By the spring of 1972, Susan Sontag had spent nearly two years away from New York. She had directed her second film, Brother Carl, in Stockholm, and put it in the can. Two months in Paris followed. There, Simone de Beauvoir handed the 39-year-old essayist-auteur the rights to adapt her novel She Came to Stay to the screen. As Sontag later told a Berlin conference, she considered Europe to be “liberation”—most specifically, the sojourn, with its focus on filmmaking, represented freedom from the writing of essays, a torturous multi-draft up-all-week slog. Europe had also liberated her from her increasingly smothering American celebrity.
As she prepared for her return to New York to resume writing, Sontag confided to her publisher, Roger Straus, that she felt more than a little hesitant about her homecoming. Straus was the perfect confidant to hear her qualms about celebrity; he continually confronted them. Since the 1963 appearance of her first novel, The Benefactor, Straus had served as Sontag’s greatest patron and savviest publicist. Sontag’s return to New York prompted fresh bouts of anxiety over her role as an arbiter of cultural and intellectual debate. Only now, Sontag seemed resigned, thanks to a sheath of ironic self-insulation, to her “pop celebrity fame.” She wrote Straus, “I’m back in the race to become The Most Important Writer of My Generation and all that shit.”
Her sardonic crack betrayed an emotion that Sontag had a hard time shaking in her remaining three decades: ambivalence. As a thinker, she frequently found herself driving in reverse. After urging critics to unbutton and enjoy the pleasures of popular culture, she spent her last decades straining to reclaim serious-minded moral authority. She lamented the desensitizing flood of photography in one book, then recanted her warnings and celebrated the medium’s empathetic power in another. Early condemnations of the “arch-imperium,” America, were followed by impassioned support of Bill Clinton’s interventions in the Balkans and further followed by a New Yorker essay attributing 9/11 to wrongheaded American policies. But of all the circles she tried to square, none proved more nettlesome than the reconciling of her responsibilities as an intellectual and the realities of her rock-stardom, the awkward coupling of the “Important Writer” and “all that shit.”
In conversations with friends, that anxiety frequently surfaced. The poet Richard Howard told me that she considered the notion that she was an intellectual “rather to her horror.” He added, “She didn’t want to be called an intellectual. She answered the call when it came. When addressed that way, she would respond. But she didn’t like it.” Instead, Sontag preferred to think of herself as a novelist—an eccentric choice, given that critics held her essays in far higher regard than her fiction.
Indeed, Sontag had even more compelling reasons for distancing herself from the New York–intellectual label. When she first fully emerged on the scene, with the coolly composed 1966 broadside Against Interpretation, “New York intellectual” came loaded with meaning. It described a self-identified coterie of a particular time and place, arguing in little magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary, with a very specific critical and political mission, marching under the dual banners of modernism and Marxism. Sontag—with her championing of European modernism, her unabashed intellectuality, and her left-wing ideological commitments—could plausibly be placed on this row of the periodic table of American intelligentsia, alongside Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, and Lionel Trilling. She may even, in a way, be the last significant member of this crowd.
But this was also where her ambivalence appropriately kicked in. In her critical writings, and in her public persona, she reflected—and directly contributed to—the demise of the older breed of New York intellectual. Her celebrations of pop culture erased the old boundaries that limited the acceptable subjects for serious criticism. Against Interpretation made a powerful case against the Partisan Review style of literary criticism, which focused on the moral and social content of art. “Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities,” she wrote in the book’s introductory essay. “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”
There was an even more profound, albeit less intentional, way in which she shattered old taboos and remade the world of the New York intellectuals. As her writing gleefully stomped on the old distinctions between high- and lowbrow, so did her persona. She became a fixture of the popular culture—a magazine cover girl, grist for Saturday Night Live, a reference in Kevin Costner movies, a subject for gossip columnists. The great theorist of camp had become an objet de camp. New York’s intellectual life hasn’t been the same since.