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Susan Sontag

Author-activist

Author-activist Susan Sontag died Dec. 28 in New York of leukemia. She was 71.

In addition to writing bestselling historical novel “The Volcano Lover,” the influential intellectual wrote plays, made films and played herself in Woody Allen’s “Zelig.” But her greatest literary impact was as an essayist.

The 1964 piece “Notes on Camp,” which established her as a major new writer, popularized the “so bad it’s good” attitude toward popular culture.

She also wrote such influential works as “Illness as Metaphor” and “On Photography,” in which she argued pictures sometimes distance viewers from the subject matter. Her essays often concerned film and filmmakers, on topics such as Ingmar Bergman, Jean Luc Godard and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”

As president of the American chapter of writers org PEN, she helped lead protests against the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Sontag campaigned relentlessly for human rights and in 1993 staged a production of “Waiting for Godot” in Sarajevo.

Born Susan Rosenblatt in New York, she spent her early years in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles. She married historian Philip Rieff just ten days after meeting him at age 17 while attending the U. of Chicago, and they had a son, David. They were divorced in 1959.

She taught philosophy of religion at Columbia University and then began writing essays and experimental novels.

Among her well-known works were the short story about AIDS, “The Way We Live Now,” and novel “The Volcano Lover,” about Lord Nelson and his mistress Lady Hamilton. In 2000, her novel “In America,” won the National Book Award.

She wrote and directed films including “Duet for Cannibals” and “Brother Carl,” both produced in Sweden, and docus “Unguided Tour” and “Promised Lands.” She also wrote the play “Alice in Bed,” based on the life of Alice James, the ailing sister of Henry and William James.

Sontag was not interested restrained discourse. Writing in the 1960s about the Vietnam War, she declared, “The white race is the cancer of human history.” Days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she criticized U.S. foreign policy and offered backhanded praise for the hijackers.

“Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” she wrote in the New Yorker.

She is survived by her son, writer David Rieff; and a sister.

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