November 26, 2001
In 1963, Sgt. John Kennedy Toole (A&S '58) was stationed at the U.S. Army Training Center at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, where overeducated draftees with expired student deferments taught English to Puerto Rican recruits.
Toole had arrived in Puerto Rico in November of 1961. He did not enjoy his first year at Fort Buchanan. In letters home, he complained that everything there started late and that "nothing on this island can seemingly be subdued or rational or orderly," an astonishing gripe for a native of New Orleans.
He described his students as "somewhat like characters from a Puerto Rican version of Grapes of Wrath." The rainy season depressed him. He was heartbroken when he lost his Tulane class ring. He was homesick and drinking too much. But by the spring of 1963 something had changed. In his letters, he describes himself as content, relaxed and stable. He was productively at work on a novel. "Some of it, I think, is really very funny," he wrote of his work-in-progress.
Later, as the time of his discharge from the Army approached, he wrote, "About the thing I am writing I have one conviction: it is entertaining and publishable, and I have more than a degree of faith in it." The working title of the novel was Ignatius Reilly, but we know it as A Confederacy of Dunces. It was published in 1980, 11 years after the author's suicide, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
Tulane English professor Dale Edmonds identifies four quintessential literary works set in New Orleans: Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and A Confederacy of Dunces--a motley group of books despite their common setting.
Confederacy is the most peculiar of the four, a chaotic account of the misadventures of obese, slovenly, delusional, pretentious, obnoxious, hunting-cap-wearing Ignatius J. Reilly. But that string of adjectives barely begins to describe him. He's a character who resists quick description--he's someone the reader has to experience directly. The novel is set in New Orleans in the early 1960s.
Ignatius "graduated smart" from a certain uptown university, but has since managed to avoid gainful employment. He lives at home with his mother and spends his time reading the Roman philosopher Boethius, filling up numerous Big Chief tablets with "a lengthy indictment against our century," and talking back to Hollywood musicals at the Prytania Theater.
But cruel Fortuna conspires against him, and his mother sends him out to look for a job. In his search for employment he encounters a cast of only-in-New-Orleans characters, from Irish Channel Yats to the strippers, pornographers and homosexual bon vivants of the French Quarter.
Those who love Confederacy love it deliriously, but others are immune to its charms, as I'll confess myself to have been when I first read the book about 10 years ago. The dialect can be almost indecipherable, particularly without firsthand experience in the far corners of the Big Easy.
Consider, for example, the following from the redoubtable Burma Jones, a savvy, underemployed black man coerced into working as a janitor at a Bourbon Street dive: "If I call a po-lice a cawmniss, my ass be in Angola right now for sure. I like to call one of them mother a cawmniss, though. Like this afternoon I standin aroun in Woolsworth and some cat steal a bag of cashew nuts out of the 'Nut House' star screamin like she been stab. Hey! The nex thing, a flo'walk grabbin me, and then a po-lice mother draggin me off. A man ain got a chance. Whoa!"
The heavy dialect is only part of the problem. What are we to make of Ignatius? Is he a buffoon or a hero? Should we scoff at him or feel sorry for him? A second reading after moving to New Orleans revealed more of the humor, but also more of the sadness and self-loathing offered up by a talented but, we now know, deeply depressed author.
There's a legend that surrounds A Confederacy of Dunces and John Kennedy Toole. In the legend, Toole was an unrecognized genius who sank into despondency after his masterpiece was rejected by heartless, dunder-headed New York publishers. Brokenhearted, he killed himself.
But his mother, Thelma Toole, became his champion and finally succeeded in getting novelist Walker Percy to read Confederacy. Percy liked the novel and recommended it to Louisiana State University Press, which agreed to publish the book. And the rest is history. Except it's not quite so simple. The first book-length biography of Toole, Ignatius Rising by Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy, was published this past spring by LSU Press.
While their book leaves many questions unanswered, it does make it clear that it wasn't an editor's callousness that led Toole to take his life. John Kennedy Toole was born on Dec. 7, 1937, in Touro Infirmary, located adjacent to New Orleans' genteel Garden District. Both of his parents were from the Faubourg Marigny, but as a young couple they moved uptown and put the old neighborhood behind them. John Dewey Toole Jr. worked as a car salesman.
