Last year, we celebrated the tradition of humanities at Boston College with an exploration of the history of the Humanities Series under the direction of Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, and its contribution to the burgeoning cultural and intellectual vitality of the university. Now we’ll look more closely at one of the intriguing intellectual relationships that emerged out of that series: that between Fr. Sweeney and Susan Sontag. Sontag, an American literary figure and intellectual celebrity was one of the more recurrent speakers in the Humanities Series, lecturing on eight occasions over a period of thirteen years, from 1975-1988. She and Fr. Sweeney carried on a lively correspondence, which is documented in the Humanities Series Director’s Records available for research at the Burns Library. These records are a source for many of the notable literary figures who were involved in the Humanities Series over the years, as well as a window into the historical functioning of Boston College.
Sontag herself, originally Rosenblatt, was born in 1933 to a New York Jewish family. The early death of her father and the remarriage of her mother to Nathan Sontag gave her and her siblings their family name, and took the family to Tucson and on to Los Angeles. As she moved into maturity, Sontag began to excel in academic pursuits. Her voracious intellect lead her from University of California, Berkeley, to the University of Chicago, with its famed core curriculum, then onto graduate studies at Harvard in philosophy, literature and theology under acclaimed intellectual figures Paul Tillich, Morton White and, especially, Jacob Taubes. She undertook an American Association of University Women’s Fellowship stint at Oxford, before tiring of the English educational system and moving on to the University of Paris. Along the way, she held teaching posts or assistantships at the University of Connecticut, Sarah Lawrence College, the City University of New York, Columbia University and Rutgers University. During these latter placements, Sontag began to focus more on developing her literary craft. Disgruntlement with the constraints of the academy eventually precipitated her decision to venture out on her own as a freelance, independent literary figure in 1965.
By the time she was a prospective guest at the Humanities Series, Sontag had garnered significant literary notoriety. Her fictional offering, The Benefactor (1963), along with her collections of critical essays, Against Interpretation (1967) and Styles of Radical Will (1969) were famed as piercingly perceptive, if provocative, commentary of the massive shift in American culture during that 1960s era. Her fame waxed as the “dark lady” of American letters, embodied in pieces like the “Pornographic Imagination” of 1969 in which she argued that the exclusion of sexually evocative literature from the canon of fiction was incoherent: no aesthetic principle could be marshaled to say that “materials for art” should not be derived from even the “extreme forms of consciousness that transcended social personality or psychological individuality”; this could only ever be a more or less arbitrary moral imposition on the purity of the artistic endeavor.
Controversial, then, as she was, Sontag may have seemed an unexpected figure for the 1970s Jesuit university. But that she was sought out by Fr. Sweeney is a testament to his devotion to humanistic learning, with a certain capacious regard for a variety of interpretations of human existence, grounded in the Jesuit vision of education and interaction with the world. As Sweeney lauded in his opening remarks of her 1977 visit, when Sontag came to illuminate “the usually shady commerce between art and truth,” Sontag, he said “has a gift for clarifying and classifying experience” and also “for finding in the history of an art form new bridge heads of wisdom and delight.” And so, Sweeney welcomed her for a third time to Boston College with “undiminished enthusiasm” (Humanities Series Director’s Records, Box 45, Folder 6, MS 2002-37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College).
Sweeney first inquired about bringing Sontag to BC for the series back in 1975. At that point, he had to negotiate through the mediation of Sontag’s literary agents. By subsequent years, the two would be exchanging directly more personal correspondence. In preparation for her first appearance at BC, Sontag wrote to Sweeney requesting that he arbitrate between two pieces, among her repertoire of accomplished material, that she was torn between presenting: the first entitled “The Aesthetic View of the World”, the lecture she would eventually give, and second on “Literature and the Idea of Culture”. She wrote to Sweeney, self-deprecatingly but humorously, saying, “Both these titles sound stuffy to me, now as I write them down.” Although she preferred the first, she then summoned Sweeney to choose: “Make the decision for me, please,” quite an unassuming request from such an accomplished literary figure (Box 44, Folder 53, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS 2002-37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College).
From these records, it seems that Sontag did really develop a certain fondness for BC and for Sweeney; something captivated her from those visits. Though her subsequent letters still maintain a certain personal guardedness, they also do disclose something of their vivacious author who continued to write valedictions to Sweeney, such as “with a hug”, “with love” and “I hope you are flourishing and send you my most affectionate greetings”. Often she addressed him as “Francis Dear”, and once after a phone conversation with him wrote subsequently that it “was a great pleasure to hear your voice.” And of BC, she wrote that she “enjoy[ed] the good company”, she had a “marvelous time” and that she “look[ed] forward to coming again as soon as possible.” One letter heralds hyperbolically, “there is Boston College, and then there is every other university and college in this broad land!” Certainly there is some posturing here of a great rhetorical persona, but also an authentic fondness demonstrated by her periodic return. She proclaimed that it was at BC that she would try her “latest family of ideas in public for the first time.” Her attendance following lecture at the festivities at Robert’s House, and her particular interest in the perennial presence here at BC of the great continental philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer seemed to draw her back here for a number of years (Box 44, Folders 54 & 56, Humanities Series Directors’ Records, MS 2002-37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College).
By the mid 1980s, Sontag’s fame had grown so as to over-extend the then financially feasible reach of the Humanities Series. In 1983, she would, as Sweeney wrote to her, bring the “humanities series to a brilliant finale”, afterwards only to appear once more at BC. Then again back to dealing through her literary agents, Sweeney orchestrated a final visit of Sontag to BC in 1988, under the auspices of the newly christened Lowell Humanities Series, at the sum of $6,665 plus expenses and stay at the Ritz Carlton, for a “brilliant lecture” to a “capacity crowd.” Thus concluded the interesting encounter between this great American literary figure, whom Sweeney once called “a luminous…mind in action,” and Boston College, facilitated by the personality of this Jesuit figure, one of the monuments to the history of the humanities series at Boston College (Box 45, Folders 1 & 5, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS 2002-37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College).
To learn more about Sontag’s visits to Boston College, read Heights articles about Sontag’s lectures online by searching for “Susan Sontag” at newspapers.bc/edu. Or visit the Burns Library Reading Room and examine the Humanities Series Director’s Records. Feel free to contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- James Daryn Henry, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Doctoral Candidate, Department of Theology.