Like Mother, Like Son
BY Carl Rollyson
May 21 2009 12:00 AM ET
The dozens of reviewers and bloggers discussing Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963 -- edited by her son, David Rieff -- aren't commenting on just how old-fashioned and inappropriate to our time this enterprise appears to be. In TheBostonGlobe, Liam Kennedy comes the closest to apprehending Rieff's mission: "What is at issue, though not directly stated by Rieff, is Sontag's intellectual estate -- her career, character, legacy -- and he is taking a significant editorial role here, shaping its initial public reception before the critics go to work."
Let's put it more plainly: We will probably never know the real Sontag because her son did the editing.
Reborn is Rieff's edit of his mother. How can reviewers have missed the point? Well, Rieff is adept at reframing the issue. In his preface to Reborn he makes it seem as though the only question up for debate is whether the journals should be published at all since Sontag left no word about what to do with them. But it is a fake dilemma. She knew it was much better not to say anything and let David decide, knowing full well that, in the end, he could not possibly destroy her journals, wanting instead to control how they are disseminated.
Writers who rely on a wife, son, daughter, or other family member to perpetuate their fame are an old story. Steeped in literary history, Sontag understood how important it is for writers to do what they can to make their work live on after their deaths. Indeed, Rieff tells us that she liked to read writers' journals and diaries. So it is not surprising to learn that her behavior is rather like the maneuvers of the great Victorian poet Robert Browning, now probably only vaguely remembered for the wonderful love letters he wrote to his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, also a fine poet. Like Browning, Sontag spent a lifetime perfecting her persona. And, in the end, Browning left this persona in the care of his son, Pen, leaving no specific instructions but making clear that he could not himself destroy the correspondence with his wife that became the pillar of his fame.
Unlike Pen, however, who left the editing of his father's work to others, Rieff takes a hands-on approach. After all, at one time he was his mother's editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Through David and her publisher, Roger Straus, Sontag sanctioned an image-building, career-enhancing campaign, even as she denied to interviewers that she had anything to do with such sordid matters as publicity and promotion. As Rieff remarks in Swimming in a Sea of Death, his memoir about the last year of his mother's life, his mother made him her accomplice. He obsesses about her wish that he never tell her that she was going to die from her last illness (it was a foregone conclusion). Indeed, his constant circling back in the memoir to what his mother did not want to hear from him exemplifies their relationship, which was always about the franchising of Susan Sontag.