A Confederacy of Dunces
When John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981 for his novel A Confederacy of Dunces., he was unable to receive the prize in person. He’d been dead for 13 years.
Toole was a southern writer. His life reads much like a southern Gothic novel. In fact, his life has been novelized. Toole’s life was fictionalized in the book I, John Kennedy Toole, by Jodi Blanco and Kent Carroll, published in 2020.
Most of the information in this article comes from a trio of Toole biographies, listed in the sources section below.
John Kennedy Toole was born December 17, 1937, to a middle-class family in New Orleans. Toole’s father was a car salesman and his mother a teacher. His mother, Thelma, gave up her teaching job when she married, which was mandatory for female teachers at the time. She gave private lessons in music, speech, and dramatic expression.
Toole’s intelligence was evident early on and he reportedly skilled first and fourth grades.
At age 10, with Thelma’s encouragement, he began performing on stage, acting and doing comic impressions.
His mother actually organized a group of about 50 child stage entertainers she named the Junior Variety Performers, with Toole as the star. Toole also played the lead role in three plays produced by the Children’s Workshop Theatre of New Orleans, emceed a radio show called Telekids, modeled for newspaper ads, and developed a solo show of comic impersonations entitled Great Lovers of the World, according to his biographers.
Toole’s writing career began in high school.
He was news editor of the school newspaper, wrote a pseudonymous gossip column, Fish Tales, and worked on the yearbook. He won a National Merit Scholarship, was selected the National Honor Society, and was named the Most Intelligent Senior Boy by the student body. He was one of two New Orleanais voted outstanding citizen at the Pelican (now Louisiana) Boys State convention. He took part in the Newman Club, a Catholic organization for teenagers, where he won an award for outstanding student.
Toole wrote his first novel, The Neon Bible, at age 16.
Much of Toole’s life was spent in academia.
He received a full academic scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans at 17. Upon graduation with honors from Tulane in 1958, he studied English Literature at Columbia University in New York on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship while also teaching at Hunter College.
Returning to Louisiana, Toole taught at colleges there. In 1959, he taught for a year as assistant professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. During his early academic career, he was popular on the faculty party circuit for his wit and gift for doing impressions.
He returned to New York to teach at Hunter College and pursue his PhD at Columbia.
Toole’s academic career was interrupted when he was drafted into the army in 1961. In the army he taught English to Spanish-speaking recruits in San Juan, Puerto Rico. After receiving a promotion that included a private office, Toole began writing A Confederacy of Dunces, which he later finished at his parents’ home after his discharge from the army.
Toole received a hardship discharge from the army. His parents were struggling financially. His father was going deaf, and was being overtaken by irrational fear and paranoia. Turning down an offer to return to Hunter College, Toole took a part-time position teaching at Dominican College, a Catholic all-female school in New Orleans.
The free time allowed him to work on the novel and spend time with a musician friend at various New Orleans nightclubs.
Despite his apparent intelligence, abundance of talent and what would have appeared to be a bright future, this is the when life begins to go off the rails for Toole. Toole repeatedly came tantalizingly close to getting his novel published, only to be repeatedly disappointed.
President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 pushed Toole into severe depression. He stopped writing and began drinking heavily.
By February 1964, Toole resumed writing, added an ending to the Dunces manuscript. He sent the manuscript to publisher Simon & Schuster where it reached the desk of senior editor Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb and Toole began what would become a two-year dialog about the book. Gottlieb believed the book showed promise but was not publishable in its original form.
Gottlieb wrote to Toole in January 1966, restating his feelings on the book and saying that he wanted to read it again when Toole created another revision.
Toole took the rejection of the book in its original form as a tremendous personal blow and stopped work on Dunces. He attempted to work on another book, titled The Conqueror Worm. He enrolled at Tulane in an effort to obtain his PhD.
Toole’s mother talked him in to showing Dunces to Hodding Carter Jr., well-known reporter and publisher for the Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, Mississippi, who was teaching at Tulane for a semester. Carter was uninterested, but complimented Toole on it. This rejection deepened Toole’s despair. He became angry with his mother for causing him more embarrassment.
By the winter of 1967, friends began to notice Toole’s increasing paranoia. He was drinking heavily and gained a great deal of weight. He began having frequent and intense headaches.
The Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations in 1968 further increased his feelings of grief and paranoia.
