Appreciating Don DeLillo: The Moral Force of a Writer's Work

Appreciating Don DeLillo: The Moral Force of a Writer's Work

Appreciating Don DeLillo: The Moral Force of a Writer's Work

Appreciating Don DeLillo: The Moral Force of a Writer's Work


Unlike the majority of American academic critics, author Paul Giaimo contends that Don DeLillo's award-winning novels are fully defined by neither postmodernism nor modernism. To demonstrate this thesis, "Appreciating Don DeLillo: The Moral Force of a Writer's Work" traces DeLillo's style through his novels, showing how it evolved from a recognizably postmodern mode into a realistic treatment of contemporary, postmodern conditions.

In this original and nuanced examination, Giaimo discusses themes that range from the devastating portrayals of evil in "Mao II," "Libra" and "Cosmopolis," to the good and inspiring confrontation of media stereotypes and urban missionary work in "Underworld." The powerful vision of language in "The Names" and "White Noise" is examined as a potent moral force of the novels. Equally important is discussion of the cultural background Giaimo believes should inform any reading of DeLillo's work, especially his Italian-American ethnic heritage and the American Catholic church of the 1950s.


This volume is for all who would like to know more about the rich and vital work of Don DeLillo but who may be intimidated by the vast amount written about him by literary critics. Certainly one of the best-known, most admired, and enjoyable of American writers, DeLillo has taken the enduring power of literature and coupled it with the fresh vision afforded us by the explosion of new media technologies. My purpose in choosing to write this book relates to my belief about the underlying moral lessons of DeLillo’s work—moral lessons that, in the quote above, Wilde attributes to all great art. As with the American writers of the past who cared very deeply about making their country and the world a better place, the numerous awards, outstanding critical reception, and sales one finds for these texts point to the accuracy of one of Wilde’s drier observations.

Books like Samuel Clemens’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought up the issue of slavery and showed to readers many people and events that would lead them to believe that slavery was wrong. DeLillo, trained by the Jesuits (as I was) to unite a respect for knowledge with a drive to help and serve other people, seems to be to be concerned with performing a similar task. Though we don’t have chattel slavery here in the United States, a host of other problems—including terrorism, the bursting of the housing bubble, tremendous national debt, weapons of mass destruction, and environmental catastrophes—still plague us. In his 16 novels written under his own name, Don DeLillo takes on all these issues as the earlier American writers did, not only to criticize these problems but to suggest the impact that these problems have had on individuals.

Above and beyond the personal background I share with DeLillo, there are other important aspects of the Jesuit influence on this writer that critics ought to note in their attempts to classify these novels into common categories.

Turning here to the speech given by Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach in 1989 at Georgetown University and Georgetown Prep, we can discern the vision of education in service that informs DeLillo’s approach to his readership:

"Our purpose, then is to form men and women “for others.” … We want graduates who desire to eliminate hunger and conflict in the world and who are sensitive to the need for more equitable distribution of the world’s goods. We want graduates who seek to end sexual and social discrimination and who are eager to share their faith with others." (Boston College Website)

I reproduce this selection of the Jesuit ideal vision of education for the purposes of comparing and contrasting it to the way DeLillo’s major novels function. By such detailed presentation of the contemporary individual’s perspective under the sway of the attendant social ills of our time, DeLillo’s formational impact on the reader parallels the Jesuit ambition for their graduates: a transformation or awakening of moral conscience through a deepening of social consciousness. Proof is offered in this book, through a close reading of each novel against the postmodern grain, with the Aristotelian unities of plot, character, and theme intact. Justification for doing so can be found simply in response to the fact that most critics indeed miss the humor and the pathos suggested by ignoring the cultural surfaces of the writing. DeLillo’s work, with its reference to crucial cultural surfaces far beyond the socially approved borders of American literary criticism, demands the reader wake up to the urban, gritty, zealously religious, and frequently ethnic surfaces that are ignored by most academics—as downtown Blacksmith and its scruffy fish hatcheries are by the good upper-class residents of White Noise ‘s fictional College-on-the-Hill. The radical moral/ political implications of works like Point Omega and Underworld can no longer be ignored.

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