WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE IN BIOGRAPHY
Finalist for Publishing Triangle’s Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction
Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir/Biography
Finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award For Biography
Longlisted for the Plutarch Award for Biography
One of O Magazine’s Best Books of the Year
One of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Best Books of the Year
Seattle Times 4 Most Interesting Biographies of the Year
An Amazon Editors’ Holiday 2019 Gift Pick
One of New York Magazine’s The Best and Biggest Books to Read This Fall
One of O magazine’s 18 Must-Read Books of Fall
One of USA Today’s Five Books Not to Miss
One of Entertainment Weekly’s 20 New Books to Read in September
One of the New York Times’ 17 New Books to Watch For in September
One of the Washington Post’s Ten Books to Read this September
An Amazon Best of the Month, Biography & Memoir
One of O Magazine’s Best LGBTQ Books of the Year
One of the BBC’s Ten Books to Read this Summer
IndieBound Bestseller #29, 48
An indelible portrait of one of the American Century’s most towering intellectuals: her writing and her radical thought, her public activism and her hidden private face
No writer is as emblematic of the American twentieth century as Susan Sontag. Mythologized and misunderstood, lauded and loathed, a girl from the suburbs who became a proud symbol of cosmopolitanism, Sontag left a legacy of writing on art and politics, feminism and homosexuality, celebrity and style, medicine and drugs, radicalism and Fascism and Freudianism and Communism and Americanism, that forms an indispensable key to modern culture. She was there when the Cuban Revolution began, and when the Berlin Wall came down; in Vietnam under American bombardment, in wartime Israel, in besieged Sarajevo. She was in New York when artists tried to resist the tug of money—and when many gave in. No writer negotiated as many worlds; no serious writer had as many glamorous lovers. Sontag tells these stories and examines the work upon which her reputation was based. It explores the agonizing insecurity behind the formidable public face: the broken relationships, the struggles with her sexuality, that animated—and undermined—her writing. And it shows her attempts to respond to the cruelties and absurdities of a country that had lost its way, and her conviction that fidelity to high culture was an activism of its own.
Utilizing hundreds of interviews conducted from Maui to Stockholm and from London to Sarajevo—and featuring nearly one hundred images—Sontag is the first book based on the writer’s restricted archives, and on access to many people who have never before spoken about Sontag, including Annie Leibovitz. It is an unforgettable portrait—a great American novel in the form of a biography.
“Benjamin Moser’s Sontag . . . succeeds as it does—magnificently, humanely—by displaying the same intellectual purchase, curiosity, and moral capaciousness to which his subject laid so inspiring and noble a claim over a lifetime. Susan Sontag was a difficult, galvanic presence in American arts and letters for half a century, and her biographer takes her measure with unfailing intelligence, honesty, and sympathy. . . . Moser doesn’t gloss over Sontag’s cruelty, the pain she meted out to friendly others even while priding herself on regarding the pain of other others with great (and real) compassion. He is in fact at his finest—graceful, tactful, scrupulous, unerringly insightful—when recounting the manifold sources of Sontag’s emotional distress. . . . Moser’s biography is a stunningly generous gift—to readers, obviously, but also to his subject. He is patient with her, truthful yet tender, recognizing both what was thrilling and what was cursed about her.” —Terry Castle, ArtForum
“What would 2019 have made of Susan Sontag? We have an answer, and it’s glorious. Benjamin Moser’s authorized biography . . . is an epiphany of research and storytelling, the definitive life of a writer both more and less than the myth she fastidiously crafted. . . . A searching meditation on the divided self, a warts-and-all appraisal of Sontag’s behavior, scrupulous readings of her texts: all speak to Moser’s luminous achievement.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“The essential Sontag is here in all her complexity, her triumph.” —The Post and Courier
“Engagingly written . . . With its personal details and gossip about New York literary parties, Moser’s biography both entertains and scandalizes.”—Mosaic
“A monumental work that reveals the flawed private person behind the ferocious intellectual public persona.”
–Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times, Books of the Year
“Remarkably perceptive and penetrating.” —National Review
“A skilled, lively, prodigiously researched book that, in the main, neither whitewashes nor rebukes its subject: It works hard to make the reader see Sontag as the severely complex person she was. . . . he writes vividly of a woman of parts determined to leave a mark on her time; and makes us feel viscerally how large those parts were — the arrogance, the anxiety, the reach! No mean achievement.” —Vivian Gornick, The New York Times Book Review
“Moser’s socially panoramic, psychologically incisive biography does a superb job of charting Sontag’s self-invention”
–Peter Conrad, Observer
“Complete access to her bohemian life … Moser is good at elucidating Sontag’s ideas and putting into context the fecundity of her thought. He discusses her “Olympian” sex life with sympathy and insight – her galaxy of lovers included Bobby Kennedy, Jasper Johns, Warren Beatty and Annie Leibovitz – and its unbiased when it comes to evaluating her writing’ Frances Wilson.”
“Through it all, Moser tends to strike an effective balance between the kind of immersive detail Sontag specialists will eagerly expect and the kind of broader narrative momentum that ordinary readers will appreciate (and that might turn a few of them into Sontag specialists, always a pleasant side effect).” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Rather than try for a master insight on Sontag’s recalcitrant, oppositional tendencies, Moser instead presents her in the fullness of these complications.”—America
“Engrossing . . . [Sontag] was avid, ardent, driven, generous, narcissistic, Olympian, obtuse, maddening, sometimes loveable but not very likeable. Moser has had the confidence and erudition to bring all these contradictory aspects together in a biography fully commensurate with the scale of his subject. He is also a gifted, compassionate writer.” — Elaine Showalter, Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“Beautifully written and moving . . .reveals with illuminating clarity Sontag’s ceaseless quest to understand and be understood . . . Moser’s monumental achievement captures the woman who, among other things, “demonstrated endless admiration for art and beauty—and endless contempt for intellectual and spiritual vulgarity.” This brilliant book matches Sontag’s own brilliance and finally gives her the biography she deserves.” —BookPage
“A gripping account … It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive account of Sontag’s life than this one’ Joan Smith.”
“Fascinating . . . Moser’s biography of Sontag is an education in Sontag, but also in what Sontag wanted and why, as well as an education in the worlds that inspired her and fought her.” —Alexander Chee, The Los Angeles Times
“There can be no doubting the brilliance – the sheer explanatory vigour – of Moser’s biography . . . Does Sontag: Her Life constitute any kind of tribute? Though Moser is generally sympathetic, the answer is no. But I think it represents something more – a triumph of the virtues of seriousness and truth-telling that Susan Sontag espoused again and again but was conspicuously and often quite consciously unable to force herself to live by.” —The New Statesman
“Moser’s epic portrait of the iconic writer and critic winds through American history, entwining its subject to pivotal points in our culture and reshaping her legacy in the process.” —Entertainment Weekly, “20 New Books to Read in September”
“A book as handsome, provocative and troubled as its subject. . . . Moser shines . . . in narrative, no easy feat for a life committed to reinvention.” —Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
“Persuasive and illuminating . . . the book does what a biography ought to do: it enriches our understanding of its subject . . . What Sontag did — and I am grateful to Moser’s biography for making this clear to me — was transform the uncertain and tentative nature of her engagement with a world of culture into a diffuse yet penetrating analysis of how and why we look at art, read books, listen to music, and so on.” —LA Review of Books
“Enlightening and finely tuned . . . Alert to Sontag’s contradictions, Moser structures his book around them; they provide Sontag with its narrative tension and central theme.. . . because his tone is so reserved, so disinterested in passing judgement, none of what he writes about comes off as dishy or inappropriate. More to the point, his critical distance from his subject makes him an echo of Sontag herself.” —Mark Athitakis, On the Seawall
“Moser is a tenacious biographer, keeping a tight hold on his narrative and reaching firm conclusions. He is very tough-minded, as Sontag herself was at her best, and his mind is like Sontag’s in that he can make very sharp turns and land decisive blows.” —Nylon
