Like Mother, Like Son

Is Susan Sontag's son keeping the real Susan Sontag hidden from the public with his edit of his late mother's journals? Sontag biographer Carl Rollyson sure seems to think so.

BY Carl Rollyson

May 20 2009 11:00 PM ET

DAVID RIEFF X390 (FAIR USE HAND OUT) | ADVOCATE.COM

Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux abetted Sontag & Son. Straus played exactly the same role that Browning's publisher, the firm Smith Elder, took on. Like Browning, Sontag left all the details to her publisher, eschewing the services of an agent for much of her career and contenting herself with whatever FSG offered by way of advances. She knew that Roger would take care of her, keeping her books in print and doing whatever was necessary to keep the Sontag franchise burgeoning. Such accommodations permitted Sontag to continue to live out her incongruities, for example, maintaining that trademark dark hair slashed with gray (dyed so as to remain permanent) while at the same time adopting an aloof air that prevented interviewers from ever even using words like "career" and "image" in her presence.

In his preface to Reborn, Rieff briefly alludes to his mother's consummate control over her public persona. There was to be no mention of her lesbianism while she was alive -- no real discussion of it, that is, until a biography appeared in the last phase of Sontag's career (a point Rieff does not acknowledge). As to his own motivations, he provides this dodgy paragraph, which most reviewers fall for because, I believe, Rieff is a master at sidetracking what is really at stake:

While she was still well, my mother had sold her papers to the University of California at Los Angeles library, and the agreement was that they would go there upon her death, along with her papers and books, as they have. And since the contract my mother concluded did not restrict access in any important sense, I soon came to feel that the decision had been made for me. Either I would organize them and present them or someone else would. It seemed better to go forward.

But no one can publish the journals without Rieff's consent. His real concern is that another editor, another biographer, another friend of Sontag's would have introduced, annotated, and commented on the journals in another way. Even though Rieff's remarks imply as much, no reviewer (so far as I have been able to gather) has grasped Liam Kennedy's point: Rieff wants to hold on to the franchise as long as possible. Whoever gets there first gets to establish the territory on which other accounts will have to build or rebuild. Indeed, what publisher in today's marketplace or in the foreseeable future will be able to publish a reedited version of the journals?

Rieff is so successful at presenting himself as the reluctant and resigned editor of his mother that reviewers like Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Republic commiserate with him:

It cannot have been easy for Rieff to come across lines such as these: "I hardly ever dream of David, and don't think of him much. He has made few inroads on my fantasy-life." Most editors are not called upon for, and do not demonstrate, such probity.

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