A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole, 1980
Winner, 1981 Pulitzer Prize
“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”
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once.”
So enters one of the most memorable characters in American fiction, Ignatius J. Reilly. John Kennedy Toole’s hero is one, “huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans’ lower depths, incredibly true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures” (Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times).
Ignatius J. Reilly is a flatulent frustrated scholar deeply learned in Medieval philosophy and American junk food, a brainy mammoth misfit imprisoned in a trashy world of Greyhound Buses and Doris Day movies. He is in violent revolt against the entire modern age. Ignatius’ peripatetic employment takes him from Levy Pants, where he leads a workers’ revolt, to the French Quarter, where he waddles behind a hot dog wagon that serves as his fortress.
A Confederacy of Dunces is an American comic masterpiece that outswifts Swift, whose poem gives the book its title. Set in New Orleans, the novel bursts into life on Canal Street under the clock at D. H. Holmes department store.
The characters leave the city and literature forever marked by their presences—Ignatius and his mother; Mrs. Reilly’s matchmaking friend, Santa Battaglia; Miss Trixie, the octogenarian assistant accountant at Levy Pants; inept, bemused Patrolman Mancuso; Jones, the jivecat in spaceage dark glasses. Juvenal, Rabelais, Cervantes, Fielding, Swift, Dickens—their spirits are all here. Filled with unforgettable characters and unbelievable plot twists, shimmering with intelligence, and dazzling in its originality, Toole’s comic classic just keeps getting better year after year.
Released by Louisiana State University Press in April 1980 and published in paperback in 1981 by Grove Press, A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing short of a publishing phenomenon. Turned down by countless publishers and submitted by the author’s mother years after his suicide, the book won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Today, there are over 1,500,000 copies in print worldwide in eighteen languages. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—December 17, 1937
• Where—New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
• Death—March 26, 1969
• Where—Biloxi, Mississippi
• Education—B.A., Tulane University; M.A., Columbia
• Awards—Pulitzer Prize
Toole, known throughout his life to friends and family as "Ken", lived a sheltered childhood in Uptown New Orleans. His mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, was a charmingly flamboyant but narcissistic woman, who doted on her only child. Toole's father worked as a car salesman and mechanic before succumbing to deafness and failing health, while his mother supplemented the family income with music lessons.
After earning an undergraduate degree from Tulane University, Toole received a master's degree at Columbia University, and spent a year as assistant professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana Lafayette) in Lafayette, Louisiana. Toole's next academic post was in New York City, where he taught at Hunter College. Although he pursued a doctorate at Columbia, his studies were interrupted by his being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961. Toole served two years in Puerto Rico teaching English to Spanish-speaking recruits.
Following his military service, Ken Toole returned to New Orleans to live with his parents and teach at Dominican College. He spent much of his time hanging around the French Quarter with musicians and, on at least one occasion, helped a musician friend with his second job selling tamales from a cart. While at Tulane University, Toole had worked briefly in a men's clothing factory. Both of these experiences inspired memorable scenarios in his comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces.
Toole sent the manuscript of his novel, written during the early 60's, to Simon and Schuster and, despite initial excitement about the work, the publisher eventually rejected it, commenting that it "isn't really about anything." Toole's health began to deteriorate as he lost hope of seeing his work – which he considered a masterpiece – in print. He stopped teaching at Dominican, quit his doctoral classes and began to drink heavily while being medicated for severe headaches.
Toole's biographers, Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Handy, have suggested that a factor in Toole's depression was confusion about his sexuality and identity. In their biography, Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole, they tracked down and interviewed many of Ken Toole's acquaintances. While one friend suggested that his domineering mother left no emotional room for any other woman in Toole's life (although he did date some women exclusively in his lifetime), others have disputed the suggestion that he was a homosexual, including David Kubach, a longtime friend who also served with Toole in the army. The authors of his biography, Ignatius Rising, were not personally acquainted with him, and "not knowing him makes a big difference", Kubach said.
