Don DeLillo - Early Life and Influences

Early Life and Influences

DeLillo was born on November 20, 1936 and grew up in a working-class Italian Catholic family, from Molise, in an Italian-American neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City, not far from Arthur Avenue. Reflecting on his childhood in The Bronx, DeLillo later described how he was "...always out in the street. As a little boy I whiled away most of my time pretending to be a baseball announcer on the radio. I could think up games for hours at a time. There were eleven of us in a small house, but the close quarters were never a problem. I didn't know things any other way. We always spoke English and Italian all mixed up together. My grandmother, who lived in America for fifty years, never learned English."

As a teenager, DeLillo wasn't interested in writing until taking a summer job as a parking attendant, where hours spent waiting and watching over vehicles led to a reading habit. In a 2010 interview with The Australian, DeLillo reflected on this period by saying "I had a personal golden age of reading, in my 20s and my early 30s, and then my writing began to take up so much time". Among the writers DeLillo read and was inspired by in this period were James Joyce, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, who was a major influence on DeLillo's earliest attempts at writing in his late teens. As well as the influence of modernist fiction, DeLillo has also cited the influence of jazz music - " guys like Ornette Coleman and Mingus and Coltrane and Miles Davis" - and European/European influenced cinema of the 1960's and 1970's: " Antonioni and Godard and Truffaut, and then in the '70s came the Americans, many of whom were influenced by the Europeans: Kubrick, Altman, Coppola, Scorsese and so on. I don't know how they may have affected the way I write, but I do have a visual sense." On the influence of film, particularly European cinema, on his work, DeLillo has said, "European and Asian cinemas of the 1960s shaped the way I think and feel about things. At that time I was living in New York, I didn't have much money, didn't have much work, I was living in one room ... I was a man in a small room. And I went to the movies a lot, watching Bergman, Antonioni, Godard. When I was little, in the Bronx, I didn't go to the cinema and I didn't think of the American films I saw as works of art. Perhaps, in an indirect way, cinema allowed me to become a writer."

After graduating from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx in 1954 and from Fordham University in the Bronx with a bachelor's degree in Communication Arts in 1958, DeLillo took a job in advertising because he couldn't get one in publishing. He worked for five years as a copywriter at the agency of Ogilvy & Mather on Fifth Avenue at East 48th Street, writing image ads for Sears Roebuck among others, working on “Print ads, very undistinguished accounts...I hadn’t made the leap to television. I was just getting good at it when I left," in 1964. DeLillo published his first short story, "The River Jordan", in Epoch, the literary magazine of Cornell University, in 1960 and began to work on his first novel in 1966. Discussing the beginning of his writing career, DeLillo said, "I did some short stories at that time, but very infrequently. I quit my job just to quit. I didn't quit my job to write fiction. I just didn't want to work anymore." Reflecting in 1993 on his relatively late start in writing fiction, DeLillo said "I wish I had started earlier, but evidently I wasn’t ready. First, I lacked ambition. I may have had novels in my head but very little on paper and no personal goals, no burning desire to achieve some end. Second, I didn’t have a sense of what it takes to be a serious writer. It took me a long time to develop this."

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