“A landmark biography, the first major reintroduction of an incomparable literary heavyweight to the public since her death 15 years ago. Moser takes a deep dive into Sontag’s personal life and her work, exploring published and unpublished writings, and lingering frequently to analyze — and occasionally psychoanalyze — Sontag’s emotional, intellectual and social influences.” —The New York Times
“Utterly riveting and consistently insightful . . . The book takes this larger-than-life intellectual powerhouse—formidable, intimidating, often stubbornly impersonal in her work—and makes her life-size again . . . fascinating.” —Leslie Jamison, The New Republic
“Moser has managed the near-impossible feat of capturing Sontag in all of her dark brilliance and pointed contradictions.” —Interview
“A towering figure like Susan Sontag deserves a towering tome, and Moser’s 700-plus-page biography of the iconic cultural critic delivers. Following its subject from forsaken daughter of an alcoholic single mother to intellectual guru setting the worlds of arts and letters ablaze, this blockbuster à la Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra is both granular and grand—an opus fit for the writer-philosopher who “created the mold, and then she broke it.” —O Magazine, “18 Must-Read Books of Fall 2019”
“Monumental and stylish.” —The Atlantic
“A life with so much posturing, so many surfaces layered obfuscatingly on top of each other, is hard to describe, but Moser does rather a brilliant job. Over the course of 700 pages, we have Sontag as daughter, friend, lover, wife and mother, but Moser’s writing is appropriately bold and anecdotal, so there is less the feeling of years accrued than of selves tried out. He’s an essayist, taking on an essayist, and his best passages are biographical readings of her writing. His assessment of her novels is punchy and insightful. . . . Moser also parses her political views compellingly and opinionatedly . . . We need [Sontag] now, more than ever, and this biography keeps her defiantly alive: argumentative, willful, often right, always interesting, encouraging us to up our game as we watch her at the top of hers.” —The Guardian
“Not only the definitive study of a gifted and vain intellectual but also a fascinating account of changing wind patterns as recorded by one of the era’s most prominent weathervanes. . . . Moser dubs Sontag ‘America’s last great literary star.’ Now that books have receded to the periphery of the cultural universe, that star shines brightly still, from a galaxy far, far away.” —American Scholar
“With Sontag, Moser intelligently brings together both public and private, onstage and off-. His scrutiny of her essays, fiction, films, and political activism is clear-eyed, his analysis of her tumultuous affective life sympathetic . . . Sontag offers a thoroughly researched chronicle of an unparalleled American figure . . . deft and sometimes dishy . . . If Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (2009) was indispensable in greatly expanding the Brazilian writer’s profile and readership, especially in the US, then Sontag accomplishes something just as valuable: It deepens our understanding of a world-renowned eminence . . . Moser’s analysis of the Sontag-Leibovitz coupledom stands as one of the more incisive parts of an already shrewd biography.” —Bookforum
”Yikes! Burn your letters, fellow writers, or Benjamin Moser might write your biography and Reveal All! . . . . fascinating.” —Margaret Atwood, twitter
“Moser is the first Sontag biographer to have had access to her journals. He draws upon them with tact, empathy, and truly extraordinary insight, weaving her life together with her work. . . . One of the great pleasures of this authoritative work is Moser’s confident, clever, erudite voice. He writes with a deep understanding of literature and intellectual history, and with considerable sympathy for his subject . . . . a landmark achievement — astonishing in its scope, brilliant in its perceptiveness, and a joy to read. It deserves to be counted among the best nonfiction books of 2019.” —Jewish Book Council
“Don’t be fooled by the length. This book, at more than 800 pages, is compulsive reading: moving, maddening, ridiculous and beautiful scenes from the life of Susan Sontag, and the epochs she traversed. Moser has a true and deep love for his subject, a love unafraid to be truthful, and it shows.” —Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers
“Exceptional . . . This excellent portrait of a complicated, brilliant individual will appeal to those interested in late 20th-century culture, LGBTQ studies, and literary scholarship.” —Library Journal, starred review
