Sontag: Her Life and Work
By Benjamin Moser
Ecco; an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover; $39.99; available Tuesday, September 17
Susan Sontag was of one of the 20th Century’s most towering intellectuals and noted New York institution.
Benjamin Moser has written the definitive biography of this literary titan, Sontag: Her Life and Work. This was a 7-year labor of love in which Ben had absolutely unprecedented access not only to Sontag’s sealed archives at UCLA, but also to key players in her life, who have never spoken before, including photographer Annie Leibovitz. It’s a feat of reporting and the final book is stunning.
“Susan Sontag was America’s last great literary star, a flashback to a time when writers could be, more than simply respected or well-known, famous,” says Moser. “She was an essayist, a filmmaker, a playwright, a novelist, a political activist, and that rare thing in America: a public intellectual, and a model for generations who came after her. But she once joked that she was best known for the white streak in her black hair. She was well aware that her image had become better known than her writing, and that was why she could become so many things for so many different people. Some people saw her as the unbowed thinker, the engaged citizen, the powerful woman. Other people saw her as a sexual deviant, a sign of intellectual collapse, a traitor to America. Even now, fifteen years after her death, a lot of people still love her, and a lot of people still hate her. I hope a more balanced picture can emerge – and what I’d like most of all would be for both fans and haters to read her, and to engage with her life and work.”
Being Sontag’s authorized biographer is different from this book being the “authorized biography.” With the estate’s permission, Moser had the authorization to see the secret parts of Sontag’s acrhives at UCLA, which will be off limits to the general public for the next few decades. He also had the blessing of the estate, which meant that, according to Moser, “a lot of people talked to me who wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Moser had complete freedom to address even the most complicated chapters of this most complicated life that Sontag led. “I know how many emotions biographies can call up and would never have embarked on this book without that written assurance,” he said.
Some of the revelations and highlights in Sontag include:
Textual and anecdotal evidence that Sontag was the true author of her first husband, Philip Rieff’s book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.
There is a full examination of Sontag’s relationship to the camera and photography, language metaphor, and the ways her philosophy emerged from her own history of looking and being looked at.
Moser presents for the first time the manuscript upon which Sontag’s landmark essay, Notes on Camp, is based, written a decade before, called “Notes on Homosexuality,” demonstrating why the essay was so explosive when it was finally published.
There is a critical history of Annie Leibovitz’s work, which, to Moser’s surprise, seems never to have been done before, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at her tempestuous relationship with Susan.
There is the full story of Sontag’s little-known Swedish films, made at the height of the Vietnam War, and including, for the first time, interviews with the actors and producers.
Just as Moser did with his landmark biography of Clarice Lispector in 2009, he has created the definitive biography of one of the most compelling New York figures ever with the exhaustively produced and entertaining Sontag.
Benjamin Moser will be coming to New York to kick off his national tour for Sontag and here is information for two events in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn over the next week:
Tuesday, September 17, 2019, 7:00 PM – The Strand Bookstore – Rare Book Room
828 Broadway, New York NY 10003
In-conversation with Bill Goldstein
Thursday, September 19, 2019, 6:30 PM – CUNY Leon Levy Center for Biography
365 5th Ave, New York, NY 10016
In-conversation with Brenda Wineapple
Sunday, September 22, 2019, 11:00 AM – Brooklyn Public Library @ Brooklyn Book Festival
Main Stage on Borough Hall Plaza, 209 Joralemon St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Panel conversation with Jennifer Szalai, Meghan O’Rourke & Siddhartha Deb