Category Archives: biography

44th anniversay of JKT’s death

JKT's final resting place.  Photo taken 3/26/12. Message left to Toole on the paper had been washed away by the rain.

JKT’s final resting place. Photo taken 3/26/12. Message left to Toole on the paper had been washed away by the rain.

Today is the 44th anniversary of John Kennedy Toole’s death. Every year this day makes me ponder the question of “why” someone so talented, someone with so much promise, would take his own life.

A few months ago The Daily Beast published some new findings I made on his death.  At least for me, this story brings a kind of rationale to his untimely end.  You can read “The Professor and the Doomsday Clock” here.

Rest in Peace, Professor Toole.

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A Biographer’s Highest Critic

ImageWhen I first started doing research for Butterfly, I was fortunate to have met John Geiser, a tall man with thick gray hair and a distinctly Uptown New Orleans accent–a refined southern drawl, with clear pronunciation, as if every word he said was deliberate. John is a walking encyclopedia of New Orleans history. Every neighborhood, every house of note, he could tell you the story behind it. With the politest of smiles, he is quick to correct anyone who confuses Cajun with Creole or mispronounces the name of his beloved city.  It’s not “Nawlins” like a drunk tourist on Bourbon street might say. Every letter should be pronounced, he instructs: New Oorleeans.  

John is also deeply connected to the Toole story.  He was neighbors with the Tooles growing up. He walked with little Kenny on the first day of school in 1942.  And he was there at the end, helping Thelma Toole in the last few years of her life, taking her about town, making photocopies, whatever she needed. After she died, John served as the executor of her estate and was integral in establishing the Toole Papers at Tulane University.  We wouldn’t know half as much about Toole today if it were not for John’s stewardship to his friend’s legacy.  

Needless to say, he was a rich source for me to draw upon.  But because he was so close to the story, and knew Thelma Toole so well, as the release date neared I became nervous about what he would think about my book. I knew he was upset about the first biography and he felt betrayed by those authors he had helped.  I had worked hard to gain his trust.  Still, I worried John might not like some of the things I wrote, particularly about Thelma. 

Perhaps my anxiety over his response created some sort of subconscious avoidance behavior leading up to the release date. While I would normally touch base with John before coming to New Orleans, I failed to contact him to tell him about the readings and the documentary screening.  I sent out a mass email invitation to friends.  But John is a renaissance man who exists without the intrusions of a computer or a television.  And giving him the customary phone call he so deserved just slipped my mind. 

When I arrived at The Garden District Book Shop for my first reading I immediately thought of John. A Confederacy of Dunces was first released at this shop and John was there for that occasion.  His house was a few blocks away.  But it was too late to call now, I resolved.

As the chairs were being set up and wine and crackers set out for guests, I wandered around the store, enjoying the unique treasures of an independent bookshop.  I turned the corner of an aisle, and there I saw John.  He was smiling and holding my book in his hand. I will never forget what he said to me, “Cory, you did it. You got it right. It’s just beautiful.”

“You already read it?” I asked. He told me he walked into the bookstore a few days earlier and saw Butterfly on display, excitedly picked it up, started to read it and walked out without paying. John is known well enough in the neighborhood to get away with that. He returned the next day to pay for the book.

That evening I talked about the life of Toole on the anniversary of his death and saw John smiling with approval. It was a wonderful feeling. And as people asked questions, it felt as if something was being righted in this little corner of the world. We were speaking of Toole, the writer, with the respect and honor he deserves.

After the reading John invited me out to eat, along with two other friends.  We talked more about New Orleans and Thelma and Ken. And after a delicious meal we strolled back to the car, enjoying the views into the regal homes of the Garden District.  We carefully stepped over bricks upturned by the roots of the ancient trees towering above us as the evening wind rustled the leaves. It was a perfect New Orleans night, one that seemed like a dream to me after so many years of researching and writing. 

In the days that followed I heard from more of Toole’s friends. They felt, as John told me, I got it right. 

I have enjoyed reading the official reviews over the past few weeks, but I must admit, praise from people who knew Toole is the highest praise I could receive. Afterall, I had them in mind through the whole process.

When I first started writing the book, long before I had an agent, an editor, or even a title, I wrote down three questions that became my guideposts: 

1. Is this the biography of Toole that I wanted to read but could not find: engaging, honest, balanced, fair and grounded in research?

