Like Mother, Like Son

By Carl Rollyson

Originally published on Advocate.com 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.

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.

SUSAN SONTAG X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Poor David -- except that this passage from Sontag's journals is unrepresentative. In truth, Rieff was Susan's darling, and though Rieff is right to say that he had quite a troubled relationship with his mother, it always constituted a lovers' quarrel. His mother knew from experience she could count on him. A younger, brasher Rieff, then her editor at FSG, cudgeled the literary editor of The Nation with complaints when a reviewer scorned the notion of publishing The Susan Sontag Reader while the author was still alive.

Rieff is simply too close to the material to do it justice. He has too many ownership rights. He cannot let go. Rieff will not relinquish his right to deliver up his mother's literary remains. And the result is reckless.

A few reviewers, when they are not pitying Rieff, seem to have an inkling that something is amiss. Even the sympathetic Daniel Mendelsohn observes, "This volume has a jittery, disjointed feel, and it is not clear whether this is how the journals were written or if the published version of them was shaped to accord with Sontag's trademarked aphoristic style." In plain English, the editing is incompetent.

Yet another sympathetic reviewer, Sontag's friend Norman Birnbaum, notes on Truthdig.com that "Persons ... make brief and frequently spectral appearances. We are left to guess why the rest of the world thought some of them colorful -- and, often, what they might have meant to Susan."

In many cases, these persons are identified by single letters -- E, L, H, and so on. If Rieff is concerned about not violating their privacy, why publish now? Without some contextualization many passages in the diaries prove nugatory. And H, by the way, is Harriet Zwerling, identified as such in Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, with Zwerling's consent. To mention H without also telling readers that H has published her own diary of her time with Sontag is just another sign of Rieff's irresponsibility.

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And it is hardly a quibble when Daniel Horowitz, writing the best review of Rieff's book, points out how Sontag's marriage and sexual history have been misrepresented: "Beginning in early 1950, in Chicago, Sontag had a series of sexual relationships with men, not discussed in entries in the published version of her journals. That omission makes it seem that she was a lesbian and not bisexual during this period. In a passage that appears only in the unpublished papers, writing at a time when she was sexually involved with a man, in April 1950, she said that she had fewer 'fears about' her sexual 'normality now.'"

Thus the spring of 1950, not long before she married David's father, Philip Rieff, was a difficult time for Sontag, combining anxieties over finances [her mother might not be able to support her] and sexuality.

Horowitz took the trouble to examine the unpublished journals at UCLA and called me to discuss Rieff's troubling omissions and errors in chronology. His report in The Chronicle of Higher Education demonstrates what a truly independent editor or biographer could make out of the raw material of Sontag's journals.

A puzzle remains. Why does the published journal accelerate Sontag's move to lesbianism? Is Rieff looking ahead to later journals where Sontag's long-term relationships with several women, especially Annie Leibovitz, dominate her love life?

Is Rieff's rush to publish the journals an effort to establish his mother's lesbian brand? His silence on the subject of his mother's sexuality and yet his effort to shape how that sexuality unfolds in the diaries is disturbing.

Unfortunately, it is already too late to rectify Rieff's hasty contrivance since he plans to see through to publication two more volumes of the journals under the auspices of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, the ever-faithful firm at the service of Sontag & Son.