Susan Sontag passed away in New York City on the Feast of the Holy Innocents at the age of 71.  Dying of leukemia after a long struggle with cancer, Sontag leaves behind no image of suffering or weakness but rather one of strength and courage, idiosyncratic integrity and productivity, and a remarkably wide range of engagement.  She also leaves behind the image of herself, simply because she was the image of herself, like a star—and she was a star.  So much so that she appeared as herself in Woody Allen’s film Zelig (1983) and was instantly recognizable, which is more than we could say for Marshall McLuhan in another Woody Allen cameo.  Such charisma is not expected from the usual Chelsea-dwelling left-wing radicals, but from Susan Sontag, it was.  Back in the 1960’s, she was the most identifiable of the black turtleneck crowd, the most bold and hip of the alienated intellectuals, and the most erudite.  She never swerved from that path.

She was to the manner born.  Born in Tucson and raised in Los Angeles, she was a graduate of North Hollywood High School and entered the University of Chicago at 16.  She was already a passionate bibliophile and a philosopher.  She began her career in New York at the age of 26 with little but a son, some books, and a wealth of intelligence.

Sontag quickly gained fame as the challenger of received opinions, the advocate of “the new sensibility” that broke down the old distinctions.  Today, some of her enthusiasms seem quaint—Happenings, the Supremes, and all the rest of it—but her essays “Notes on Camp” and “Against Interpretation” still have their force, because she pushed the limits.  As an early novelist and short-story writer, she was a dud, but remarkably enough, she did write successful fiction toward the end of her life, in a more conventional mode of discourse than anyone had ever expected.  Today, the best of her 17 books seems to be On Photography (1977).  As a political activist, she is remembered for her visits to Hanoi and to Cuba as well as for declaring that “America is founded on a genocide. . . . The white race is the cancer of human history.”  She called for intervention in the former Yugoslavia and went to Sarajevo during the bombing.  And she is remembered also for her anti-Stalinist rebukes to left-wing audiences.  If anyone had earned the right to ask, as she did of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “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?” then Susan Sontag had earned that right.

Susan Sontag enjoyed more than once calling Americans “yahoos,” following  H.L. Mencken, and the question there, as with Mencken, is not whether she was insulting but whether she was right.  She once challenged her readers to “cross the Hudson” to see if she was correct, revealing the Manhattanite provinciality that she herself would have deplored, had she not embodied it.  She also once declared that one could have learned more about the nature of communism from Reader’s Digest (that bible of yahoos) than from Partisan Review, and, considering her context, that was the most revolutionary thing she ever uttered.

Though in her hypertrophied intellect and radical style and consequent lack of humor she distanced herself from Middle America, she was, nevertheless, more American than her European-style alienation would suggest.  She was an explorer and a pathfinder, and an individualist even in visiting the collectivist North Vietnam.  She did what she could and what she wanted, and she said what she had to say because she had to—and who would have it any other way?  She had much in common with the great romantic American writers of the 19th century.  Not without reason, the passing of such people is felt as though a star had dimmed.