Thelma Toole gave private lessons in music and elocution and hired herself out as a singer and pianist at parties. The couple had been married for more than a decade before Thelma found herself pregnant for the first and only time. She was 36 when her son was born. Her world would revolve around him for the rest of her life.
She was by all accounts a hovering mother who lived for her Kenny and expected Kenny to live for her. He was an attractive infant; to her he was a "beauteous babe." He was a smart child; she was convinced he was a genius. She was over-actively involved in his education at McDonough 14 and Alcee Fortier High School.
Due to her insistence on his brilliance, Kenny was promoted into second grade before finishing first grade. Many of his teachers and classmates weren't even aware that he had a father. He wrote his first novel, The Neon Bible, while in high school. It was published after the success of Confederacy, and although it's not a very impressive work, it seems more so when you keep in mind that a teen-ager wrote it.
He was only 16 when he entered Tulane on a full scholarship. He had announced his intention to study engineering while still in high school, but he dropped that idea almost immediately and majored in English instead. He was a good student--he graduated with honors and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
But brilliance was not in evidence in his schoolwork. Some of his old acquaintances describe him as a loner who had a hard time sustaining friendships. Others remember him as a raconteur with a dry wit and lively personality. He was both, and more. Nevils and Hardy uncovered an entire separate, secret life he led in the French Quarter and the Irish Channel, hanging around with musicians, bohemians and slackers. One of these friends had a job selling hot tamales from a pushcart, and sometimes Toole would fill in for him.
In their book, Nevils and Hardy assert that Toole was probably a closeted homosexual, but it's hard to know for sure since his mother taught him a distaste for sexuality of any type and was openly hostile to the few girls he brought home. After graduating from Tulane's College of Arts and Sciences in 1958, he received a fellowship to work on his master's degree at Columbia University. He finished his degree in one cash-strapped year in New York, then returned to Louisiana to teach for a year at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette).
One of his colleagues in Lafayette, Robert Byrne, seems to have provided some of the inspiration for Ignatius. Nevils and Hardy write: "Byrne's area of specialization was the medieval period. He and Ken had many discussions about Boethius and the wheel of Fortuna. Byrne later contended that Ken liked to talk about these things but had no deep understanding of them. It was Byrne's personal idiosyncrasies that caused Ken to take special note.
Byrne, who was forever talking about theology, geometry, and his rich inner life, played the lute and worried about his weight, which had a tendency to balloon. Byrne had an aversion to driving a car and considered himself a devoted slob, wearing baggy clothes in an unruly mix of odd colors." He even wore a hunting cap. Still, it would be a mistake to think that Byrne was Ignatius. Byrne, after all, was steadily employed and did not live with his mother.
Toole returned to New York the next fall to work on a PhD at Columbia. A teaching job at Hunter College helped pay the rent, and the students there helped provide the inspiration for Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius' foil and erstwhile romantic interest. "I like Hunter--principally because...the aggressive, pseudo-intellectual 'liberal' girl students are continuously amusing," Toole wrote to a friend. Although he probably had a better rapport with his students in Louisiana than with those in New York, he seems to have been a wonderful teacher wherever the classroom.
At Hunter, a class broke out in spontaneous applause after one of his lectures. Later, when he taught at Dominican College in New Orleans, he was one of the most sought-after professors on campus. His classes were always full, and students would arrange their schedules around them.
He was a conscientious, hard-working teacher who dressed conservatively and addressed the class formally. But his lectures were funny, engaging and wide-ranging. And he found real satisfaction in the work, writing that his students offered him "recompense--aside from the financial--for all the fatigue."
Even so, he was struggling. His studies at Columbia might not have been going so well and he was considering a return to New Orleans when he received his draft notice. The Army could have bought him some time away from his family to plan his future. Instead, he was engulfed in worry about his parents. His quiet, sweet-natured father was slipping into dementia. His parents' financial resources were extremely limited, and Toole gave up $40 a month out of his $99 salary in order to allow them to receive a hardship allotment from the Army.
