Monthly Archives: February 2012

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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Mardi Gras Traditions, Beads and Bare Breasts Optional

This Tuesday is Mardi Gras and New Orleans is in full swing. It’s a time for revelry and abandonment, but for many New Orleanians it is also a time for family. I know that strikes outsiders as odd–since images of Girls Gone Wild gloss the American imagination of Mardi Gras. But there are wonderful traditions in New Orleans during the Carnival season that are based on the importance of community, not coed debauchery. In fact, when I think of Mardi Gras, I think of king cake parties, neighborhood parades and of course the stunning Mardi Gras Indians who dance and sing in tribute to their community’s survival.

And there is a less official tradition held by many fans of Toole all over the world. Over the course of writing Butterfly in the Typewriter, I have spoken to numerous people (so many I have lost count in fact) that read Confederacy as an annual tradition during the Carnival season. What a perfect time to revisit a parade of New Orleans characters in a most hilarious novel.

While I often visit New Orleans, at this point in my life I would much rather read Confederacy than join the masses descending on the Crescent City for Mardi Gras. If I lived in the city I might feel differently. But in the spriti of Mardi Gras I do keep a tradition of making a king cake. The process has become my yearly ritual: the sweet cinnamon dough is rolled out, braided, and formed into a circle. Then after it’s baked frosting is poured over the cake and vibrant colored sugar is sprinkled on top–green, gold and purple. It is outrageously decadent. Such a rich treat is meant to be shared, in that way celebrating the connectedness of various communities, much like the cake: woven and round.

Alas, I can’t send you a slice of my king cake—but I will share with you my favorite recipe, the one I always use, by Chef John Folse. No beads or bare breasts necessary.

And if you don’t have a Mardi Gras party to go to this year, the cake is just as delicious when enjoyed with a cup of chicory coffee while following Toole’s wild krewe on parade in A Confederacy of Dunces.

Chef John Folse’s King Cake can be found here: http://www.jfolse.com/recipes/desserts/cakes12.htm.  If you have a Mardi Gras tradition share it below.

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!–Let the Good Times Roll!

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Reclaiming “An American Genius”

While living in New York City in 1961 John Kennedy Toole had a chance encounter with novelist James Purdy. It was the first time Toole gained an acquaintance with a published, and at the time, widely read author.  This meeting came during Toole’s struggle to determine what kind of literary track he would pursue–either academics or fiction writing. 

Ironically–while Toole would reach posthumous success for a single novel–Purdy would continue to write and publish for nearly fifty years after meeting Toole in that Manhattan bar—but still die in relative obscurity in 2009.  He lived his final years in a one-room apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by his collection of turn-of-the-century paintings of sparring boxers.

Chances are you are not very familiar with this writer that Gore Vidal called an “authentic American genius”–a writer who still receives lasting acclaim in Europe but who left American critics baffled as to how to make sense of him. But I don’t think Purdy will wallow in obscurity for very long. His writings and his life are just too damn interesting.

He was from the Midwest, taught in Cuba, traveled to Europe and turned to writing while living in Chicago as part of the avant garde artist circle centered around Gertrude Abercrombie and Dizzy Gillespie. And his work is expansive. At times his short stories remind me of the prose poems of Charles Baudelaire. In “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” Purdy merges sympathy with the terrifying in his depiction of a pitiful boy deprived of grieving his father and stuck with a mother that loathes him. One night as the mother burns his pictures in the stove, his grief erupts into an animalistic howl that continues to haunt me. At other times Purdy uses the more common tropes of twentieth century ficition: cheating spouses, alcoholics and disgruntled middle-class workers. And there is often a dark humor that underlies it all.

Like Toole, Purdy struggled with the publishing industry. His first book, a collection of short stories, was self-published, paid for by a patron.  He sent it to Dame Edith Sitwell who then ushered his work into a publishing house. Then came his first novel, Malcolm, a reflection of some of his experiences in Chicago. It gained wide popularity. But his works following Malcolm perplexed critics in the U.S.