“If it’s already difficult to imagine American culture without Susan Sontag’s contributions to it, it may soon become difficult to imagine her life without Benjamin Moser’s account of it. A significant life like Sontag’s demands a significant biography. That demand has now been incisively, extravagantly met.” —Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours
“A comprehensive, intimate—and surely definitive—biography of writer, provocateur, and celebrity intellectual Susan Sontag . . . Sympathetic and sharply astute . . . A nuanced, authoritative portrait of a legendary artist.” —Kirkus, starred review
“[A] watershed biography of ‘America’s last great literary star.’” —Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review
“In this penetrating and timely new biography, Benjamin Moser casts new eyes on the life and works of Susan Sontag and pens a volume that captures the essence of this iconic genius. Through his compelling and beautifully balanced prose style, the author propels us through Sontag’s eventful life in meticulous detail, drawing a sensitive portrait of the artist against the backdrop of over a half-century of American letters, arts, politics, and rapid cultural change. For both Sontag scholars and those new to the subject, Moser has written an illuminating and important volume.” —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
“A sweeping, perhaps definitive portrait.” —Publishers Weekly
“An astonishing page-turner, like a brilliant suspense novel (even for one who knew what happened next). The Sue/Susan/Sontag/“Susan Sontag” character emerges here in all her wonderfulness and terribleness and staggering complexity. This is it: the last word on Susan Sontag. I can’t imagine the necessity of another book about her life.” —Sigrid Nunez, author of The Friend
“Benjamin Moser’s accomplishment here is breathtaking: it includes an extraordinary knowledge of the subject, her milieu, her writings, her ideas, and her friends and family, beautiful prose, extraordinary insights, a capacity to understand her driven emotional life and her stellar intellectual life. It will be called unsparing, because some of its truths about this complex figure are harsh, but it is generous to the subject as well as to readers who want to understand this woman who stood so tall and cast such a long shadow across twentieth-century intellectual life.” —Rebecca Solnit, author of Call Them By Their True Names and Men Explain Things to Me
“Susan Sontag made and broke the mold of American twentieth century public intellectual. In this long-awaited, brilliant biography, Benjamin Moser shows us how to read Sontag—and, by extension, her times—and reveals the extents and limits of her genius. His psychologically nuanced critical study is written with sang-froid and compassion.” — Chris Kraus, author of After Kathy Acker and I Love Dick
“Sontag’s influence on aesthetics, writing and the wider culture is almost impossible to overstate and Moser’s monumental biography reveals the surprisingly tender, insecure, and intellectually dedicated story of one the most remarkable literary figures of twentieth century America. She stands reclaimed for our century in this definitive, fiercely intelligent work.” —Stephen Fry, author of The Ode Less Travelled
“Benjamin Moser brings his iconic subject to life in this gripping, insightful and supremely stylish biography. He makes a modern epic out of Sontag’s remarkable story, from her tortured relationship with her alcoholic mother to her unflinching visits to besieged Sarajevo, revealing at every turn the vital, complicated, imperfect human being behind the formidable public intellectual.”
—Edmund Gordon, author of The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography
“Who better than distinguished critic Moser, National Book Critics Circle finalist for Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, to write a biography of Susan Sontag?” —Library Journal Prepub Alert
“I always found Susan Sontag in turns brilliant, vain, wise, foolish, high, low, dazzlingly insightful, pretentious, pure … but always fiercely and frighteningly intelligent, learned, alert and aware. Benjamin Moser’s monumental authorized biography reveals the surprisingly tender, insecure, simple and intellectually dedicated story of one the most remarkable literary figures to emerge in twentieth century America. Her influence on aesthetics, writing and the wider culture is almost impossible to overstate and Moser’s own fierce intelligence weaves between the life and the work quite magnificently. She stands reclaimed for our century, a much more lovable and variegated character than I ever guessed. Definitive and delightful.” —Stephen Fry
A Conversation with Benjamin Moser
Why do you think Sontag is still popular today?