Despite Thelma's insistence that she always supported her son's writing, there is some evidence that she attempted to push him into a more lucrative career. Toward the end of his stint in the Army, he wrote to her rather emphatically, "One point should be made clear: I do not intend to go to law school or to any other school at the present time." He was, however, very productive while in the service. His first priority after getting out was to finish the novel on which he'd made so much progress.
He turned down the chance to return to his teaching post at Hunter College because he felt he would not be able to concentrate on his writing in New York, or maybe he was just rationalizing his inability to separate from his parents. He accepted a teaching job with a relatively generous salary at Dominican and moved back into his parents' home.
Early in 1964, he mailed a copy of the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces to Simon and Schuster. The manuscript arrived unsolicited and was placed in the dreaded slush pile.
But Jean Ann Jollett Marks, the assistant to senior editor Robert Gottlieb, happened to pick up the manuscript. She liked the book's humor and passed it on to her boss. Robert Gottlieb has often been cast as the villain in the Toole myth. Perhaps that's why he objected strongly to the inclusion of his letters in Ignatius Rising.
However, those letters go a long way toward vindicating him. He liked Confederacy. He had worked with Joseph Heller on Catch 22 and had a taste for the absurd. But he believed Toole's book had a significant problem. It wasn't really about anything.
"In other words, there must be a point to everything you have in the book, a real point, not just amusingness that's forced to figure itself out," he wrote. Exactly, you can almost hear many frustrated readers say. "I think Gottlieb had some points," says Tulane's Dale Edmonds. "He has a good literary sense, and there are flaws in the novel. But I think it succeeds in spite of them. Maybe Toole needed a different editor who was a little less conscientious."
Toole made some revisions to the novel, particularly to the ending. Gottlieb agreed it was "much better" but "still not right." He was convinced that the book would not succeed commercially--the one point on which he was unequivocally wrong, although he may have been correct in thinking it would not have succeeded at that time. It's impossible to know how much the circumstances of the book's eventual publication contributed to its success.
But Gottlieb did not abandon Toole. "I will read, reread, edit, perhaps publish, generally cope, until you are fed up with me. What more can I say?" he wrote to Toole in what was surely one of the gentlest letdowns in the history of rejection letters. Toole was aware that he'd had tremendous beginner's luck in even attracting the attention of an editor of Gottlieb's caliber.
But in time his memories of their interaction became distorted, for reasons that probably had less to do with Gottlieb than with the daily reality of life at home. He continued to teach and even began work on a new novel. But his mother interrupted him constantly, interfering with his ability to work.
When the journalist Hodding Carter Jr. spent a semester teaching at Tulane, Thelma prodded her son into showing him the novel. Carter was polite but not particularly enthusiastic about Confederacy. Humiliated and angry with his mother for pushing him into the situation, Toole had a huge fight with her that seemed to permanently change the tenor of their relationship into something more openly combative. You have to wonder just what Thelma thought of Confederacy and the highly dysfunctional mother/son relationship at the heart of the novel.
Dale Edmonds, who met Thelma at a party in 1982, remembers that she vehemently insisted she was not the model for Ignatius' mother. Poor, put-upon Irene Reilly, with her magenta-colored hair and her heavy Yat accent, is indeed everything Thelma most emphatically was not. And Ignatius was not John Kennedy Toole, though he might have been what Toole feared he would become--a permanently misunderstood misfit, unable to find his place in the world, stuck at home forever with his mother.
"Toole wisely disguised Irene, making her very different from Thelma," said Edmonds. "But there's a passage early in the novel, after Irene and Ignatius leave the Night of Joy, that must have given him great pleasure to write."
After the padded door had closed behind the Reillys, Miss Lee said, "I never liked mothers. Not even my own." "My mother was a whore," the man with the racing form said, not looking up from his paper. "Mothers are full of ****," Miss Lee observed and took off her leather coat.