There was also another issue. His reputation struggled against the prejudices of his era. As one of his close friends observed in an interview with me, Purdy was gay at a time when for an artist such a label was as political as it was personal. While some of Purdy’s characters are gay, his works neither push an equality agenda nor adopt the stereotypes of homosexuality. A writer who challenged stereotypes with no political agenda?–How dangerous!  At the time, he left both sides of the social equation unsettled.

I think readers today will focus on Purdy’s diversity of voice and his energy in writing.  They will not get hung up on identity politics.  Because despite the xenophobic and homophobic sentiments sometimes expressed in our contemporary national debate, I suspect most of us have shifted towards an understanding of our world as a multiplicity of  perspectives offering many colors and voices that deserve to be heard, and thereby deserve a place in art. Despite Purdy’s relative isolation at the end of his life, he understood this multiplicity in a very deep way. It is why, I suspect, he wanted to explore the margins of society; because that’s where the true texture of life becomes apparent. Toole felt the same way.
So how could a writer whose novel Malcolm had once been commonly assigned in college English classes, who Dame Edith Sitwell deemed a great literary talent, who Gore Vidal continues to laude today, and who so many Europeans consider to be one of the key writers in the American literary canon–how could he die in obscurity? Well–it’s not the first time we have done this to one of our own. After all, Edgar Allan Poe suffered a similar fate. It was the French—particularly Baudelaire who railed against the shortsightedness of American critics who cast Poe as a minor poet.

Eventually we came around–and I suspect we will do the same with Purdy. It’s just a matter of time. 

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An Endless Parade of Poorly Trained Acrobats

Photo credit: Flickr user Steve Voght

With the election year gaining steam I am noticing an increasing use of the popular phrase “confederacy of dunces.” In titling his book Toole was inspired by this Jonathan Swift quote:

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

From Republicans to Democrats, from Supreme Court justices to pundits sitting around tables exchanging platitudes–people love to wittily place the label “a confederacy of dunces” on groups they deem ridiculous. “What confederacy of dunces upholds that corporations are people?” they say. Or–“Spend more money when we already have record high deficits!—what confederacy of dunces came up with that idea?”  So on and so on. 

Toole would love to know that the title of his book has been adopted into our vernacular–Swift too, I suspect. But there is often an aspect of this phrase that people overlook when using it.   A Confederacy of Dunces is not about dunces and geniuses. In fact a genius never really appears in the novel. While Ignatius believes he is a genius surrounded by dunces, we know he is as ridiculous as every other character, if not more so.

I know, I know…some who are familiar with Toole’s life will say—Don’t you get it? Toole was the genius and those dunces in New York City that rejected his novel were in confederacy against him!  Well that part of the story is fraught with errors that I address in Butterfly, but most importantly one must remember Toole did not focus on his own sense of dejection as he wrote the novel.  In fact he was absolutely convinced a New York house would publish his book.  And when Robert Gottlieb first wrote him praising it, he certainly didn’t imagine it would all end the way it did. Perhaps his title was eerily prophetic for what ultimately happened, but he did not intend it to be that way.

Besides, Toole’s satire is far more complex and far more profound than a way of saying the rare genius suffers conspiring idiots. In fact, Toole’s novel operates on the principle that despite all the divisions we make out of society, rich or poor, black or white, genius or dunce, we are all deeply interconnected. While we may differentiate ourselves in a variety of ways, convinced in the stability of our convictions, eventually the delusions of these divisions will succumb to the inescapable tethers that bind us together. No matter how far we push away from each other, inevitably the strings contract and fling us back onto each other.  Politicians point their fingers at their opponents and one race points fingers at the stereotypes of another race, but eventually they will all collide in absurd ways.  Its awkward, and tragic, and funny all at once.

That’s not to say Toole was making a political statement or suggesting a pathway to overcome differences and achieve a more harmonious society. We will always try to separate, divide, distinguish and then at a tipping point tumble back together like an endless parade of poorly trained acrobats.  

And for Toole the true genius is not the one that identifies the confederacies of dunces around him, but rather the person that claims neither genius nor dunce, and laughs at it all as he tumbles about in the absurd parade.

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