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Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
The nation was saddened with news of the death of acclaimed American literary figure and political activist, Susan Sontag at the age of 71. The writer, who had suffered from leukemia, died from complications resulting from acute myelogenous leukemia at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Over the past thirty years, Sontag had struggled with various forms of cancer including breast cancer and a rare form of uterine cancer.
Widely viewed as one of America’s leading intellectuals, Susan Sontag had been a leading commentator on modern culture who has contributed innovative and provocative essays and novels covering such diverse subjects as pornographic literature, fascist aesthetics, photography, AIDS, and US foreign policy. Sontag first burst into literary and intellectual circles in 1964 with her essay exploring homosexual aesthetics, “Notes on Camp”, which established her as a major new writer and thinker at the age of 31. Since then, she has maintained her position as the centerpiece of the New York intellectual community with her prolific work that has stimulated new ideology to American culture. She has also become a symbol of liberal radicalism and a luminary figure among the homosexual community, after she came out of the closet in the 1980’s.
Susan Sontag was born in New York City as Susan Rosenblatt. Her father, Jack Rosenblatt, had a fur trading business in China. He tragically died in China of pulmonary tuberculosis when she was five. Her mother, Mildred, married Capt. Nathan Sontag seven years later, and she adopted his surname as her own. Sontag grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California, and displayed a precocious intellectual ability at a young age. She skipped three grades and graduated from high school at 15. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree while attending the University of California-Berkeley before transferring to the University of Chicago. She then completed her graduate work, earning a PhD, in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Oxford University. After that, Sontag would have several prestigious academic positions from being lecturer of philosophy at the City College of New York and Sarah Lawrence. From 1960 to 1964 she was an instructor in Columbia University’s religion department, and then a writer-in-residence for one year at Rutgers.
In the 1960s Sontag was at the center of the New York literary scene. She contributed to various periodicals, including New York Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly, Nation, and Harper's. Sontag swiftly acquired a reputation as the radical-liberal American woman, who had not only deep knowledge ancient and modern European culture, but could also reinterpret it from the American point of view.
She has produced many works that are still greatly influential to this day. Some of her highlights include:
Sontag's work also included making the films Duet For Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971), and writing the play Alice in Bed (1993), based on the life of Alice James, the ailing sister of Henry and William James. Sontag also appeared as herself in Woody Allen's mock documentary, Zelig.
Unlike many American writers, Sontag was deeply involved in politics dedicating a considerable portion of her time and energy since the 1960’s. She was a vocal opponent against the Vietnam War, which rang eerily similar to the current situation in Iraq. Writing in the 1960s about the Vietnam War, Sontag declared, "the white race is the cancer of human history." Days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, she criticized U.S. foreign policy and offered backhanded praise for the hijackers.
Through her years, Sontag was a controversial figure. She was equally condemned for her works as much as she was praised. Through it all, she remained an original and eloquent voice for her observations and beliefs. She will be remembered for her incisive criticism and skilful socio-political moderation that was written with immense bravery and the utmost respect for humanity. Susan Sontag will undoubtedly continue to serve as a source of inspiration for many people in the world.