As Toole fought with his mother, he slipped into depression and paranoia. After awhile he was incapable of thinking clearly about what had transpired with Gottlieb and became convinced that Gottlieb was involved in some convoluted plot to steal his novel. Thelma did nothing to dispel his paranoid fantasies. She believed the Jewish Gottlieb had killed the book because he objected to Myrna Minkoff's character. Toole's friends noticed the change in him but no one knew how to help him.
At Dominican, his once-brilliant lectures began to turn into bitter rants. He returned to Tulane to continue work on his PhD, but was quiet and withdrawn in the classroom. Dale Edmonds had already joined the Tulane faculty in the fall of 1968, when Toole spent his last semester on campus. But Edmonds was in Europe on a Fulbright scholarship that year and missed his chance to get to know Toole, something he has always regretted. He wonders if he could have helped the distressed writer.
"I think he might have found in me a kindred spirit," Edmonds speculated. "A lot of my colleagues at that time were pretty formal and not ready to talk to students on a personal basis. But I've always gotten to know my students. If something's bothering them, I want to know what it is and I'll try to do something about it." Toole did confide in at least one person--Robert Byrne, the sartorial model for Ignatius. Byrne commiserated with Toole and gave him good advice, urging him to seek psychiatric help, but to little effect.
Toole stopped showing up for his classes at Tulane near the end of the semester. Christmas of 1968 was "a yuletide in hell" according to Nevils and Hardy. "Lost in dementia, father John wandered around the house like the ghost of Christmas past. Ken searched everywhere for the electronic devices he thought were reading his mind. Thelma was stuck in the middle, screaming at both of them." In January, Toole and his mother had a shattering fight. He left the house in a temper and never saw his mother again.
His whereabouts were unknown for two months. Thelma said that she later found in his car a ticket to Randolph Hearst's estate in California and Flannery O'Connor's home in Georgia. But O'Connor's home has never been open to the public, and no tickets, souvenirs or other evidence of his trip were among Toole's papers and ephemera left to Tulane.
On March 26, 1969, Toole's white Chevelle was found parked on the side of a back road outside of Biloxi, Miss. One end of a green garden hose was in the exhaust pipe, the other end through the back window and inside the car. Toole was dressed in dress pants and a tie, his head back on the seat behind the wheel--a clean, calm suicide. Thelma arranged for his funeral to be held the very next day. The only person she invited was Beulah Mathews, who had been her son's nanny. A week later, a memorial service was held at Dominican.
Toole's students and colleagues grieved for him intensely. His death was followed by years of depression and decline for his parents. His father died in 1974. Thelma had only one thing left, and that was the writing her son had left behind. She mailed the Confederacy manuscript to several publishers but got only rejection slips in return. In the meantime, her health was failing. She fell and broke her arm, developed diabetes and began to have trouble with her hip.
After a stint in a dreary nursing home, she swallowed her pride and called her brother Arthur to ask if she could live with him. He had a tiny house on Elysian Fields, right next door to the funeral home where Toole's body had been prepared for burial and not far from where Thelma grew up.
After all those years trying to establish herself uptown, she was back downtown again. She didn't get along with her brother. It's probably fair to say she made his life miserable. Eventually, they stopped speaking to each other, though they continued to share a house.
Arthur drove her to the Loyola campus on the day she cornered Walker Percy and foisted Confederacy onto him. Percy thought Arthur was her chauffeur. Percy, who was more or less coerced into reading Confederacy, was surprised to find that he liked the novel. He saw its flaws, but he admired its humor and the accuracy with which it captured the flavor of New Orleans. He recommended the novel to LSU Press, which at long last accepted it for publication.
