Monthly Archives: May 2009

Looking backward, generation to generation

I have completed Chapter 9, which documents Toole’s first year in Puerto Rico where he was an English instructor in the Army.  The chapter ends a few months before he begins writing Confederacy, but offers some key experiences that clearly influenced the development of the novel. In studying his letters from 1962 I have been keenly aware of the challenge of rendering the idiosyncrasies of a generation.

Toole’s letters from Puerto Rico in 1962 are filled with humorous observations, but they are often at the expense of Puerto Ricans.  He makes some lamentable comments that would have broken the hearts of his students had they read his letters.  But yet, he was known as a caring and devoted teacher to his Puerto Rican students. In context, his letters are private and, as I point out in the chapter, a game of narrative voice.  But that does not make his most deplorable comments anymore palatable to me as a reader.

So the question becomes, how do we understand such commentary from a person reared in a social climate and generation that considered racial differences inherent and natural?  Is it unfair to impose our own values of the politically correct onto a moment in history that had yet to cultivate those social values?  Or are we obligated to uproot these inequities and take them to task? 

Of course, decades from now, our children will struggle with our own idiosyncrasies.  They might despair the contradiction of our lip service to “going green,” but our actual laziness when it came to changing our lives for such a principle.  Or perhaps they will find the resolution to the debate on same sex marriage a simple question of civil rights.  Indeed, our children will shake their heads at us too.  But hopefully they will seek to understand the milieu of our era, as I do the same in this project, not as a justification, but as a way to better understand the slow movement of change, the hard earned lessons of any generation.  

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Why a Critical Biography of Toole?

After two years of research I have had many wonderful experiences in researching for this book. It is difficult to know where to begin. My impulse is to justify why this book needs to be written through academic reasoning, citing its place within Modern Novel Studies or American Literary Biography. While such reasoning led me to the idea to write a biography on John Kennedy Toole, it is not the reason I have dedicated so much time and energy to this pursuit.

I derive motivation from an ever increasing sense that his story needs to be told with sensitivity and objectivity. The most uplifting moments in writing this book have been the opportunities to speak with Toole’s friends. I have found that their love for him runs deep. They still harbor disappointment and pangs of guilt that they could do nothing to save him. They, above all else, offer glimpses into the mind of Toole, his mannerisms and behaviors. And they all feel that his life has yet to be cast into a proper biography.

Through the conversations I have held with people like Joel Fletcher, Pat Rickels and Dave Kubach I feel I have come to know Toole on a more personal level. I can almost hear how he might laugh or the tone of his voice. These are not delusions of my own grandeur. But, as I have found, a necessary process for the biographer to connect with the subject. And through this process of getting to know Toole, I am convinced that he deserves a fair narrative, considering he had so little control over his own legacy.

I am not so bold to suggest I am the only one to undertake such a task. There is another person other than myself, working to understand Toole. Joe Sanford is currently making a documentary on Toole’s life. I invite everyone to visit the film website: www.jktoole.com. Joe and I will continue our collaboration. Our projects are distinct, but we share a similar goal to offer an exploration of Toole’s life.

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First Post

This blog will serve as a depository for thoughts and experiences as I write a critical biography of John Kennedy Toole.

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