Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller

Kurt Vonnegut March 3, 2005

Dr. Marc Leeds, PhD, an Eng­lish teacher and old friend of mine, albeit 30 years my junior, recent­ly asked me what he might say to his stu­dents about the writ­ers Arthur Miller and Susan Son­tag, both of whom had died very recent­ly, both friends of mine.

I said that the fact of Miller’s hav­ing been wide­ly and deeply mourned as a great per­son dat­ed back to a time, before tele­vi­sion, when a legit­i­mate the­ater might still sud­den­ly become a church with a rapt con­gre­ga­tion, in which one heard and saw a great ser­mon preached. Miller cre­at­ed two such ser­mons, Death of a Sales­man and The Cru­cible. Ten­nessee Williams did it at least twice, with the The Glass Menagerie and A Street­car Named Desire. Eugene O’Neill did it at least twice with The Ice­man Cometh and Long Day’s Jour­ney Into NIght. Thorn­ton Wilder did it at least once with Our Town. Oscar Wilde did it at least once with the fun­ni­est ser­mon ever preached, which is The Impor­tance of Being Earnest. 

I said Susan Sontag’s prin­ci­pal gifts to our civ­i­liza­tion were not that eas­i­ly pack­aged, but were a bril­liant, non-stop com­men­tary on con­tem­po­rary art prac­tices and their effects on our emo­tions. She did get off one sound bite in an inter­view on tele­vi­sion, which was to me a stun­ning ser­mon in and of itself. She was asked what she had learned from the Holo­caust, and she said that 10 per­cent of any pop­u­la­tion is cru­el, no mat­ter what, and that 10 per­cent is mer­ci­ful, no mat­ter what, and that the remain­ing 80 per­cent could be moved in either direction.

Miller and Son­tag, in addi­tion, were seem­ing­ly born with stage pres­ence, were birthright per­son­ages. When either of them entered a crowd­ed room, all heads would turn in their direction. 

Kurt Von­negut, the leg­endary author, WWII vet­er­an, human­ist, artist and smok­er, was an In These Times senior edi­tor until his death in April 2007. His clas­sic works include Slaugh­ter­house-Five, Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons and Cat’s Cra­dle, among many oth­ers. The last book by him pub­lished before his death, A Man With­out a Coun­try (2005), col­lects many of the arti­cles he wrote for this magazine.
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