Table of Contents
Early Life and Education
Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford.
After teaching philosophy at Columbia University, Sontag devoted herself to full-time writing. At age 30, she published an experimental novel called The Benefactor (1963), following it with Death Kit (1967).The short story “The Way We Live Now” (1986) was published in The New Yorker and remains a key text on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000) were equally popular and well acclaimed.
Sontag’s seminal essay, ‘On Photography’ (1977) provided an entirely different perspective of the camera in the modern world. The essay is an exploration of photographs as a collection of the world, mainly by travelers or tourists, and the way we therefore experience it. In more than one book, Sontag wrote about cultural attitudes toward illness. Her final nonfiction work, Regarding the Pain of Others, re-examined art and photography from a moral standpoint. It spoke of how the media affects culture’s views of conflict.
In 1968, she sparked controvery by visiting Hanoi, and wrote of the North Vietnamese society with much sympathy and appreciation. She maintained a clear distinction, however, between North Vietnam and Maoist China, as well as East-European communism, which she later famously rebuked as “fascism with a human face.” In 1989 Sontag was the President of PEN American Center, the main U.S. branch of the International PEN writers’ organisation. This was the year when Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa death sentence against writer Salman Rushdie after the publication of “The Satanic Verses”. Sontag’s support of Rushdie was critical in rallying American writers to his cause. She advocated for international intervention in the Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s, and lived in Sarajevo for several months during the conflict.
Prizes and Distinctions
Among Susan Sontag’s Prizes are: the 2003 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the 2003 Prince of Asturias Prize, the 2001 Jerusalem Prize, the National Book Award for In America (2000), and the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography (1978). In 1992 she received the Malaparte Prize in Italy, and in 1999 she was named a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
Susan Sontag had numerous high-profile relationships, including with the photographer Annie Leibowitz and the writer, Maria Formes.