American author DeLillo visits UT, attracts crowd of all ages


Chelsea Purgahn

Oliver Terry reads an excerpt from Don DeLillo's work on display in the Literature and Sport exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center.

Chris Jordan

“Thomson swings and tomahawks the ball and everybody, everybody watches,” Don DeLillo reads in his modest New York inflection. “Pafko at the wall. Then he’s looking up…The Giants win the pennant and they’re going crazy.”

On Thursday night, American author DeLillo read from the prologue of his Pulitzer-prize winning novel “Underworld,” which recounts the famous “Shot Heard Round the World,” Bobby Thomson’s 1951 game-winning home-run against the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a rare public appearance, DeLillo read and answered questions to a packed house at the Jessen Auditorium in Homer Rainey Hall.

Excerpts from “Underworld” are included in the Literature and Sport exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center, which runs through Aug. 4. The exhibit includes corrected drafts, handwritten notes, letters and photographs which contributed to DeLillo’s creative process. Other featured authors include Ernest Hemingway, Tom Stoppard and Marianne Moore.

DeLillo, whose novel “White Noise” brought him widespread acclaim, has been celebrated for his portrayal of the modern American experience, an experience he sees as riddled with paranoia, conspiracy and irony. 

The crowd, which sat in the red velvet seats of the Jessen Auditorium, did not resemble the usual undergraduate crowd the room houses, but rather a much older audience, some coming straight from work. 

Much of DeLillo’s writing explores memory and verbal retelling. For many present, who, like the narrator of the prologue, were children in 1951, DeLillo’s interpretation of the “Shot Heard Round the World” mirrored their own experiences. 

“I was in Seattle when ‘Underworld’ first came out, and saw you read from it,” said one man as he began his question on memory in DeLillo’s work. “I remember vividly reading that first chapter of ‘Underworld,’ I remember vividly hearing you recite it that night, and I trust I will again from this night.”

However, DeLillo’s appearance also attracted a noticeable amount of younger readers. Some, like radio-television-film junior Graham Norwood, draw inspiration from DeLillo’s acute combination of humor and philosophy.

“He can make serious subjects very funny and full of anxiety,” Norwood said. “But [he] gets it out in a very cathartic way… [it’s] not depressing.”

DeLillo spoke slowly and quietly, his short stature almost completely eclipsed by the podium.

“It’s really strange to meet a writer — he’s quite a small presence. I didn’t even notice him sitting right there,” said Jenny Howell, a fifth-year PhD student in the English department. “I think a lot of writers are like that.”

Howell is working on her dissertation, which will include some of DeLillo’s work. 

“I’m in the early stages,” said Howell of her dissertation. “I’m interested in historical fiction and DeLillo’s novel “Libra.” [In that book DeLillo] invents a whole conspiracy of why Kennedy was shot…He did painstaking research.”

Often, DeLillo’s work touches on the interplay of culture and sports with famous events in 20th century history.

“He has this very unusual outlook on history,” Howell said. “[It’s] a mixture of history as conspiracy and contingency.”

David Foster Wallace, the late prophet for lost American 20-somethings, famously wrote DeLillo for advice while writing his magnum opus “Infinite Jest,” wanting to understand how DeLillo’s writing managed “to marry Fun and Seriousness in a profound way, somehow — a sense of Play that’s somehow even Funner because it’s not sophomoric or self-aggrandizing or childish or even childlike.”

Just as many 20-somethings draw inspiration from Wallace, many of the 60-somethings in the audience Thursday night consider DeLillo the voice of their adulthood. 

DeLillo, who normally shuns public appearances, signed books and talked with fans after the reading. As the crowd filed out, DeLillo’s reading still lingering, both young and old took with them a wave of nostalgia.