Alumna Sontag remembered for her critical analyses
Award-winning novelist and University alumna Susan Sontag (A.B.,’51) died of leukemia Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2004, in a New York hospital. She was 71.
One of the world’s most prominent intellectuals, Sontag was the author of 17 books, including Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1996), On Photography (1976), Illness as Metaphor (1978), AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Her novel In America (1999) won the National Book Award.
Though best known for her critical essays, Sontag also worked as a playwright, filmmaker, poet and human rights activist. In 1983, she played herself in the Woody Allen film Zelig, and was cited in the 1988 film Bull Durham, when Kevin Costner’s character declares that he believes “in the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch” and the fact that “the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap.”
“The reference actually was a tribute to her status,” writes the Chicago Tribune, which eulogized her as “fiercely smart and famously contrarian, a writer and thinker who made history and made enemies. She built bridges and burned a few of them too, involving herself in famous feuds and passionate public arguments about critical issues such as war, art, memory, politics and pain.”
Though divisive to some for her often-critical views of the United States government, Sontag was remarkable to all. A high school graduate at 15, Sontag transferred to Chicago after a semester at the University of California, Berkeley. Though she was an undergraduate more than 50 years ago, Sontag is still remembered by her professors for her vigorous mind.
“She was an extraordinary young woman,” said Edward Rosenheim, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature and the College. “If I’d never heard or read a word about her after she left, she would still be one of the two or three most memorable students I ever had.”
Rosenheim, who taught at the University from 1947 until his retirement in 1988, can still recall a 16-year-old Sontag as a student in 1949—her first year at the University—in a course called Humanities Three.
In the class, students read Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Croce. Sontag distinguished herself in a group of fine minds by her closely reasoned and informed convictions, Rosenheim recalled.
“She didn’t speak a great deal, but she dominated every conversation she participated in with what she had to say,” he said from his home in San Francisco. “She had an extraordinary mind and was very widely read. And she also had a very strong sense of humor in her own quiet way.”
Rosenheim went on to read a good deal of Sontag’s published work and even taught a course using one of her books, Illness as Metaphor, as a main text. “She had a way with words that powerfully marked her writings in all their diversity,” he said.
While studying at the University, Sontag met her future husband, sociologist Philip Rieff, author of the celebrated study Freud: The Mind of a Moralist. The pair married in 1950, and when Sontag graduated in 1951, they moved together to Boston where Sontag would earn two more degrees—a master’s in English and another in philosophy, both from Harvard University. Sontag and Rieff had a son, David Rieff, in 1952 and divorced in 1958.
Sontag is survived by her son, David, who edited her work for many years.