I'm Barbara Klein.
I'm Steve Ember with People in America in VOA Special English. Today we tell about a writer who helped
influence modern culture. Her name was
Susan Sontag was considered one of the most influential
liberal thinkers in the United States during the twentieth century. She wrote
seventeen books. They have been translated into thirty languages. They include
novels, short stories, essays and film scripts. She was also a filmmaker,
playwright and theater director. And she was a human rights and anti-war
activist. She was said to own fifteen
thousand books in her personal library in her home.
was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City in nineteen thirty-three. Her father, Jack Rosenblatt, was a trader in
China. Susan's mother spent most of her
time in China with her husband. Family
members raised Susan and her younger sister, Judith, when they were very
When Susan was five, her father died of tuberculosis. Her mother returned from China and moved the
girls to Tucson, Arizona. There, Missus
Rosenblatt met Nathan Sontag. The couple
married and the family moved to Los Angeles, California.
Susan Sontag was an extremely intelligent
child. She could read by age three. She finished high school at the age of
fifteen. Two years later, Susan
completed her college education at the University of Chicago in Illinois. While at the university, she attended a class
taught by Philip Rieff.
He was a twenty-eight year old expert on human society and
social relationships. The two were
married in nineteen fifty, ten days after they first met. Susan was seventeen years old. The couple moved to Boston,
Massachusetts. In nineteen fifty-two,
they had a son, David. He grew up to
become a writer and the editor of his mother's works.
Susan Sontag completed two master's degrees from Harvard
University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The first was in English; the second was in philosophy. She also began a doctorate program in
religion at Oxford University in England.
However, she never completed that program.
and Philip ended their marriage in nineteen fifty-eight. Several months later, Susan moved with her
son to New York City. She held several
jobs teaching at universities and writing.
Sontag began her professional life writing creative literature. She published her first book in nineteen
sixty-three. It was an experimental novel called "The Benefactor." It examined dreams and how people think. Four years later, she published her second
novel, called "Death Kit." The story
included sharp criticism of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War.
Sontag wrote several books of creative literature. Yet, she became famous for her critical
essays that examined different kinds of social and artistic issues. She wrote
serious studies about popular art forms.
She wrote essays about books, movies and photography. She also wrote
essays about sickness.
nineteen sixty-four, she wrote an essay called "Notes on Camp." It was an immediate success that made her
famous. Camp is a form of art or popular
culture that is humorous because it is purposely bad, false or common. In the essay, Sontag argued that a piece of
art may be bad yet considered good if it creates emotional feelings in the
person looking at it. The essay also
included the idea about popular culture that something can be "so bad it is
good." "Notes on Camp" is still widely read today.
In nineteen sixty-nine, Susan Sontag wrote "The Style of
Radical Will." It explored modern
culture including drugs, film and music.
She once said it took between nine months to a year to write one
thirty-page essay. Her collection of six
essays about photography as an art form took five years to write.
was published in nineteen seventy-seven. It received the National Book Critics
Circle Award for criticism. Her essays explored the value of the
photographic image and the act of picture taking in modern culture. Photographs, she wrote, have shaped how
people see the world. She wrote that photographs make us unable to sympathize
with human suffering.
In the nineteen seventies, Susan Sontag learned she had
breast cancer. Doctors did not expect
her to survive. However, she went
through a series of difficult treatments and she survived. Her experience with the disease became the
subject of one of her most famous works. "Illness as Metaphor" was published in
nineteen seventy-eight. A metaphor is a
word or phrase that usually means one thing and is used to mean another thing.
as Metaphor" is a critical study of modern life. Sontag argued that modern culture creates
myths or stories about sickness. She
also criticized the language that people use when they talk about sickness – such
as "battling a disease" or "the war on cancer."
Sontag felt these terms made sick people feel responsible for their
condition. Her book gave readers the power to demand more information from
years later, she extended her opinions to the disease AIDS. Her short story "How We Live Now" was
published in nineteen eighty-six in the New Yorker magazine. Her book "AIDS and
its Metaphors" was published two years later.
It was about the social and personal effects of the disease.
Sontag was also politically active.
During the late nineteen eighties, she served as president of the
American group of an international writers' organization. She led a number of campaigns to support
oppressed and imprisoned writers around the world.
later life, Susan Sontag grew tired of writing essays and critical
studies. In nineteen ninety-two she
wrote a historical love story. The
novel, called "The Volcano Lover," spent two months on the New York Times list
of best-selling books. The story is
about an eighteenth century British diplomat in Italy, his wife and her famous
two thousand, Sontag was accused of copying the work of someone else in her
final book, called "In America." She
strongly denied the accusations.
"In America" is based on the life of a nineteenth century
Polish actress. The actress moves to the
United States and tries to establish a perfect community in California. The novel received a National Book Award.
Public reaction to Sontag's writings was often divided. At times, her essays angered readers. For example, she once praised the communist
societies of Cuba and North Korea. Years
later, she denounced communism as a form of oppression.
After the terrorist attacks against the United States in two
thousand one, Sontag wrote an article in the New Yorker magazine critical of
American policies. She wrote that the
terrorist attacks were the result of some American alliances and actions. She also wrote that the attackers should not
be considered weak because they were willing to die. Many people criticized the article. Sontag
later apologized for her comments.
last book was "Regarding the Pain of Others," published in two thousand
three. It was a long essay on the
imagery of war and disaster. One of her last published essays was called
"Regarding the Torture of Others."
She wrote it in two thousand four in reaction to the
mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison.
Susan Sontag received many awards in the United States and from
other countries. Israel, Germany and Spain honored her with awards. In two thousand four, two days after her
death, the mayor of Sarajevo announced the city would name a street after her. The mayor called her a writer and a humanist
who actively took part in the creation of the history of Sarajevo and Bosnia.
Susan Sontag was different from other social critics and
intellectuals. She often appeared on
television. She made public statements.
She appeared in films and in advertisements.
Susan Sontag died of leukemia in New York City in two thousand
four. She was seventy-one years old.
critic praised Susan Sontag's writing even though he said he often disagreed
with what she wrote. He said: "She
showed you things you had not seen before. She had a way of reopening
This program was written and produced by Jill
Moss. I'm Barbara Klein.
I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for People in America in VOA Special