Susan Sontag was America’s last great literary star, a flashback to a time when writers could be, more than simply respected or well-known, famous. She was an essayist, a filmmaker, a playwright, a novelist, a political activist, and that rare thing in America: a public intellectual, and a model for generations who came after her. But she once joked that she was best known for the white streak in her black hair. She was well aware that her image had become better known than her writing, and that was why she could become so many things for so many different people. Some people saw her as the unbowed thinker, the engaged citizen, the powerful woman. Other people saw her as a sexual deviant, a sign of intellectual collapse, a traitor to America. Even now, fifteen years after her death, a lot of people still love her, and a lot of people still hate her. I hope a more balanced picture can emerge—and what I’d like most of all would be for both fans and haters to read her, and to engage with her life and work.
How did your work research and writing about Clarice Lispector influence your work on Sontag?
I was better prepared for the emotions that biographies create. With Clarice, I was amazed by what people objected to: things I never would have imagined would be controversial became the subject of passionate polemics, and things I imagined would become passionate polemics were completely ignored. When you’re writing a biography, you’re always thinking about other people’s feelings and thoughts, always trying to stay a step ahead. You want to be honest, but you also don’t want to offend people. You have to be critical, but you also want to be generous. I think that having had the experience of doing this before and seeing how unpredictable people’s reactions are freed me up a bit. Since you can’t predict how people are going to react, why even try?
And I think I was better prepared for the experience of having someone’s life in my hands. It’s thrilling to go so deep into someone’s world, but it can also be creepy. I was the first person allowed to look into Susan’s laptop, in her archive at UCLA, for example. And it was very strange to imagine what I would have felt if someone went through my emails. She herself sold the material to the library, so it’s not as if I were snooping through her stuff without her consent. But even so, you’re always wondering how you would feel in her place. And if you’ve done this work before, you’re better prepared for dealing with these ethical questions.
You say that Sontag was more than simply a well-known writer: she was famous in a way that no subsequent writer has been. How does Sontag stand out from popular writers today?
It was hard for me to understand, at first, how Sontag became as famous as she did. She seemed to come out of nowhere, and by the time she was in her early thirties, she was already spotted at dinner in a posh New York restaurant with Jackie Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein. How had she gotten there? Many of her early essays are extremely difficult, including because they assume a knowledge of an intellectual and literary world that will be quite foreign to readers today—one that requires the kind of contextualizing I try to provide. Still, even then, essays about Georg Lukács and Nathalie Sarraute and Isaac Bashevis Singer didn’t seem to be a path to worldwide fame. Yet she somehow managed to stand at the junction of art, culture, politics, and sexuality at a time that all of those things were undergoing radical changes. She became someone that a whole generation looked to in order to make sense of that changing world, and she managed to stay in the position she earned as a very young person until the end of her life, nearly half a century later.
The Guardian recently reported on your revelation that Sontag was the true author of her husband’s book on Freud. Were you surprised to learn who the real author was?
I’ve been writing about women of my grandmothers’ generation for nearly twenty years—first Clarice Lispector and now Susan Sontag. So in some sense I’m not the right person to be astonished by this: it happened to so many women, and it happened all the time. A lot of older women called or wrote me when the Guardian piece went viral and said: Why is everyone acting like this is such a novelty? This happened to everyone! And it’s so easy to imagine how it could happen to someone as smart as Sontag. She was a very brilliant college student, and she started off helping this older professor with his research. Then, after knowing him just a few weeks, she ended up marrying him, and doing more and more of the research, and then “helping” with the writing, and then, all of a sudden, doing all of the writing. When the relationship went sour, her priority was to protect her child. And at the time it probably seemed to be the easy thing to do: give him the book, get her divorce, get on with her life. But even though this was common and happened quite often, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a big deal for Sontag. She took it seriously. Until the end of her life, she never stopped resenting that the book was stolen from her.