 2. Will Toole’s friends recognize him in this depiction of his life?

 3. Would Toole recognize himself in this book if he were alive to read it? 

 That third question is nearly impossible to answer of course, but I held it close to me as I wrote.

And on the night Butterfly in the Typewriter was released, I strolled through Toole’s Uptown neighborhood with his old friend.  And for the first time I thought to myself, yes, Ken would approve.

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The Book Is Here!

ImageI had been working on a variety of possible postings for this week–and then the UPS man knocked on my door.  He delivered the book–hardcover, refined, official–I love it!

It really is a fine book, especially from a design perspective.  From the font choices to the photo insert, it is well thought-out and crafted with care. And I can’t take much of the credit for that–praises go to the designers.

So after years of work, years of beating the drum for Toole’s story, I think everything that needs to said right now is this:  I am content, humbled and honored sitting outside on a spring-like day with this book in my hand, flipping through the pages.   

Ken: I hope you approve.

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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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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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Is this Toole’s Last Letter to the World?

During my last trip to the Toole Papers at Tulane I had an experience that literally sent chills down my spine.  I spent an hour examining the very rough manuscript of one of Toole’s short stories titled “Disillusionment.”  The structure of the piece is disorienting.  But the title alone demanded my attention. 

In the story, there appears to be two main characters, a middle-aged woman and a young man named Samuel.  Both are outcasts. And the first scene that Samuel appears in the story takes place in the year 1937—the year of Toole’s birth.

To my surprise, submersed in this very rough draft I found one of the most wonderful descriptions of New Orleans Toole ever wrote—far more complex and rich than his descriptions of the city in A Confederacy of Dunces.  And as the story carried on, I noticed clues pointing to something ominous in the design.  Once Samuel found a place of refuge, a second floor apartment in the middle-aged woman’s house in the French Quarter, he ascended the stairwell, entered the room and slit his wrists. What’s even more arresting is how Toole characterizes the suicide as eerily beautiful, a moment of freedom and reconnection with someone to whom Samuel feels he belongs. 

I could hardly contain myself as I read these passages in the Special Collections reading room.  “Oh my god” I kept muttering under my breath, surely attracting suspicious glances from other researchers.  The only question I could not answer was the date.  When did he write it?

Months later, and just before I made final edits to Butterfly, I did a last minute interview with an acquaintance of Toole’s. Charlotte Powell, now the owner of Book Rack in Birmingham, Alabama, had Toole as a guest at several of her parties at her apartment in the French Quarter in 1967.  I never mentioned the story “Disillusionment” to her, but she told me of one night at one of her gatherings they received word that a woman had committed suicide down the street by slitting her wrists in a second floor apartment in the Quarter. 

It seems likely “Disillusionment” is Toole’s contemplation about that event.  But of course he changes the victim to a young man, begins it in the year of his birth and ends it with the young man’s suicide.  And all of this seems to have occured mere months before Toole took his own life.

I must admit, in the absence of his suicide note (which his mother destroyed), I often think about “Disillusionment”, as if behind the fiction lies Toole’s last letter to the world.  And to be honest, it does not strike me like a cry for help. It does not strike me as a frantic moment of distress.  All seems to be at peace–at least in the story.

Of course, to read those lovely passages written by Toole and my assessment of them in the context of his life… you will have to read Butterfly in the Typewriter.

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Done with Copyedits

Earlier this week I got my first glance at the design of the book. It is quite exciting to see it coming together. Copy edits were finalized and today they started transferring the text into the designed pages.

On my last day of reviewing the copy edits I received an email from a past student of Toole’s. She gave me the phone number of a woman who knew him. I had a lovely conversation with her. Although she did not know Toole very well, he went to several parties at her apartment in the French Quarter in 1967. Luckily, I included some of her memories in the manuscipt, which echoed many of the other stories about him I have documented.

We have also been working hard on the photo insert. It is shaping up quite nicely. I gave Joe Sanford a sneak peak at it and he commented: “Wonderful–It is a most beautiful photo essay of Ken’s life.”

Proofs will be coming next week. After that there is one last chance for any corrections and then we are off to print.

