Two hallowed New York intellectuals are The Rumpus’s next set of Literary Fashionables. Susan Sontag and George Plimpton both circled the upper tiers of Manhattan’s literary society. And while exhibiting seemingly opposing aesthetics, both Sontag and Plimpton promulgated revolutionary ideas and modes of approach to writing that would impact literary stylists for years to come.
THE CULTURAL THEORIST
“‘Camp’ is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular style. It is the love of the exaggerated.” (“Notes on Camp,” 1964). While Susan Sontag was not camp, nor given to exaggeration, she lived life large. She was a novelist, critic, activist, essayist and a director. She was noted for her staging of Waiting for Godot, a play by yesterday’s fashionable, Samuel Beckett. And like both Beckett and Gertrude Stein, Sontag’s years in Paris, beginning in 1957 while at The University of Paris, marked a long intellectual and cultural association with France. Sontag began as a writer of fiction, and considered herself primarily a novelist though she is most well known for her essays on theory, such as those included in her seminal work, Against Interpretation: And other Essays (1966). In “On Style,” Sontag gives a trenchant analysis of the intersection of style and content in writing, while in Notes on Camp, Sontag explored the connection between low and high art, a favorite subject of hers. Sontag was also known for her political activism. In 1968, she visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War, she lived in Sarajevo during the Sarajevo siege and in 1989 became the president of the PEN American Center. Sontag was no stranger to controversy, one more notable incident being her comments in the September 24 issue of The New Yorker about the attacks on 9/11, which included the statement that the perpetrators “were not cowards.”
One of my favorite of Sontag’s works is On Photography, a collection of six essays which originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review. These essays return repeatedly to the connection between photography and reality, and the effect of photography on the viewer. Photographs, she argued, came to replace experience giving the illusion of participation in events, and achieving surveillance of events that trigger memory, so that photographs stand in place of events when events are recalled through memory. Images have replaced reality.
Interestingly enough Sontag went on to develop a romantic relationship with renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz. Leibovitz has stated in the past that Sontag mentored her in the realm of art and photography and it was through Sontag’s criticism that Leibovitz developed as an artist. “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” Of thought, criticism and expression, Sontag was indeed a fashionable.
As one of the founding editors of The Paris Review, George Plimpton was poised to be a Literary Fashionable. The Paris Review was founded in 1953 as a cover for co-founding editor Peter Matthiesen’s CIA involvement. Plimpton was even fingered for being an “agent of influence” for the CIA according to two articles by Richard Cummings. While in Paris, Plimpton and other Paris Review staffers would meet at the Café de Touron on the Left Bank and have office meetings punctuated by impromptu performances by musicians like Chet Baker. In New York, Plimpton carried on his life of café society attending book parties and black tie balls. His pals included Harvard classmate Bobby Kennedy as well as heiress and Warhol factory member Edie Sedgwick, both of whom were subjects of biographies he would later write.
Though Plimpton led what some might call a glamorous life, he rarely wrote about it, preferring the sporting life. As a journalist, he was often invited to participate in professionial competitions to write about them from an amateur’s POV. In 1960 he published Out of My League which documented him pitching alongside Willie Mays and throwing strikes against the National League in the MLB’s All Star Game. The book Paper Lion recounts his experiences with the NFL’s Detroit Lions, who allowed him to run a few plays as quarterback in their preseason games. This event later became the seed for a Hollywood film starring Alan Alda. While on assignment for Sports Illustrated, Plimpton did bogeys in the PGA Tour, played top-level bridge, took hits from Sugar Ray Robinson and even did a stint as a high-wire circus performer. George Plimpton made a career out enjoying life and urged all writers to engage in the kind of participatory journalism he enjoyed, and to immerse themselves in the world they are most interested in telling about. He made literature out of non literary pursuits, and is not-surprisingly most well-known and loved for his sports-writing. And, as is befitting the most fashionable of Literary Fashionables, Plimpton took breathers from his writing and sporting life to make the occasional silver screen appearance, as he did in such films as The Bonfire of the Vanities, Nixon and Good Will Hunting.