Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

Search Collections
Fall 2004 Newsletter

Discarded Pages: DeLillo Archive Comes to the Ransom Center

Photograph

One of several Underworld notebooks kept
by DeLillo.

"That's how you write novels actually. You suddenly hit upon something and you realize this is the path you were meant to take. You'd be a fool if you didn't follow it. Perhaps it's like solving a difficult question in pure mathematics. There must be a moment when the solution is so simple and evident that you wonder why you hadn't come upon it before. When you do come upon it, you know it in the deepest part of your being. It carries its own logic."

-Don DeLillo, November 19, 1988

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of critically-acclaimed American novelist Don DeLillo.

Author of 13 novels and three plays, DeLillo's papers will find a fitting home somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Thomas Pynchon in the established canon of the Center's collections.

Born on November 20, 1936, the son of Italian immigrants, DeLillo grew up in the predominantly Italian-American Fordham section of the Bronx, living in "a skinny little house" with his immediate family as well as his grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and three cousins.

DeLillo's early life wasn't one flush with reading; he spent his childhood, as did most children in his densely populated neighborhood, "playing street games, alley games, rooftop games, fire escape games, punch ball, stick ball, handball, stoopball, and a hundred other games." He read comic books and listened to the radio, but says that "no one read to anyone else at home."

DeLillo cites New York City itself as an early influence, mentioning the paintings of the Museum of Modern Art, the Jazz Gallery that featured the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus, and the Village Vanguard with its screenings of Fellini, Godard, and Howard Hawks, as significant loci in his formative years.

It wasn't until he was 18 that DeLillo developed an appetite for books; working as a playground attendant, or "parkie," he consumed Faulkner, Joyce, and Hemingway, developing an affinity for the "sculptural quality" of words. Bill Gray, the protagonist in DeLillo's novel Mao II (1991), perhaps best encapsulates the author's sentiments about the power of words: "The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There's a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer's will to live."

After majoring in communication arts at Fordham University, DeLillo spent five "short, uninteresting" years as a copywriter for the advertising firm of Ogilvy Benson & Mather in New York. He began work on what was to become his first novel, Americana (1971), in 1966, and spent the next four years completing it, setting in motion a career that has produced such highly-praised works as White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), and Underworld (1997). DeLillo's work has earned him a profusion of honors, including a National Book Award (White Noise, 1985), a PEN/Faulkner Award (Mao II, 1992), and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy and Institute of Arts (Underworld, 2000). American writer Paul Auster says of DeLillo, "Sentence for sentence, page for page, there is no novelist in America who writes better than Don DeLillo. His books are essential reading for anyone interested in understanding what it means to live in the late twentieth century."

The acquisition of the DeLillo archive is especially significant, as it establishes an armature from the work of earlier postmodernists, such as Pynchon, to the current zeitgeist represented by such modern young writers as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, and Zadie Smith, all of whom have elicited comparisons to DeLillo. Among the approximately 120 boxes of materials are notes, drafts, typescripts, and reviews for DeLillo's novels and plays, as well as a comprehensive collection of articles and stories, correspondence, and unpublished material for the screenplay Game 6. Ransom Center Director Tom Staley says of the archive, "Given the cultural importance of DeLillo's work and his reputation as one of the most important writers of the last two decades of the last century, I anticipate that his archive will be one of the most widely studied of our late-twentieth-century holdings."

DeLillo sums up the significance of archives in a quotation from The Paris Review:

"Discarded pages mark the physical dimensions of a writer's labor-you know, how many shots it took to get a certain paragraph right. Or the awesome accumulation, the gross tonnage of first draft pages. The first draft of Libra sits in ten manuscript boxes. I like knowing it's in the house. I feel connected to it. It's the complete book, the full experience containable on paper."  

Table of Contents