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Susan Sontag

“My idea of a writer: someone interested in ‘everything.’” This declaration by Susan Sontag (1933–2004) seemed to reflect her own life as an essayist, diarist, filmmaker, playwright, and novelist writing on a startling range of topics—from literature, dance, film, and painting to cancer, AIDS, and the ethics of war reportage. For many critics, her work captures the twentieth-century world better than almost any other. In this new biography, Jerome Boyd Maunsell draws on Sontag’s extensive diaries to offer a far more intimate portrait than ever before of her struggles in love, marriage, motherhood, and writing.
Exploring the astonishing scope of Sontag’s life and work, Maunsell traces her growth during her intellectual career at Chicago, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. He discusses her short-lived marriage to Philip Rieff at seventeen, the birth of her son, and her subsequent relationships with women. As Maunsell follows the extraordinary arc of her life, he delves into her literary life in New York in the 1960s; travels with her to Hanoi, Cuba, and China; and surveys her work in Sweden and France in the 1970s, where she turned to filmmaking. Maunsell concludes by examining her miraculous rebirth as a novelist and critic in the 1980s and ’90s after her diagnosis with cancer in the mid-1970s.
Providing a full picture of Sontag as a private person and public figure, this concise biography casts new light on this pivotal figure in literary and cultural history.

224 pages | 30 halftones | 5 x 7 7/8 | © 2014  

Critical Lives

Biography and Letters

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

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“Maunsell presents a nuanced account of Sontag’s intellectual development. He traces her ever-present subjects, above all the duty of the writer to direct attention, while seeing that her books arose ‘out of self-correction’ and self-contestation, the result of a continuing ‘readiness to immerse herself in contemporariness.’ Indeed, the achievement of Maunsell’s biography is that he makes sense of Sontag’s responsiveness to the contemporary and the currency this gave her work for over half a century—a period long enough for her to repeatedly modify arguments or reason on the contrary. She was an oppositional writer, and the opposition was frequently wielded against herself. Maunsell champions her ‘crucially misunderstood’ early novels, judged as failures in realism rather than on their own terms as Duchamp-like ‘endlessly reconstructable puzzles,’ designed to resist analysis.”  

Times Literary Supplement

“Above all, Sontag was a writer—with all the longing, doubt, envy, and occasional sabotage of her own talent that implies. She seems more, not less, of a sympathetic character now that we know how much energy she put into constructing a persona called Susan Sontag, then playing the role with panache . . . This [is a] short but instructive biography . . . a svelte account of Sontag’s life.”  

Literary Review

“The present clear, readable, and relatively brief biography, in Reaktion’s ‘Critical Lives’ series, is the best available introduction to Sontag’s life. Maunsell pays extended attention to her work—essays, novels, short stories, and films—as well as her life.”


“Maunsell’s short biography covers both the life and the work [of Sontag] and integrates the two effectively. . . . Maunsell’s book is highly readable, and, to date, is the best of the biographical writings.”  

Australian Book Review

Table of Contents

1. Beginnings, 1933-1950

2. Notes on Marriage, 1951-1958

3. New York! New York! 1959-1965

4. Styles of Radical Will, 1966-1968

5. In Plato’s Cave, 1968-1975

6. The Kingdom of the Sick, 1975-1988

7. Beginning Again, 1988-2000

8. The Pain of Others, 2000-2004


Select Bibliography


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