To longtime friends, he expressed sadness and humiliation that his book would not be published. He started saying his students were whispering about him and people were plotting against him. Usually extremely well groomed, Toole “began to appear in public unshaved and uncombed, wearing unpolished shoes and wrinkled clothes.”
He began telling friends that a woman, who he mistakenly thought worked for Simon & Schuster, was plotting to steal his book so that her husband, the novelist George Deaux, could publish it.
Toole became erratic during his lectures at Dominican, and students complained. At the end of the 1968 fall semester he was forced to take a leave of absence. He stopped attending classes at Tulane and was given an incomplete grade.
During Christmas of 1968, Toole’s father was in descending deeper into dementia. Toole began searching their home for electronic mind-reading devices.
In January 1969 he was unable to resume his job at Dominican and the college hired another professor. Thelma argued with him about losing the job.
The next day after arguing with Thelma, Toole withdrew $1,500 from his savings and drove away. Items later found in his car revealed he had driven to California where he visited San Simeon, Hearst’s Castle, and then drove back Milledgeville, Georgia, where he probably tried to visit the home of deceased writer Flannery O’Connor, although her house was not open to the public.
Toole then stopped outside Biloxi, Mississippi, on March 26, 1969. There he died, committing suicide by running a garden hose from the exhaust pipe in through the window of his car.
Police officers who found him reported that his face showed no signs of distress. His car and person were clean. An envelope found in the car was marked “to my parents”. The suicide note was destroyed by his mother. She later gave varying vague accounts of what it said.
Toole left a $2,000 life-insurance policy to his parents, several thousand dollars in savings, and his car.
Thelma Toole suffered from depression for two years after her son’s suicide.
Meanwhile, the Dunces manuscript sat on an armoire in Toole’s former room.
Thelma Toole recovered from her depression and became determined to find a publisher for Dunces, believing it would prove her son’s talent. She began a five-year effort to get Dunces published, sending it to seven publishers. All seven rejected it.
In 1976, Thelma found out that author Walker Percy was temporarily joining the faculty of Loyola University in New Orleans.
Thelma began a campaign of phone calls and letters to convince Percy to read the manuscript. Annoyed, Percy complained to his wife about a strange old woman attempting to contact him.
As was time running out on Percy’s term as a Loyola professor, Thelma pushed her way into his office, demanding he read the manuscript.
Percy agreed to read the book to stop her badgering. He admitted to hoping it would be so bad that he could discard it after reading a few pages.
But he loved the book, commenting:
In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good.
Even with Percy’s approval, getting Dunces published proved difficult.
A Confederacy of Dunces was eventually published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980 with minimal copy-editing and no significant revisions. Percy wrote a foreword. The press run was limited to just 2,500 copies.
An attempt was made to shop the book around Hollywood for adaptation into a film, but it generated no interest.
However, A Confederacy of Dunces caught fire in the literary world.
A year after it was published, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As of 2022, A Confederacy of Dunces – a book rejected by two high profile editors and seven publishers – had sold more than 1.5 million copies, in 18 languages.
An April 1981 review in the New York Times called Dunces “a grand comic fugue that superbly captures the special spirit of New Orleans.”
In 2015, Nick Offerman, star of the TV series Parks and Recreation, starred in a theatrical performance of A Confederacy of Dunces, staged at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.
The play Mr. Toole, by Vivian Neuwirth, was inspired by the events of Toole’s life, death, and the subsequent publication of A Confederacy of Dunces, debuted in 2016 at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York City. At least three biographies and a novelization of Toole’s life have been published.
The Neon Bible, Toole’s only other novel, was published in 1989. The Neon Bible has been described as “a short novel of Southern Gothic fiction that has been compared in style to Flannery O’Connor, a favorite author of Toole.” It was adapted into a feature film in 1995, directed by Terence Davies. It performed poorly at the box office, grossing just $78,072 in its theatrical release, and receiving a mixed critical reception.
Books that Killed Their Authors is part of an intermittent series about writers who died before they completed or published their final book.
Fletcher, Joel L. Ken and Thelma: The Story of A Confederacy of Dunces. Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing Company, Inc., 2005. ISBN 1-58980-296-9
MacLauchlin, Cory. Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces Biography. Da Capo Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-306-82040-3
Nevils, René Pol, and Hardy, Deborah George. Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8071-3059-1
Paperbacks: New and Noteworthy, The New York Times, April 19, 1981
The Neon Bible