Category Archives: toole biograpy

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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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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Filed under a confederacy of dunces, biography, john kennedy toole, john kennedy toole biography, Jonathan Swift, toole biograpy

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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