The Myth of Toole: A Consolation of Embellishment

This week I did an interview with Dan Kaufman for his show Myoclonic Jerk. I admit, before the interview I had to look up the definition of myoclonic jerk, which is a physical condition and not indicative of Dan’s personality in any way.  Dan was considerate, thoughtful and well-prepared. It was a fun interview.  And his shows remind me of This American Life.

 However, I hadn’t realized until we were well into the interview that it was the first time since I had finished the book that I was discussing the Toole myth at length. The myth in question goes like this: After he poured his soul into his great novel, Toole was consumed with despair over his countless rejections and committed suicide.  All seemed lost, but his sweet dedicated mother, emerging from her grief, picked up her son’s cross.  She suffered the trials and tribulations of shortsighted New York editors, but eventually achieved his dream of publication and recognition in winning the Pulitzer.  The writer is vindicated, redeemed and immortalized.  

“Why do you think this version of his story intrigues people so much?” Dan asked. The answer to this question became apparent to me when I was reading reviews of the early 1980s for Confederacy.  Critics, having very little information about Toole at the time, tried to offer a description of his life. Readers wanted to know, after all.  But in doing so a rather self-serving narrative took root, one that Thelma Toole trumpeted. Unsurprisingly, the story of Toole’s triumph gained particular resonance with aspiring writers and artists who regularly suffer the pangs of rejection. A story of one who was consumed by rejection, but ultimately prevailed, offers hope. It also justifies suspicion of the gatekeepers that sift through submissions and dish out those heartless denials.

Sure, Toole suffered a tragic end, but he only went to one editor and Gottlieb did not singlehandedly destroy him. In fact, there is no indication his novel was actually rejected in his lifetime.  And while his mother diligently pursued publication after his death, she was not a “sweet old lady” wanting nothing more than recognition for her son. The details of his descent towards suicide are far more complicated than the Gottlieb letters (although they are insightful) and Thelma Toole was far more complicated than the archetype of a selfless mother. Of course, I explore these intricacies in depth in Butterfly in the Typewriter

My particular problem with the Toole myth is that it oversimplifies Toole and his mother. It ignores his father, such a quiet man who easily faded into the background.  And it overlooks the factor of mental illness, which Toole clearly grappled with at the end.  However the great story of vindication might serve us, I’m sorry, his suicide was not a romantic gesture in a tale of vindication, nor was it a pointed message to the gatekeepers of book publishing in the high rises of midtown Manhattan.

I did not intend to deprive artists of a consoling story when they detect the dunces acting in confederacy against them. I’ve had my fair share of rejection and we all need stories of hope. In fact, that’s exactly what myths do–they help explain the unexplainable, especially in situations where we feel utterly helpless. But it doesn’t make them true.

Until the interview with Dan I had never considered the fans of Toole that might be dismayed by my debunking the mythical aspects of the narrative. But to those who might feel that way, I say take heart.  I set out to present Toole in all the rich complexity that I came to understand him. And for me this had great value, because I came to know him as more than an author, more than a suicide, more than a sacrifice to literature and more than a humorist.  I came to know him as a person—someone who deserved a better end and a rich legacy. It took the exercise of writing the book to discern this portrait. But this was my ultimate goal: offering readers a sense of the real John Kennedy Toole. 

My thanks to Dan for giving me the chance to reflect on this issue.  Once his show is released I will post a link to it here.

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Filed under a confederacy of dunces, biography, john kennedy toole, john kennedy toole biography

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