phillip lopate on sontag’s shallow america


Sontag on American writers: “I think I learned a lot about punctuation and speed from Donald Barthelme, about adjectives and sentence rhythms from Elizabeth Hardwick.”

Shallow America

In Death Kit, Sontag evinces no such ambivalence toward America: she simply doesn’t like the place. This second novel of hers is perhaps her most sustained attempt to describe contemporary American life, and the problem is that she doesn’t know it or its people well enough, so it comes off as slumming. There is contempt for the nine-to-fivers and the corporate world, and sociological cartoons about the inhabitants of suburban homes: “Houses that are quiet (now), emptied of father-breadwinner and school-age children. Being cared for and stocked with provisions by mother-wife and her domestics.” Diddy may not condescend to “their pampered well-fed children; equipped with shiny English bicycles that moved on hard tires, tended by garrulous devoted Irish nursemaids, packed off to their weekly piano lessons,” but Sontag surely does. On the other side of town, far from the shiny English bicycles, are the prostitutes and shabby sordid lodgings of the workman’s widow, who talks like this: “Why, I used to come home from school with my rear end red as fire! . . . Yeah, they could of used me for a bed warmer, that’s how red and hot my little fanny was.”

It’s always anomalous when a writer of Sontag’s intelligence goes crude or smutty. Maybe it springs from impatience, the wish for Rabelaisian bawdiness to cut through the burdens of consciousness. In any case, Sontag seems to have viewed the United States as relentlessly vulgar, and it brought out the vulgar and unsubtle in her. At roughly the same time she was writing Death Kit, she responded to a Partisan Review questionnaire, reprinted as “What’s Happening in America (1966)” in Styles of Radical Will (surely the weakest piece in that otherwise distinguished collection), with let-it-rip rhetoric: 

Today’s America, with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing. The main difference is that what’s happening in America matters so much more in the late 1960s than it did in the 1920s. Then, if one had tough innards, one might jeer, sometimes affectionately, at American barbarism and find American innocence somewhat endearing. Both the barbarism and the innocence are lethal, outsized today.

You’ll get no argument from me about the danger American imperial power poses to the world, but I do find her bandying about labels like “barbarism” and “innocence” to be somewhat tired, overly broad and beside the point. Similarly, her potted history and cultural analysis sound skimpy. 

Having established that America was founded on genocide and slavery, she goes on to state: 

After America was ‘won,’ it was filled up by new generations of the poor and built up according to the tawdry fantasy of the good life that culturally deprived, uprooted people might have at the beginning of the industrial era. And the country looks it. Foreigners extol the American ‘energy,’ attributing to it both our unparalleled economic prosperity and the splendid vivacity of our arts and entertainments. But surely this is energy bad at its source and for which we pay too high a price, a hypernatural and humanly disproportionate dynamism that flays everyone’s nerves raw. Basically it is the energy of violence, of free-floating resentment and anxiety unleashed by chronic cultural dislocations which must be, for the most part, ferociously sublimated. This energy has mainly been sublimated into crude materialism and acquisitiveness. Into hectic philanthropy. Into benighted moral crusades, the most spectacular of which was Prohibition. Into an awesome talent for uglifying countries and cities. Into the loquacity and torment of a minority of gadflies, artists, prophets, muckrakers, cranks, and nuts. And into self-punishing neuroses. But the naked violence keeps breaking through, throwing everything into question.

To me, this is an imbalanced, overgeneralized and unsubstantiated screed by a hanging judge. It ignores too much about the ideals and achievements of immigrant America. I am not sure why the fantasy of the good life need be “tawdry,” or why American energy is “hypernatural” or intrinsically “violent,” or why a nation built of immigrants should necessarily be condemned to “chronic cultural dislocations,” or why our philanthropy should be dismissed as “hectic,” or why our valiant gadflies and muckrakers need be doomed to loquacious torment. But I despair of convincing many cultivated readers that America is not some horrible mistake, at a moment when its foreign and domestic policies are so tragically misguided. Suffice to say, I disagree with Sontag’s excessively negative assessment of America, and leave it at that.

Sontag’s intemperate tone in the above passage might be contextualized by noting that she was understandably angry, writing in the midst of the Vietnam War. Still, she remained consistent in her statements thereafter, explaining how her dislike for her native country’s “materialism” drew her toward Europhilia. As she put it in her 2003 Friedenhaus Acceptance Speech, “[T]here have always been American fellow-travelers of the European cultural ideals (one stands here before you), who find in the old arts of Europe correction and a liberation from the strenuous mercantilist biases of American culture.” To be fair, her espousal of the Bosnian cause led her to a more critical assessment of Western Europe, in its indifference and passivity to preventing violence, and she did once allow herself to comment on Nazism as “a triumphant barbarism that was (need it be said?) entirely generated from within the heart of Europe.” But always she returned to her initial position: 

If I must describe what Europe means to me as an American, I would start with liberation. Liberation from what passes in America for a culture. The diversity, seriousness, fastidiousness, density of European culture constitute an Archimedean point from which I can, mentally, move the world. I cannot do that from America, from what American culture gives me, as a collection of standards, as a legacy. Hence Europe is essential to me, more essential than America, although all my sojourns in Europe do not make me an expatriate. 