Toole disappeared on January 20, 1969, after a dispute with his mother. Receipts found in his car show that Toole drove to the west coast and then to Milledgeville, Georgia. Here he visited the home of then deceased writer Flannery O'Connor. It was during what is assumed to be a trip back to New Orleans that Ken Toole stopped outside Biloxi, Mississippi, and committed suicide by putting one end of a garden hose into the exhaust pipe of his car and the other into the window of the car in which he was sitting. He died due to self-induced asphyxiation on March 26, 1969. An envelope was left on the dashboard of the car and was marked "to my parents". However, the suicide note inside the envelope was destroyed by his mother, who made conflicting statements as to its general contents. He was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.
After his death, Thelma Toole in 1976 insisted that author Walker Percy, by then a faculty member at Loyola University New Orleans, read the manuscript for Dunces. Percy was hesitant at first, but eventually gave in and fell in love with the book. A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980, and Percy provided the foreword.
The first printing was only 2500 copies by LSU Press. A number of these were sent to Scott Kramer, an executive and producer at 20th Century Fox, to pitch around Hollywood, but the book generated little initial interest there. However, the novel attracted much attention in the literary world. A year later, in 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies in 18 languages.
Toole's only other novel is The Neon Bible, which he wrote at age 16 and considered too juvenile a writing attempt to submit for publication while he was alive. However, due to the great interest in Toole, The Neon Bible was published in 1989. The novel was made into a feature film of the same name in 1995. (From Wikipedia.)
A masterwork of comedy.... The novel astonishes with its inventiveness, it lives in the play of its voices. A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing less than a grand comic fugue
New York Times Book Review
The hero of John Kennedy Toole's incomparable comic classic is one Ignatius J. Reilly, huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans' lower depths, incredible true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures
Henry Kisor - Chicago Sun-Times
The episodes explode one after the other like fireworks on a story night. No doubt about it, this book is destined to become a classic.
1. Walker Percy (in the Introduction) uses the words gargantuan and Falstaffian to describe Ignatius. Is it only his size that makes Ignatius seem larger than life? Percy likens him to the late screen comic Oliver Hardy. To which more recent personalities could Ignatius be compared?
2. The first chapter of A Confederacy of Dunces is generally thought to be among the funniest in American literature. Do you agree? What other comic novels remind you of A Confederacy of Dunces and why?
3. Ignatius constantly criticizes and deprecates his mother while relying on her to keep his life together. Does she feel the same way about her son? What does she need from him and what does she get for her pains?
4. The city of New Orleans plays a central role in the novel, seeming to be a character in and of itself. ould this novel have been set in another American city? Elaborate.
5. Project Ignatius and Myrna into the future. They are supposed to be in love, but find themselves fighting before ever leaving the city. Will they make it to New York? Can New York survive Ignatius? What possibilities do you see for them?
6. Ignatius is a virgin, but Myrna declares herself to be sexually uninhibited. Is each telling the truth? Can you see them becoming intimate? Discuss this in light of your own experience or that of a friend’s.
7. Ignatius thinks of himself as a knight errant seeking to set the modern world in line with his theories of good taste and solid geometry. Are his efforts doomed to failure? Has he chosen his quests unwisely or does the fault lie in his personality? Is the way he views the world askew?
8. Is Ignatius purely lazy or does his attitude toward work reflect his disdain for the modern world of commerce? Ignatius feels he is an anachronism. Where would he fit in?
9. Although the book is longer than the average novel, Walker Percy fought against it being severely edited. What do you think of his decision? If you were to expand or cut something, what would it be?
10. The book is elaborately plotted, but does it work? What do you find unbelievable or improbable?
11. In the forty years since A Confederacy of Dunces was written our attitudes toward what constitutes pornography have changed. Given the same circumstances, would Lana Lee be arrested today for her bird show? Develop a scenario suitable for today’s more permissive times.
12. It is unusual for a current novel to use written dialect. Would A Confederacy of Dunces be the same if characters like Burma and Santa spoke in standard English?
13. In the twenty-plus years since its publication A Confederacy of Dunces has become a cult novel. What does that mean to you? Give examples of other cult novels you may have read. Have you joined in slavish devotion to any of these works?
14. In a letter dated March 5, 1965, Toole critiques his own novel writing that he “was certain that the Levys were the book’s worst flaw” and “that couple kept slipping from my grasp as I tried to manipulate them throughout the book” (Nevils and Hardy, page 139). What did he mean? And do you agree? Are they the only characters who don’t come to life? Toole lauds other characters as being representative of New Orleans. Who do you think they might be?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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