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Susan Sontag, 1933- 2004: One of America's Most Influential Thinkers of the Twentieth Century


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I'm Barbara Klein. And 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.

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.

She 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 young.

When Susan was five, her father died of tuberculosis. Her mother returned from China and moved the girls to Tucson, Arizona. There, Mrs. 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.

Susan 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.

Susan 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.

In 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.

"On Photography" 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.

"Illness 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 doctors.

Ten 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.

Susan 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.

In her 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 lover.

In 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.

Her 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.

One 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 questions."

This program was written and produced by Jill Moss. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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