A Confederacy of Dunces | Study Guide

John Kennedy Toole

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John Kennedy Toole | Biography


Childhood and Family Life

John Kennedy Toole, known as "Ken" for most of his life, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 17, 1937. He was the only child of an unsuccessful car salesman and a former teacher who gave private lessons in speech and music. Thelma Toole was a formidable personality. A friend of the author's once described her as a "splendid monster." Toole's biographer, Cory MacLauchlin, says she "has a way of zapping the energy from you if you spend enough time watching her [videotaped interviews]." She had high expectations for her son and was quite domineering. By contrast, Toole's father was a retiring man who became ill and confined himself to a back room of the house. His incapacity caused Toole to return home to help support the family in 1963.

Toole's mother proved the most important force in the writer's life. It was she who encouraged her young son to take part in stage productions and to serve as the emcee for a local radio show at age 10. These activities capitalized on Toole's innate knack for entertaining. An intelligent boy with a high IQ, Toole skipped first grade and excelled academically throughout his school career. In high school he wrote for the school newspaper and yearbook. At age 16 he wrote his first novel, The Neon Bible, published posthumously in 1989.

Education and Teaching Career

Toole entered Tulane University on a full scholarship in 1954 and graduated with honors four years later. He first studied engineering and later switched to English. He was awarded a fellowship to earn his Master of Arts degree at Columbia University and completed the degree in just one year. He then returned to Louisiana to become an assistant professor of English at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. He led an active social life that year, dampened only by contact with his overbearing mother.

In 1960, at age 22, Toole accepted a teaching position at Hunter College in New York City. He became the youngest professor in the school's history. Although he concurrently began to pursue a doctorate in literature at nearby Columbia, he abandoned his efforts. A year later, in 1961, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico. There he taught English to Spanish-speaking soldiers. Among his other accomplishments, Toole was fluent in Spanish. He was promoted to sergeant during his two-year post, a position that allowed him time to write.

Writing A Confederacy of Dunces

Toole received an honorable discharge in 1963 and returned to New Orleans to assist his family when his father became ill and was no longer able to work. He lived at home, accepting a teaching position at Dominican College. During this period of time, he completed the first draft of A Confederacy of Dunces, which he had begun writing in Puerto Rico.

The remainder of Toole's short life was spent attempting to find a commercial publisher for the manuscript. When a book deal failed to materialize, he descended into paranoia and despair. For three years he worked with renowned editor Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief at the publishing company Simon and Schuster. Gottlieb recognized Toole's considerable talent but found A Confederacy of Dunces too meandering and pointless for publication. Gottlieb has since claimed that not publishing Toole's novels was his "most conspicuous failure." Unable to see eye-to-eye with Gottlieb, Toole ultimately gave up seeking publication of the novel and came to regard himself as a failure.

Suicide and Posthumous Success

After facing rejection Toole became so disheveled, paranoid, and erratic that he was forced to take a leave of absence from teaching. He was also drinking heavily. He spent the last two months of his life on a cross-country road trip. According to his mother he went as far as California. He committed suicide on March 26, 1969, at an out-of-the-way roadside spot outside Biloxi, Mississippi, by running a garden hose from the exhaust pipe of his car into the car's window. He was less than a hundred miles from New Orleans and was only 31.

His posthumous fame is due to the zeal with which his mother, Thelma, continued to push the manuscript. Her crusade culminated with an appeal to American novelist Walker Percy, whom she visited during the writer's office hours at Loyola University. Percy's admiration for the novel eventually led to its publication in 1980 by Louisiana State University Press. A critical success, A Confederacy of Dunces earned Toole the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1981. The novel has since sold millions of copies and has been translated into nearly 20 languages.

Although American biographer Cory MacLauchlin's Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces (2012) is the most comprehensive look at Toole's short life, MacLauchlin admits that the writer was basically an unknowable figure.

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