Becoming Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s presence, in essays, interviews, fiction, film, and theater, wove itself so firmly into our culture that when it vanished upon her death in late 2004, one became abruptly aware of the delicacy of the fabric. She was for many a focal point—someone whom readers and commentators enjoyed revering, dismissing, complaining about, being exasperated, or infuriated, or amused, or electrified by—and she was a focusing consciousness; her stature as a writer and the value of her work have been, and no doubt will continue to be, debated, but what is beyond dispute is that she suggested, monitored, and even, to an extent, determined what was to be under discussion.

She seemed to be at least twice as alive as most of us—to know everything, to do everything, to be inexhaustibly engaged. Her arresting appearance was familiar even to many nonreaders from the photographs that recorded it over several decades and registered the glamour and magnetism—the sheer size—of her personality, and her celebrity was all the more potent and irreversible because the place she occupied was so far outside the usual radius of the spotlight. And also because it was a general combustion of her style, her brain, her concerns, and her looks—rather than any particular attribute or accomplishment—that gave off all that dazzle.

Sontag’s own apparent conviction, sustained until several weeks before she died, was that the laws of mortality would be, if not canceled, at least suspended in her case. And rather than resolving her evident ambivalence about exposing her private writings, she allowed death to bequeath the ambivalence to her son, David Rieff. This we adduce from Rieff’s decorous and deeply moving introduction to Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, the earliest and first to be published of three volumes, which begins when its author was just shy of fifteen. A late entry in the book indicates that Sontag began to keep a journal at twelve, but whether these earliest entries have been lost or were simply not reproduced is unclear.

Rieff, the book’s editor, as well as the author of a number of nonfiction books, including Swimming in a Sea of Death (2008), a memoir of his mother’s death, writes:

…I tend to believe that, left to my own devices, I would have waited a long time before publishing them, or perhaps never published them at all. There have even been times when I’ve thought that I would burn them. But that was pure fantasy…. While she was still well, my mother had sold her papers to the University of California at Los Angeles library, and…since the contract my mother concluded did not restrict access in any important sense, I soon came to feel that the decision had been made for me. Either I would organize them and present them or someone else would.

Rieff refers to these documents—which were written in notebooks—not as “journals” but as “diaries,” and although the words are etymologically identical, “diary” seems the more apposite choice, suggesting, as it does,…

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