Remembering John Kennedy Toole and His ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’

Author: Sherry Helms

John Kennedy Toole was an American novelist from New Orleans, Louisiana, best known for his posthumously published and Pulitzer Prize-winning uproarious picaresque novel A Confederacy of Dunces. He also wrote The Neon Bible, another posthumously published literature which Toole compiled at the age of 16, but never attempted to have it published. Although several people in the literary world felt his writing skills were praiseworthy, Toole’s novels were rejected throughout his life span. These failures brought him sufferance from paranoia and depression that ultimately led him to commit suicide at the age of 31.

Today is Toole’s 75th birth anniversary, and it’s a time to offer due recognition to him and his works that had been remained anonymous throughout his lifetime. Let’s take a quick dive into his Pulitzer Prize (1981) fame novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

Dunces is an American comic masterpiece of picaresque literature that features the misadventures of protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly, a huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, and a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter, who lives at home with his mother. Reilly is one of the most original characters in American Literature. He is a gargantuan self-professed scholar at war with what he believes is the “lack of theology and geometry” in the modern world, and whose intellectual egomania is matched only by his sloth. Set in a richly evoked New Orleans of the 1960s, the book weaves Reilly’s misadventures with incredibly true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic events and incidents.

Over the several hundred pages of the book, our hero stumbles from one adventure to the next. His stint as a hotdog vendor is less than successful, and he soon turns his employers at the Levy Pants Company on their heads. Reilly’s path through the working world is populated by marvelous secondary characters: the stripper Darlene and her talented cockatoo; the septuagenarian secretary Miss Trixie, whose desperate attempts to retire are constantly, comically thwarted; gay blade Dorian Greene; sinister Miss Lee, proprietor of the Night of Joy nightclub; and Myrna Minkoff, the girl Ignatius loves to hate.

Toole started writing A Confederacy of Dunces during his two years of service (1961 to 1963) in the US Army in Puerto Rico as a teacher to English to Spanish-speaking recruits. was born in New Orleans. And, finished it at his parents’ home after his discharge. In 1964 he submitted the manuscript to publisher Simon & Schuster, where it reached noted editor Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb considered Toole talented but felt his comic novel was essentially pointless. Despite several revisions, Gottlieb remained unsatisfied, and after the book was rejected by another literary figure, Toole stowing the novel away in a closet.

Later, after two years of his death, his mother discovered the manuscript and brought that to the attention of novelist Walker Percy, who managed to usher the typescript into print in 1980, with his forewords. In 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Its comic brilliance and compelling back-story made A Confederacy of Dunces one of the best-reviewed books of the decade. Being celebrated as the quintessential novel of post-World War II New Orleans, this comic masterpiece has been translated into 18 languages so far, and has sold 1.5 million copies till date.

Further, his manuscript of The Neon Bible was published in 1989 and made into a 1995 film.

To know in-depth about the short life-span and the struggles of John Kennedy Toole, one can easily curl up with the Deborah George Hardy’s book, “Ignatius Rising: The Life Of John Kennedy Toole. This is a great resource to reach up the author.

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