Don DeLillo was born in New York City on November 20, 1936. The son of Italian immigrants, he was raised as a Roman Catholic and grew up in Pennsylvania and in New York City’s South Bronx. He graduated from Fordham University in 1958 with a degree in communication arts. He worked for several years in advertising before quitting to devote himself to writing. Earning a Guggenheim Fellowship, he lived for a while in Greece, which served as the setting for The Names (1982).
Among DeLillo’s major works are the novels Americana (1971), End Zone (1972), Great Jones Street (1973), Ratner’s Star (1976), Players (1977), Running Dog (1978), The Names, White Noise (1985), Libra (1989), and Underworld (1997). His books were always favorably reviewed, but he did not see a major breakthrough until the publication of White Noise, which caught many readers’ attention with its depiction of a dangerous chemical leak and was honored in 1986 with the American Book Award. When DeLillo published the controversial Libra, a fictionalized version of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he became firmly established in the canon of writers who are both successful in the marketplace, critically analyzed, and regularly included on syllabi. Besides his novels, DeLillo has published short stories as well as the experimental plays The Engineer of Moonlight (1979), The Day Room (1986), and Valparaiso (1999). Under the pseudonym of Cleo Birdwell, he collaborated on a wickedly funny sports novel titled Amazons (1980), ostensibly the story of the first woman to play professional hockey. His rise to critical prominence in the 1980’s was capped in 1990 by “Fiction of Don DeLillo,” a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly devoted to his work, as well as a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies in 1999.
DeLillo has never been especially forthcoming about his private life, preferring his novels to speak for themselves. He has responded openly to interviews, however, thereby yielding a sense of how he feels about his work. As his career has progressed, DeLillo has learned to process his experience in the crucible of his imagination. With the success of Libra and after more than thirty years as something of a writer’s writer, DeLillo began to emerge into the national cultural spotlight. To promote Libra, DeLillo agreed to undertake his first book tour, during which he encountered the realities of media attention at first hand. Perhaps reflecting that experience, 1991’s Mao II uses the character of a J. D. Salinger-like reclusive writer to explore the implications of celebrity. The work secured DeLillo the PEN/Faulkner Award. His satiric play Valparaiso—about a systems analyst who tries to fly to Chicago and inadvertently becomes a talk-show celebrity when airline ineptness causes him to end up in Chile—is a brutal analysis of the media and fame. That interest in American culture is reflected in the novel that is largely recognized as DeLillo’s defining achievement, 1997’s Underworld, an ambitious look at American cultural history during the second half of the twentieth century. It was a best seller and received the 2000 William Dean Howells Medal, presented every five years by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the outstanding work of American fiction. In 1999, DeLillo became the first American to be awarded the prestigious Jerusalem Prize, which has been awarded every two years since 1963 to an international writer whose body of work best expresses the dignity of the individual.
In more than forty years of fiction, in a remarkable body of inventive work that crosses many genres, DeLillo has maintained a consistent interest in defining and defending the self in a late-century materialist and media culture that appears to militate against any assertion of the dignity and worth of the individual. As the son of immigrants, DeLillo brought to the post-World War II American novel the acute sensibility of the outsider, one who is both deeply aware of its culture and frankly...
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