "father-thirst" and "father-hunger." She found her sense of mission in two books that have electrified many generations of young girls: Madame Curie: A Biography and Little Women .     By the age of ten, Susan had read Eve Curie's moving book about her mother. The first sentence of the biography's introduction is captivating: "The life of Marie Curie contains prodigies in such number that one would like to tell her story like a legend." Here is the complete Curie paradigm related in Eve's ecstatic version, a version that provides nearly a perfect blueprint for the arc of Sontag's life to come: Marie spends many years of poverty and solitude in the backwater of Poland. She is fired with a desire to "adore something very high and very great." Eve asks: "How is one to imagine the fervor of this girl of seventeen?" Marie becomes involved in Polish nationalism and socialism, desiring to free her country from Russian occupation and to build a better, a more just society. She aspires to an education in France, the seat of learning and liberty. She writes to her sister, "I dreamed of Paris as of redemption." When Marie's opportunity comes, Eve observes: "How young one felt in Paris, how powerful, trembling, and swelling with hope!" In Paris, Marie studied to a state of near exhaustion, living in spartan quarters, guided by her "will of iron." She attracts the attention of a great scientist, Pierre Curie. Like a novelist, Marie searches for new subjects of research, Together Marie and Pierre give birth to a "new science and a new philosophy." They become joint authors, embodying the "superior alliance of man and woman, the exchange was equal." They have children, and Marie is nearly as passionate about motherhood as she is about science. Her husband dies, and Marie dedicates herself to a "kind of perpetual giving," nursing the wounded in World War I and opening herself up to people around the world. She is excited by the world's mysteries and marvels that she must plumb. Above all, Marie has a sense of destiny. As Eve observes: "We must believe we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained." She persisted with a "superhuman obstinacy." As Marie matured, she saw the need for an international culture and relied upon her "innate refusal of all vulgarity."     Curie's is a noble story as well, because Marie would, in her daughter's words, treat her honors with "indifference," with an "immovable structure of a character" and the "stubborn effort of an intelligence." Eve quotes Einstein's remark that "Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted."     It is not just that Sontag wanted to be like Marie Curie, or that she built a backyard chemistry laboratory, or that she decided she would try to combine careers as a writer and doctor like Chekhov. Imagining herself finding cures, discovering a new element like radium that would be used to treat diseases, was no stretch for Susan. More important is Eve's evocation of a selfless career--so selfless that Marie did not look upon it as a career but as a vocation. This Marie Curie resembled a mythic goddess, a figure of such austere purity that she seemed invulnerable, "intact, natural and very nearly unaware of her astounding destiny."     Susan strove to emulate the ideal Curie, the scientist who painstakingly stood over hot, heavy cauldrons refining ore and making her Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough. When Sontag later spoke of her writing, it would be in terms of agonizing labor, a concentration only on the work itself--not on the honors that might accrue, not on the machinery of self-promotion which she could have patented--and she reacted with hostility to any vulgar suggestion of careerism.     Susan would not entirely give up the idea of a medical/scientific career until she began college, but the idea of creating literature already beckoned to her. "What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer's life seemed the most inclusive," she later said. The writer is free to invent and reinvent herself in a way the scientist or doctor cannot.     Susan fell in love not just with reading and writing but with the idea, the role of the writer. It was part of her self-consciousness project not merely to write but to be seen as a writer: "I did think of being published. In fact, I really thought that that's what being a writer was." The impulse to write was an act of emulation and homage to the great writers she had read: "People usually say they want to become a writer to express themselves or because they have something to say. For me it was a way of being. It was like enlisting in an army of saints.... I didn't think I was expressing myself. I felt that I was becoming something, taking part in a noble activity."     