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John Kennedy Toole's Brilliant but Short Career

By Andrea Koczela. Dec 15, 2013. 9:00 AM.

Topics: American Literature

“When a true genius appears in the world,
You may know him by this sign, that the dunces
Are all in confederacy against him.”
—Jonathan Swift, “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”

The legacy of John Kennedy Toole is one of comedy twinned with tragedy. Author of A Confederacy of Dunces, one of the few comic novels to win the Pulitzer Prize, Toole never lived to see the success of his novel. Indeed, Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, a full decade before his book was published.  Often perceived as a misunderstood writer who killed himself upon the rejection of his novel, Toole’s life was far more full and complex than this simplistic account implies.  A brilliant professor, popular with both students and staff, Toole was bright, witty, and outgoing. His suicide was not the result of despair, but instead the terrible consequence of mental illness.

Toole was born December 17, 1937 to a middle class family in New Orleans. His mother, a former teacher of elocution, was a controlling woman. She determined what friends her son could associate with, even dismissing his paternal cousins as too “common.” Toole was a gifted student who excelled from a young age, skipping first grade partially at his mother’s insistence. As a child, he also achieved theatrical success. He performed the lead role in three shows for the Children’s Workshop Theatre of New Orleans, hosted a radio show, and modeled in advertisements. In high school, Toole won a National Merit Scholarship, joined the National Honor Society, and was named the Most Intelligent Senior Boy.

By the age of sixteen, Toole completed his first novel, The Neon Bible, and sought publication—all without the knowledge of his parents. Later, Toole described the book: "In 1954, when I was 16, I wrote a book called The Neon Bible, a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South—and the fundamentalist mentality is one of the roots of what was happening in Alabama, etc. The book, of course, was bad, but I sent it off a couple of times anyway."

Toole won a full scholarship to Tulane when he was just seventeen. He graduated with honors in 1958 and earned a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study English literature at Columbia University. He earned a master’s degree in a single year. Toole took a position as assistant professor in English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. There, he became immensely popular, sought at every party, and known for his hilarious “sharp stories” and “barbed one-liners.”

John_Kennedy_TooleToole soon returned to Columbia to pursue a doctoral degree, but in 1961, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Puerto Rico to teach English to Spanish-speaking soldiers. During this time, Toole began writing his next book, A Confederacy of Dunces. Colleagues reported that Toole became reclusive, spending increasingly more time typing in his office. A friend visited him in December and found him deeply depressed. Toole became so engrossed in his work that he began to “talk and act like Ignatius,” the main character.

Upon discharge from the army, Toole accepted a position at Dominican College that required only ten hours of teaching each week. He was warmly received by the faculty and everyone considered him charming. Toole spent his free time writing. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Toole became severely depressed and stopped all work on his book. He resumed the following spring, and submitted the completed manuscript to Simon & Schuster the same year.

Toole received an enthusiastic response from Simon & Schuster’s senior editor, Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb also sought the opinion of Candida Donadio, the literary agent of Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth. They both concurred that the book was, “wildly funny, often funnier than almost anyone else around, and our kind of funny.” Yet Gottlieb wrote to Toole that, “There must be a point to everything you have in the book, a real point, not just amusingness forced to figure itself out.”  Toole spent two years revising the novel. While Gottlieb continued to encourage Toole, he never found the revisions sufficient. Finally, Toole had enough. He put the manuscript away in a closet where it remained until after his death.

John_Kennedy_Toole_2Toole spent the last three years of his life in near seclusion, leaving his house only to teach classes at Dominican College. Mental illness ran on both sides of his family and he became increasingly depressed and drank heavily. In 1967, his army friend David Kubach visited Toole and observed signs of paranoia. Toole suffered from intense, recurring headaches that his doctor could not treat. He refused to see a neurologist. His students began to complain of Toole’s acerbic monologues and rants. Toole told friends that someone had stolen his book, that he was being followed, and that the government had put a device in his brain.

In 1969, after having a fight with his mother, Toole left home and withdrew $1,500 from his bank. Authorities found Toole’s body on March 26, 1969.  He had committed suicide by running a garden hose from his car’s exhaust pipe to the window, leaving a letter for his parents that his mother destroyed. She described the note as “bizarre and preposterous. Violent. Ill-fated. Ill-fated. Nothing. Insane ravings.”

After his death, Toole’s mother, Thelma, was determined to publish his novel. She sent the manuscript to seven publishers, all of whom rejected it. Finally in 1976, she approached author Walker Percy. After making countless phone calls and sending numerous letters, Thelma marched into his office and demanded that he read the book. He did, and immediately recognized its merit.  With Percy’s assistance, Louisiana State University Press published 2,500 copies of A Confederacy of Dunces in 1980. A year later, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Today, it has sold 1.5 million copies.


Toole's mother, Thelma, with painter George Rodrigue

A Confederacy of Dunces chronicles the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a self-professed scholar and consummate slob who deplores “the lack of theology and geometry” in the world. Set in the perfectly captured 1960’s New Orleans, Ignatius interacts with a series of eccentric characters in what has been described as a modern-day Don Quixote. Toole based the character of Ignatius on his colleague and friend, professor Bob Byrne. Byrne shared with the character a love for hot dogs, a devotion to Boethius, and a fashion philosophy involving “voluminous tweed trousers… that contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed” them. However, biographer Cory MacLauchlin also observed that Ignatius was Toole’s self-portrait, the embodiment of a writer as an alienated presence in the modern world. 

Percy wrote of Toole’s death that, “It is a great pity that John Kennedy Toole is not alive and well and writing. But he is not, and there is nothing we can do about it but make sure that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy is at least made available to a world of readers.” So this week let us celebrate the life of John Kennedy Toole, and salute his great accomplishment, A Confederacy of Dunces.


Andrea Koczela
Enthusiast of modern and classic literature who loves transforming obscure topics into interesting reads. Writer, editor, marketer, and bookseller.


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