Author Susan Sontag dies. The critic and novelist succumbs to leukemia at 71

By Gary Susman
Updated December 28, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Susan Sontag: Dean Cox/AP
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Susan Sontag, one of the last of a breed of American public intellectuals and a widely influential critic and essayist, died Tuesday morning at age 71, the Los Angeles Times reports. Nearly three decades after transforming her early battle with breast cancer into the essay ”Illness as Metaphor,” she succumbed to leukemia at New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Starting in the 1960s, Sontag influenced the way other critics and writers thought about various genres and art forms via the critiques she offered in such famous essays as ”Notes on Camp,” ”Illness as Metaphor,” and the book On Photography. She was determined to eradicate boundaries between high and low culture, between different art forms, and between intellect and emotion. Practicing what she preached, she also wrote four novels, including the 1992 bestseller The Volcano Lover and he 2000 National Book Award winner In America.

Sontag was as famous for her public persona — a formidable high priestess of culture, with that striking shock of gray hair like a lightning bolt in her brunette mane, issuing Olympian pronouncements on everything from politics to puppet shows — as she was for her writing. Sontag backed her prose with four decades of activism and speechmaking that confounded easy pigeonholing as either liberal or conservative, from visiting Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War to leading protests on behalf of Salman Rushdie when Iran issued its 1989 fatwa against the Satanic Verses author (at the time, Sontag was president of the U.S. chapter of PEN, the writers’ organization), to criticizing U.S. foreign policy in the wake of 9/11.

In 2001, she published an anthology of two decades worth of essays, Where the Stress Falls. Reviewing the book for EW, Troy Patterson wrote: ”A better label might be Critic-as-Omnivore: Sontag goes on about reading and writing, music and dance, movie love and photo anxiety. Her passions are contagious, unless they grow too grand for her subjects, but that drawback seems a side effect of her goal and gift, ‘endless curiosity.”’

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