There must have been moments when they regretted their decision. Louisiana's civil code and the fact that Toole had died without a will meant that several members of his father's extended family had to agree to renounce their rights to the book. And Thelma's personality made this harder than it would have been otherwise. Thelma's correspondence from this period suggests that she herself was part of the inspiration for Ignatius Reilly. The following, for example, is from a letter to a lawyer assigned the task of getting the renunciatory signatures of Thelma's in-laws:
Dear Mr. Little,
The practical thought that follows is relevant to the legal literary case you are now working on: could someone bequeath a Serves vase, Limoges china, Chippendale furniture, a Mallard bedstead, an Oriental rug, an Aubusson tapestry, a Rembrandt painting, a Drysdale water color, a cloisonne case timepiece, a Dolly Madison bedspread, Madeira embroidered linens, Sheffield silverware, a concert grand Steinway piano, etceteras, etceteras, to blokes, boors, country-bumpkins, gawping at the Mt. Parnassus buildings housing intellectual and literary giants of which my son was one? I shout vociferous, "No"!!!
I am depending on you to bring this sordid matter to a speedy and successful close.
Now you have the complete equipment to wield legal power: your competence, your thorough knowledge of the case, the three signatures of renunciation, and the terrific force of my husband's non-support of his multi-talented wife and genius son, also multi-talented.
Mr. and Mrs. Ray McGuire must be routed from their plaster of Paris throne because of their obstinate behavior, gross money-lust, and lack of humanity.
You are the ringmaster! Crack the whip! Demand immediate obedience!
What is one to make of Thelma? She was controlling, difficult, self-absorbed. There can be little doubt that she contributed to her son's psychological problems. But she is also the closest thing this story has to a heroine. She was stronger and more tenacious than her son. She may have helped inspire the book, albeit in a negative way. And without her effort, A Confederacy of Dunces would be nothing but some papers rotting in a landfill.
She was, in fact, a smart, multi-talented woman. And, as long as she was the center of attention, she could be charming and likable. The success of Confederacy made her a minor celebrity. At parties to celebrate the book's publication, she would play the piano and sing old standards. She often dedicated "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" to Walker Percy, much to his chagrin. Dale Edmonds remembers a performance she gave at the home of Joseph Gordon, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
"She was about to play, and people were in the back talking and drinking and carrying on, like college professors will do," Edmonds said. "And she turned around and said, 'I want silence! You cannot expect an artist to perform with this kind of nonsense going on!' And people quieted down, even one of my former colleagues, who was the most raucous person. He was never quiet, but he just shut up. She had a certain something. She wasn't a polished singer but she had a good ear and she could play."
Edmonds also recalls that she recited from the book in the voices of different characters, including Ignatius, Irene Reilly, and Burma Jones. "She was very good, and she remembered huge passages," Edmonds said. When the book was first optioned as a movie, she insisted that she must be consulted on the choice of actors and all other creative matters. She was sorely disappointed in the delays (which continue) in getting Confederacy onto film.
Thelma died of heart failure at St. Charles General Hospital in August of 1984. She pointedly left several worthy individuals and institutions out of her will. Her long-suffering brother Arthur, for example, got nothing. But to Tulane, she left a share of her estate and all future royalties. Confederacy continues to sell steadily and more than 1.5 million copies of the book are already in print. The checks arrive frequently, in wildly divergent amounts, from $70 to $7,000.
The money funds Tulane College's John Kennedy Toole '58 Scholarship, which is shared by several students with financial need and literary talent. In addition, the university received Toole's papers. Special Collections houses his school papers on topics such as "The Louisiana Purchase," "Television, Tomorrow's Entertainment," "What the American Merchant Marine Means to My Community," and "Democracy Is What We Make It."
There's the comment from English professor Irving Ribner on one of Toole's term papers that advises, "You need to make your writing more precise, economical--avoid unnecessary words and phrases." There are Toole's dogtags and letters from Puerto Rico addressed, "Dear Parents." There are many things that pique curiosity, but few that satisfy it.
While Thelma's personality was so strong it rises whole from the pages of her correspondence, her son remains a mystery, unknown and unknowable. Was he ever happy? Why did he kill himself? What might he have made of himself if he could have found a way? All we know of him is this--his was a mind and an imaginative talent capable of creating Ignatius J. Reilly, one of the most singular characters in American fiction.
Heather Heilman is an editor in the Tulane publications office and a regular contributor to Tulanian. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of Tulanian.
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