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Imagining the Past That Was and the Past That Wasn’t with Susan Sontag’s Archive

Moe Angelos, adaptor and performer of Sontag: Reborn, recounts her experience of exploring the intellectual’s personal library and journals. The collection resides at the UCLA libraries and is available to the general public free of charge:

In August of 2011, I had the privilege of visiting Los Angeles for ten days of a nosy wander in the Special Collections division of the UCLA Libraries. I was on a research mission for what was to become the theatrical adaptation of the journals of Susan Sontag, called Sontag: Reborn, soon to be presented by ArtsEmerson. I can say I was nothing short of thrilled to have the chance to see with my own eyes the notebooks and journals that Sontag had kept for nearly her whole life. I knew a bit of what to expect from the published version of the journals, but I was unprepared for the wealth of other papers, correspondence and ephemera that is housed in the collection. Then again, what can we imagine one of our era’s most active minds, fearless activists and prolific writers would leave behind in her formidable wake? Sontag’s entire personal library is included, which amounts to somewhere around 20,000 volumes. I feel pretty certain that she read every one of those books; some of them we know she re-read many, many times. Her journals attest to that practice, even from a young age. There is just so much at UCLA, and certainly my ten days was not nearly enough to scratch the surface of a deeper understanding of her habits and practices in making and consuming culture, for lack of a better way to put her amazing, unstoppable appetite for the taking in of the world around her.

During my too-brief time at the archive I focused mainly on reading through Sontag’s journals and looking at her notebooks from the period of time that the play would cover, at that point about 1948-1963. Not to sound too theory-philic, but I would say that Walter Benjamin is correct in his argument that works of art, when encountered in their original form and state, have an “aura” that is different than under the circumstance of mechanical reproduction. The journals, notebooks, papers, notes, annotations, marginalia and drawings, had an unmistakable intimacy, since these things were all kinds of notes to herself. And, the notes ranged from the analytical (margin note in re, Irene Fornes: “observation of the writer who is an ex-immigrant and autodidact”) to the mundane (“Vodka & orange juice – Screwdriver”) and beyond. More aura still.

And then there are the things that we cannot know the significance of for Sontag, the ephemera that she inserted into her notebooks. It is all there in the archive, lovingly preserved in acid-free conditions for eternity. We don’t know why she kept the things she kept, but we are free to speculate. Below is a partial list of the contents of an envelope of things that were stuffed into Notebook #20, from box 123, folder 4, from the year 1949 (SS was 16):

  • Black and white pictures of the Berkeley campus, taken from the catalogue.
  • Map of campus, programs for Bach Passion recital she took in on 2/20/49.
  • Municipal railway ticket to Sutter in San Francisco.
  • Ad torn from a newspaper for Gide’s Journals, volume II with photo of Gide.
  • One pigeon feather, quill end clipped short.

And just to keep it all honest, this note from the inside back cover of one of her notebooks while she was at Harvard doing her graduate work:

Annual Beer Blast

May 17


Wheeler Room

Beer in the Harkness Commons. Ah, the good old days of booze on campus! Though we are beyond that period of time and Susan Sontag is beyond her earthly life, it was with great pleasure that I saw her little note to herself about the Beer Blast and I enjoyed several minutes of daydreaming pleasure imagining myself there with her, the two of us standing awkwardly at the kegger at Harvard.

This is one of the gifts of an archive: unexpected delights from the imaginative journeys sparked by the contents.


Sontag: Reborn will play at the Emerson/Paramount Center Mainstage from May 06-18. Find tickets and more information here!


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