On Sale September 17, 2019
A finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award
New York Times Notable Book
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 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
“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.”
“Benjamin Moser’s monumental 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. Definitive and delightful.” —Stephen Fry
“In this long-awaited, brilliant biography, Benjamin Moser show us how to read Sontag – and, by extension, her times – in the present, and reveals the extents and limits of her genius. His psychologically nuanced critical study is written with sang-froid and compassion.” —Chris Kraus
“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.”
“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
“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
“In this penetrating and timely biography, Benjamin Moser casts new eyes on the life and works of Susan Sontag and captures the essence of this iconic genius. Through his compelling and beautifully balanced prose style, Moser 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 her, Moser has written an illuminating and important volume.” —Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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.