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Manucript Submitted

After nearly five years of research and eight months of intense writing, rewriting and editing, I submitted the first draft of Butterfly in the Typewriter to my editor. Now I wait for my editor’s review. This gives me some time to reflect on the book writing process.

When my agent first contacted me I remember restraining some enthusiasm for the project because, as I told him, I did not want him to think I was insanely obsessed with this subject. He calmly replied “Well you have to be obsessed with a subject to write a book about it.” I didn’t realize how true that was at the time. I asked myself frequently why I was doing this– as my wife took on more of the burden at home and I no longer could let myself go in a moment. Even when I ate dinner the book was on my mind. In the last few weeks as my ever-looming deadline neared, food, what I consider one of the great joys in life, became bland.

Of course, I knew why I was writing the book. I felt it needed to be written. I was writing the book that I wanted to read, but couldn’t find, five years ago. This was my guiding principle throughout this endeavor. I continually approached the book as a reader. Of course, other reasons came to light along the way, as I came to know friends and acquaintances of Toole and as I was drawn into the intrigue of the story.

Ever since I started on this project many people have mentioned in passing to me that they too havean idea for a book. And of course I have encouraged them. But before asking about book ideas, my first question would be, why do you think it needs to be written? It seems you need to have a vision of the thing from the beginning…and even then you need to be ready for it to turn out quite different from what you expect.

So several days ago, I hit the “submit” button and sent hundreds of pages of writing and research into digital space. There were no fireworks, no crowds cheering, no lines at my door waiting for my autograph. I didn’t expect that response, nor do I expect it once this book is released. But perhaps I was not ready for that odd empty feeling, having handed off something I have labored over for so long. Toole expressed similar sentiments in a letter to Robert Gottlieb, when he essentially admits his novel has serious problems, but he was terrified that someone would actually point them out to him.

Perhaps unlike Toole, I welcome my editor’s critique. With some distance I am already starting to rethink some sentences. I am getting more sleep. And I am slowly regaining my taste buds. Last night, for the first time in months, my wife and I enjoyed a lovely dinner. In fact…it was the first time I ever ordered a steak at a restaurant. It was delicious!

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Book Deal!

It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks. I recently returned from New Orleans where we had two screenings of the documentary, one at Loyola with a lively audience. I met with Bunt Percy, the wife of Walker Percy, and her daughter. I had a drink at the Sazerac Bar where Toole met some friends, just before beginning the novel. I had the good fortune of strolling through the French Quarter with my dear friend, as well as Toole’s friend, Joel Fletcher. And many thanks to Joe Sanford for putting me up in the studio, driving me around and taking me out to the Gulf Coast, a long overdue trip.

But best of all, a few hours after my plane landed in New Orleans, my agent called. We have a book deal with Da Capo Press for the biography of John Kennedy Toole. Now I am writing, writing, writing. The tentative date for release is spring 2012!

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Chapter Completed and A Morning Remembered

I just finished the chapter on 1963 (chapter 10), which was a turning point in Toole’s life. In January of 1963 he returned to Fort Buchanan, PR from a holiday trip to New Orleans and decided to begin writing Confederacy.

In May of 1963, his writing was going so well he decided to move back to New Orleans. In the chapter I explore his experience writing the book, some of the literary influences he gathered in Puerto Rico, and his eventual decision to move back home. It is a great deal of content to cover, but all of it very important to understanding Toole. It was this year in his life that gave us Confederacy, although his decision to return home was an ill-fated one.

As I struggled through this chapter, I recieved some sad news from Lafayette, LA. One of Toole’s closest friends, a woman he loved dearly, has become quite ill.

I spent a few hours with her at her house in April. She served me coffee and cookies and we talked about Toole, art, teaching, politics and humanity. She made me promise to teach the stories of her friend Ernest J. Gaines in my next Southern Literature Course. I agreed.

I showed her photos of Toole, many of which she had never seen. She looked at his Army pictures as if he were a stranger; she never saw him in a uniform. Then I showed her my favorite picture, Toole sitting at a table with a genuine smile that looks like he could erupt into laughter at any moment. She pointed to it and said, “Yes, that’s the Ken I remember. He looked just like that.”

Then she showed me her paintings and a beautiful pink rose she had picked; it was to be the subject of her next watercolor.

It was a lovely morning in the heart of Cajun country.

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