There is a funny, chagrined personal essay Sontag wrote in 1987, “Pilgrimage,”  about her California adolescence, when she was in flight from everything American. “I felt I was slumming, in my own life,” she writes, trying to drown out the laugh-track of TV sitcoms with “transformative books,” such as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. She finally brings herself, with a friend, to ring Mann’s doorbell, and they have a chat, the irony of which rests on the fact that she is squirming with embarrassment at her immature country, while he is trying so hard to be charmed by it, meanwhile addressing her as a representative of American youth. 

He asked about our studies. Our studies? That was a further embarrassment. I was sure he hadn’t the faintest idea what a high school in Southern California was like. Did he know about Drivers’ Education (compulsory)? Typing courses? Wouldn’t he be surprised by the wrinkled condoms you spotted as you were darting across the lawn for first period. . . . I hoped he would never find out. He had enough to be sad about—Hitler, the destruction of Germany, exile. It was better that he not know how really far he was from Europe

And to be far from Europe, in her view, was to be far from everything intellectually nourishing. 

I find it curious how thoroughly Sontag eschewed American intellectual models, especially since there were a glut of notable essayists still on the scene when she made her debut. For instance, Edmund Wilson’s brand of biographical criticism, or his omnivorous reading range and cosmopolitan taste for foreign literature, might have inspired her.† The postwar era, 1945–1965, had been a golden era of American critical prose: Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Meyer Shapiro, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Leslie Fielder, Philip Rahv, James Agee, Robert Warshow, Manny Farber, Ralph Ellison, Dwight Macdonald, Pauline Kael, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Edwin Denby, Paul Goodman, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Seymour Krim, Arlene Croce; the list could go on. Yet Goodman and Trilling were the only ones of her countrymen she cited with admiration, and she had already pronounced Trilling’s relevance passé. She went out of her way to tell her Paris Review interviewer that Mary McCarthy was “a writer who’d never mattered to me.” Why not? Hadn’t McCarthy, for instance, preceded her in writing dispatches from North Vietnam, which Sontag admitted reading in Trip to Hanoi? No doubt Sontag resented the comparisons that saw her early on as “the new Mary McCarthy,” or as filling some sort of Dark-Lady-of-the-New York-intelligentsia niche previously occupied by McCarthy. Still, Mary McCarthy could be a fascinating writer; her first essay collection, On the Contrary, is as provocative and stylish a debut, in its way, as Against Interpretation, and her memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, is a classic of American autobiographical literature. But for Sontag, it would seem, she was incurably middlebrow, not a true intellectual in the European mold.‡

Interestingly, in that same Paris Review interview, Sontag does credit two American contemporaries as having influenced her: “I think I learned a lot about punctuation and speed from Donald Barthelme, about adjectives and sentence rhythms from Elizabeth Hardwick.” The implication I take from this statement is that Barthelme and Hardwick (the Hardwick of Sleepless Nights, not the essays) influenced her fiction writing. She was too proud of her fiction writing to waste time speaking to interviewers about the writers who influenced her essays, and perhaps too proud of her essays to address her apprenticeship in that area. 

I don’t at all fault Sontag for refusing to engage with the work of American essayists and critics; the European thought of Benjamin, Barthes, Cioran, Bernhard, Sebald, et cetera, fired her imagination, and since it did the trick, she need not have looked elsewhere. Also, by not addressing the American critical tradition, she was able to be heard as more of a unique voice, coming out of nowhere, bringing news of a larger, more ample intellectual life. She was better able to fulfill her role as the bridge between Old World and New World cultures. But this refusal to examine home-grown intellectual models is yet another indication of her dismissal of the American mind, which I cannot help regarding as a bit unfair. I also think she was being “ungrateful,” if one can use such a word, for failing to acknowledge that all those aforementioned American critics whose works appeared in Partisan Review, Commentary, Art News, the New Leader, and other journals paved the way, creating a warm, inviting context for her own cerebral essays to fit snugly into.

†Apparently they were social acquaintances. In Wilson’s diary, e Sixties, he reports in 1963 meeting “a handsome girl from California [Susan Sontag] who is one of Roger’s new writers,” a reference to editor Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus. By 1968 he is reporting: “I never have much conversation with Susan Sontag. Roger can’t quite forgive me because I am not impressed with her. When I talked to her about the movies in the car, she discussed them in her usual pretentious and esoteric way. Yellow Submarine should have stuck to one style, it was a mixture of too many, an ‘anthology.’ ” How funny to picture these two great figures awkwardly debating the merits of Yellow Submarine!

‡ In her diary entry marked 9 Dec. 1961, Sontag writes: “Mary McCarthy’s grin—grey hair—low-fashion red + blue print suit. Clubwoman gossip. She is The Group. She’s nice to her husband.”

 —from Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag (2009)