You were the first person to speak to Annie Leibovitz about her relationship with Sontag—a relationship Sontag never publicly acknowledged, and whose difficulties you reveal. Why do you think she seemed troubled by any acknowledgment of her sexuality?
Before I started working on this book, I assumed that Sontag was gay in the same way I assumed she was Jewish. It never crossed my mind that she wasn’t, or that everyone didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine that anyone she knew, or any of her readers or admirers, would care either way. But as I began looking into her life and her relationships, I learned that she had never acknowledged her sexuality publicly, and indeed she lied about it constantly. It seemed so bizarre for a woman of her worldliness and sophistication that I struggled to understand it. But she grew up in a world with extremely anti-gay attitudes. To be gay could cost you your family, your home, even your life. A book like Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which came out when Susan was 19, was considered to be a positive portrayal of lesbians because the women weren’t killed at the end: one just lost her child. Like many gay people, Susan never managed to shed these homophobic attitudes entirely. Because it’s one thing to know something intellectually and something else to accept it emotionally.
What would Sontag make of our current political climate? Can we take anything from her work that might help us navigate our times?
I loved writing this book during the beginning of the Trump era. Talking about Sontag felt like a form of activism in a way it wouldn’t have during the Obama years. Because one thing you learn when writing about Sontag’s era is that being ruled by cruel, greedy people didn’t start with the current occupant of the Oval Office. Americans have felt for so long that our country is not the country we were told we lived in. The way younger people feel now is exactly the way people felt during Vietnam, when Sontag became one of the nation’s most prominent anti-war activists. It’s the way people felt during the AIDS crisis, when millions died as government spokesmen cracked jokes about gay people. It’s the way people felt as Yugoslavia was torn apart, when Sontag went and spent nearly three years in besieged Sarajevo. It’s the way many of us felt during the Iraq War, the subject of the last essay Sontag published in her lifetime. I think that because the questions are the same, the answers might be the same, too. I hope that by learning more about Sontag’s life and work we can learn more about how to live in this miserable time.
What do you think Sontag would make of this book?
When she was a teenager, she wrote that she hoped that someday she could show her journals to someone who loved her, and that these writings would help that person understand her. Even when I had to be tough on her, I tried to be that person—and I was never nearly as tough on her as she was on herself. Few people saw her self-critical side, since her public persona seemed so intimidating, so bulletproof. But to read her journals is to see just how relentlessly critical she was of herself. I try to write about her as she wrote about others: with an analytical spirit, but with admiration foremost. I like to think she would appreciate that.
Why should young people read Sontag today? If they haven’t read her before, where should they start?
I like to recommend that people start with On Photography. It takes this very abstract-sounding philosophical question—what is the relationship between an object and a metaphor of that object?—and makes it fun and funny, freaky and terrifying. And it introduces so many of the themes that recur in her more difficult writings, and gets you excited to read more. And that, by the way, is so much of what I hope will happen with this biography: that through it, people will get start reading her books. Not for the same reasons people might have read them when they came out. A lot of what made Sontag really scandalous in the sixties doesn’t resonate as much now. Just as it’s not a novelty for a writer to be gay, it’s not a novelty for a writer to embrace popular culture as well as high culture, as Sontag was often—often inaccurately—accused of doing. A lot of the writing that was considered hot and new and titillating—the reason a lot of people read it when it came out—is now more than half a century old. The reason her work has stood the test of time is that she, more than any other American writer of her generation, gives you a key to culture. She tells you about Freud and Sartre and photography and dance and politics and war, yes. But more to the point: she helps you understand how the great modern thinkers have thought about our world, and how to live in it. She gives you their ideas, she gives you her ideas about their ideas—and then she spurs you to formulate your own.