Young Woman from the Provinces

Susan Sontag, New York City, 1979
Dominique Nabokov
Susan Sontag, New York City, 1979

Susan Sontag began to read philosophy and criticism as a teenager at North Hollywood High, when she still signed her editorials in the school newspaper as “Sue.” She read Kant and La Rochefoucauld, Oswald Spengler and Rudolf Steiner. She read Kenneth Burke, who would become her teacher at the University of Chicago, and of course many novels, Thomas Mann above all; an entry in her diary recalls getting caught stealing a copy of Doctor Faustus at a Los Angeles bookshop. One day at a newsstand she picked up Partisan Review and began to tremble as she read Lionel Trilling’s “Art and Fortune,” his 1948 attempt to determine if the novel remained a living form. That set her future. That was when she began to dream of New York, and even of writing for that very journal. And Trilling, a critic forever “talking about the things that mattered,” became a model for her own work.1

Her “we” was not his, but she too would rely on that pronoun, and made it every bit as imperious as Trilling’s. So perhaps it’s appropriate that her life recalls another of his essays from 1948, his introduction to Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886), a novel about radical politics with a working-class protagonist that seemed entirely at odds with the world of James’s earlier fiction. It had been a critical and popular failure when it was first published, and little in the following decades changed that opinion, until Trilling’s reading of the book turned it into an anguished reckoning with the moral costs of civilization itself, and one of the great texts of the Pax Americana.

The most important part of his argument, however, comes in his account of a myth at the heart of the nineteenth-century novel: the myth of the “Young Man from the Provinces” that lies behind Stendhal, Balzac, and the best of Dickens, with The Great Gatsby as a belated example. I would add Trollope’s Phineas Finn and even Crime and Punishment: all of them about talented and ambitious young men, new to the great city and determined to conquer it. The opportunities the city affords may be material ones, or sexual; sometimes they are intellectual, as with Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. But the particular object of desire doesn’t matter so much as desire itself, the protagonist’s restless attempt to wring the place dry of whatever it offers in the way of success.

You don’t have to do much gender-bending to see Sontag as another such character. A friend at Oxford, where she studied briefly at the end of the 1950s, referred to her as “the dark prince,” and in her combination of will and intelligence, her determination to turn herself into a prodigy, she stands with the major characters of the fictional past. She was…

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