64 Parishes

John Kennedy Toole

New Orleans author John Kennedy Toole is known for his posthumously published novel "A Confederacy of Dunces," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

John Kennedy Toole

Courtesy of Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane University Library

John Kennedy Toole. Unidentified

John Kennedy Toole was the author of the posthumously published novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), a raucous, sprawling comic narrative depicting the idiosyncrasies of life in mid-twentieth century New Orleans. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, one of very few works Toole wrote during his brief life, remains a classic text of American humor. After a childhood in New Orleans, Toole completed a graduate degree in English, served in the US Army in Puerto Rico, and taught on the college level in New York City; Lafayette, Louisiana; and New Orleans before committing suicide in 1969. His only other literary work was an early novella, The Neon Bible, also published posthumously.

Life and Death

Toole was born December 17, 1937, in New Orleans, the only child of John Toole and Thelma Ducoing, both of whom were in their late thirties when their son was born. Known throughout most of his life as “Ken,” Toole was educated in Orleans Parish public schools, where he excelled and graduated at age sixteen. The recipient of scholarships, he subsequently completed an undergraduate degree in English from Tulane University in 1958 and a master’s degree in literature from Columbia University in New York City in 1959.

Toole briefly taught English at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) after receiving his master’s degree but soon returned to New York City to pursue a Ph.D. at Columbia. While in that program, he taught at Hunter College and the City College of New York before being drafted into the army in 1961. For the next two years, he was primarily stationed at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico, where he taught English to Spanish-speaking recruits and wrote much of A Confederacy of Dunces. Never completing his doctoral studies, he returned to New Orleans and taught at St. Mary’s Dominican College. He submitted the manuscript of his novel to Simon and Schuster in February 1964. Editor Robert Gottlieb, at the urging of assistant Jean Marks, initially encouraged revisions. Simon and Schuster ultimately abandoned the novel, however, and returned the manuscript to him in 1965, much to Toole’s dismay.

The late 1960s witnessed Toole’s increasing depression and paranoia. Still living in his parents’ home, he seems likely to have negotiated a closeted homosexual identity, as well as a growing dependence on alcohol and increasingly erratic performances in the classroom before he resigned from teaching. After disappearing from New Orleans for two months, Toole committed suicide near Biloxi, Mississippi, on March 26, 1969, by carbon monoxide poisoning, having run tubing from the exhaust of his car into its window. Only his mother knew the contents of the suicide note he left. Toole is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces was published because of the persistence of Toole’s often overbearing mother, who had dotingly fixated on her son’s intelligence and talent throughout his lifetime. In the mid-1970s, she petitioned noted writer Walker Percy, who was then teaching creative writing at Loyola University, to promote the manuscript. Though initially skeptical, Percy soon saw the merits of the novel, and Louisiana State University Press published it in 1980 with a foreword by Percy. The book met with rave reviews, and Toole was posthumously awarded the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The novel became a best-seller and has been widely translated. Thelma Toole persisted as an unflagging and often flamboyant promoter of her son’s work until her death in 1984.

A Confederacy of Dunces focuses on the exploits of slovenly Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese, hypocritical arch-conservative loafer who is intent on condemning the modern world, supposedly preferring to retreat into the Middle Ages. The meandering plot of the picaresque novel takes this delusional antihero through various populaces of multicultural New Orleans: inept policemen, pornography-peddling street urchins, Jewish factory owners, wisecracking African Americans, self-absorbed gays and lesbians, lascivious geriatrics, corrupt owners of seedy French Quarter bars and their employees, and so forth. Toole’s deft depictions of these enclaves garnered critical praise, as did his talent for capturing the unique speech patterns of New Orleans and its surrounding areas. Moreover, the novel showcased the distinct multiple neighborhoods of New Orleans, such as the French Quarter, Uptown, the Irish Channel, and the Faubourg Marigny. Although not direct representations, both Ignatius J. Reilly and his mother, Irene Reilly, have biographical inflections of Toole and his mother, respectively.

The success of A Confederacy of Dunces prompted the 1989 publication of Toole’s coming-of-age novella, The Neon Bible, a sentimental work held by most critics to be far inferior to A Confederacy of Dunces. Nevertheless, the novella was adapted and directed as a film by Terence Davies in 1995, starring Gena Rowlands and Denis Leary. Rumors persist of a film adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces, although none has yet materialized after several ill-fated attempts.