Where would a ten-year-old girl come upon the idea of a publishing world? From two novels: Little Women and Martin Eden . She identified with Louisa May Alcott's budding writer, Jo, although Sontag is quick to add that she did not want to write anything like Jo's sentimental, melodramatic stories. Rather, it is Jo's avidity that captures Susan: "I want to do something splendid ... something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what. I'm on the watch for it. I mean to astonish you all some day." Significantly, Jo's sense of greatness is connected to Europe: "Don't I wish I'd been there!" Jo cries. "Have you been to Paris?" Jo rejects Laurie, her childhood companion, for Professor Bhaer, an older European who welcomes her writing rather than seeing it as an eccentric tic. Susan surely spotted Jo's alienation from her family and community--in spite of all the talk of family togetherness. Sontag probably saw the David Selznick production of Little Women , in which Katharine Hepburn glamorized Jo's role. To be Jo, to be a writer, was to be a star.     There is more to Little Women than adolescent fantasies of becoming a writer. Jo becomes confused when she begins changing her stories to suit her family. The futility of trying to please and of expecting a consensus among readers is pointed up by reviewers' contradictory reactions to Jo's work. When Jo prostitutes her talent to produce a cheap magazine piece, her father scolds her: "You can do better than this. Aim for the highest and never mind the money." Indeed, Alcott could have been writing for all budding artists, demonstrating how the writer must find her own voice and integrity.     Even more directly, Jack London's Martin Eden presents a fable of the writer's life, a naturalist's grim yet exhilarating study of individual aspiration that appealed to Sontag's somber but determined sensibility. Eden forges his own identity largely through his reading of books, which are treated almost literally as the building blocks of his personality. They have a tangible, tactile, erotic appeal for him. He does not merely handle books; he caresses them.     Like Martin Eden, Susan wanted her writing to make some kind of impression on the world, no matter how indifferent that world seems to be. London's novel is still valuable as a kind of handbook for the freelance writer; it contains pages and pages describing Martin's feverish efforts to publish, constantly sending out manuscripts in self-addressed envelopes and constantly receiving rejections, and then sending out the stories and articles over and over again until something is accepted. The ratio of rejections to acceptances is daunting: for every piece that is accepted, dozens and dozens are rejected. Yet Martin persists.     What Martin cannot control, of course, is the means of production. Sontag tried to solve this problem at the age of nine or ten, as she later told students at the University of South Carolina, by starting her own four-page monthly newspaper, produced on a hectograph: The cheapest way of reproducing anything: you need a stencil, a tray, and gelatin. You just put the stencil face down on the gelatin, after putting the ink on the stencil. You can then put about 20 pieces of paper onto the gelatin. It reproduces the stencil. It's wonderful to use in closets. At 10 I made a literary magazine of my own and sold it to neighbors for 5 cents. Sontag smiled telling this story, recalling how this act of publishing emancipated her. She wrote poems, stories, and at least two plays, one inspired by Karel Capek's R.U.R. , and another by Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo . Throughout the war she wrote articles on battles such as Midway and Stalingrad, condensing what she read in the newspapers.     By the age of twelve, she was simply biding her time, serving out what she calls in her essay-memoir "Pilgrimage" the "prison sentence" of her childhood. It was an ordeal, but she was a good actress, a good dissembler.     Then a disturbing event intruded into Susan's world. Her mother remarried. Mildred, still morose, but also still beautiful, had attracted a new mate. Susan quietly rejected him. But he did provide a new name that fit her emerging identity as a writer; and he brought with him the prospect of travel--away from the desert of her childhood and into the land of dreams: California. Copyright © 2000 Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. xi
1. My Desert Childhood [1933-1945]p. 3
2. A World Elsewhere [1945-1948]p. 15
3. Towards a Better Life [1949-1953]p. 25
4. The Life and the Project [1952-1957]p. 37
5. Quest [1957-1958]p. 43
6. Making It [1959-1961]p. 54
7. Made [1962-1963]p. 63
8. Supremacy [1963-1964]p. 78
9. Fame [1965-1966]p. 88
10. Peter and Paul [1965-1967]p. 105
11. Neoradicalism [1967-1969]p. 119
12. Styles of Radical Will [1969-1971]p. 130
13. Ms. Sontag [1971-1973]p. 146
14. Promised Lands [1971-1974]p. 158
15. Old Complaints Revisited [1975]p. 164
16. Becoming a Little Posthumous [1975-1978]p. 169
17. Recovery [1976-1977]p. 175
18. The Salonistes [1977-1985]p. 182
19. I, etcetera [1979]p. 202
20. A Wandering Jew [1980]p. 210
21. Susan the Apostate [1982]p. 218
22. Retrospection [1982-1983]p. 228
23. President Sontag [1986-1989]p. 236
24. Pitching Susan Sontag [1986-1989]p. 256
25. The Way We Live Now [1986-1995]p. 264
26. The Volcano Lover [1990-1992]p. 279
27. Sarajevo [1993-1995]p. 287
28. The End and the Beginning [1991-1999]p. 297
Appendix A Brief Anthology of Quotations [Homage to S.S.]p. 305
Notes and Commentsp. 310
Acknowledgmentsp. 344
Indexp. 347