Susan Sontag in a portrait from 1974, the year after her visit to Bennington
On October 3, 1973, Susan Sontag, already famous for her groundbreaking essay collection Against Interpretation (1967), traveled to Bennington from New York City to deliver what the Literature and Languages faculty thought would be a lecture. Sontag had been invited by Camille Paglia, then a young faculty member, who had driven to Middlebury in a spring snowstorm to personally lobby Sontag to visit Bennington for half of her usual speaker’s fee. Her pitch worked, and Sontag came to campus to much fanfare that October–after the main event, Sontag was to be fêted by Bernard Malmud, Stephen Sandy, Nicholas Delbanco, Paglia, and other local luminaries.
The evening didn’t go as planned.
Camille Paglia later wrote about this famous misadventure in her essay “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” collected in her book from 1994 Vamps & Tramps. The short version: Sontag arrived late; she insisted on reading one of her short stories instead of delivering the lecture Paglia and everyone else expected; her behavior was all-around imperious. Paglia, wishing to steal her intellectual mentor’s spotlight decades later, depicted this evening as the beginning of the ‘changing of the guard’–her own high-brow best-seller, Sexual Personae, had been published to rapturous attention in 1990, and Sontag had ignored it.
Last fall, Literary Bennington spoke with Sontag’s biographer, Benjamin Moser, to try and decode the mythology that’s built up around Sontag’s visit to campus in 1973 and get to the bottom of what ‘actually happened.’
Maybe we should call this week’s class Literary Bennington: the TMZ Edition?
Assignment. We’re going to switch gears for the rest of this online course and spend our last three weeks reading Kiran Desai’s Man Booker Prize-winning second novel The Inheritance of Loss. I know the reading pace has been pretty demanding up to now–especially given what busy and full lives you all lead–and hopefully, by slowing down a bit, we’ll give everyone the chance to re-engage with the class and lose yourselves in Desai’s multilayered portrait of our globalized and radicalized planet earth.
If you don’t mind a few spoilers, the novelist Pankaj Mishra wrote this incredibly insightful review of the novel in The New York Times when it was first published in 2006.
If spoilers are not your thing, I’d watch this brief interview with Desai in which she talks about the autobiographical roots of the novel and how she broadened her initial focus to include history, the globalized economy, the radicalization of the economically disempowered, etc.
See you in the Forum!