Thelma Toole, the mother of the novelist John Kennedy Toole—author of the extraordinary almost-unpublished novel A Confederacy of Dunces—delivered one of the most irresponsible accusations in American literary history. But responsibility really wasn’t her thing. Instead, it was to ensure that her son’s genius would be acknowledged: preferably by the world and ideally by means of Robert Gottlieb, a kingpin of New York publishing.
So when Gottlieb, a young but virtuosic editor at Simon & Schuster, opted not to publish Ken Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the mid 1960s—and then when the 32-year-old author killed himself in 1969, 50 years ago this past March—Thelma mixed correlation and causation, sending up a full-throttled J’accuse from New Orleans to New York. Gottlieb—she stated publicly1—by rejecting Toole’s manuscript, had effectively killed her son.
Gottlieb’s restraint in the face of Thelma’s behavior was more than heroic. He stayed silent, recognizing that a grieving mother will do horrible things to assuage her suffering. But Gottlieb cannot be so easily exonerated from another charge leveled against him. This one came from the broader literary establishment and was backed by the Pulitzer Prize Board, which awarded A Confederacy of Dunces a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Certainly by then, if not before, this accusation could stick: Gottlieb, like much of the New York publishing world at the time (eight other presses would pass on the manuscript), misunderstood Toole’s book.
Today, 50 years after the death of Toole, during a technological era when social media intensify and publicize our status anxieties, and at an ecological point in time when the city where the novel originated—New Orleans—is under seasonal threat of Armageddon, it has never been more important to revisit Toole’s masterpiece.
If only as a critique of late capitalism, A Confederacy of Dunces uncannily identifies the deep ennui that accompanies today’s rat race, questioning what it means to do as the protagonist’s mother begs her son: “Make good.”
Only an aspiring writer could fully appreciate how Ken Toole, in his late 20s, must have felt once he received Simon & Schuster’s initial response to A Confederacy of Dunces. Gottlieb’s assistant, Jean Ann Jollett, rescued the unsolicited manuscript from the slush pile and brought it to her boss’s attention. She wrote to Toole that “Bob” was out of town but had “asked me to write you that he’d call you or write you immediately upon his return.” She added, “Is now the time for me to tell you that I laughed, chortled, collapsed my way through Confederacy? I did.”
It was not the time. Yes, Gottlieb did appreciate Toole’s considerable talent. And he was especially taken with the novel’s humor (“You are wildly funny often, funnier than almost anyone around, and our kind of funny”). But in his first letter to Toole, the editor explicitly stated his reason for not publishing the manuscript as it then stood. Over the next two years, between 1964 and 1966, his explanation never wavered.
“You have to be saying something you really mean,” Toole’s friend Emilie Griffin wrote him in a 1961 letter, “not just dredging characters and situations up because they are charming.” Gottlieb echoed this advice in his correspondence: “There must be a point to everything you have in the book, a real point, not just amusingness that’s forced to figure itself out.” And once more: “It isn’t really about anything.” “So,” Gottlieb admitted after two years of tortuous back and forth, “I don’t know what to tell you.”
Three years later, there was nothing to tell. Toole was dead.
Meanwhile, the worn manuscript for A Confederacy of Dunces sat on top of a cedar armoire in the author’s bedroom at 7632 Hampsen Street in New Orleans. Ken Toole left it there before striking out on a month-long road trip that ended with his suicide in Biloxi: carbon monoxide poisoning in a car on the side of the highway.
It took Thelma two years until she could step into her son’s room, upon which she found—and read for the first time, in its entirety2—his remarkable novel. Her assessment was as immediate and unequivocal as it was biased and accurate. “It was,” she said, “the work of a genius.”
After the big publishing houses turned down the manuscript, Thelma confronted a visiting Loyola University professor—Walker Percy, whose 1960 novel The Moviegoer had won a National Book Award—and browbeat him into reading it. “My only fear,” Percy recalled later in his foreword to the book, “was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.”
The fear quickly subsided. “In this case I read on,” he wrote. “First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then with a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.” The novel, now in the hands of a reader who intuitively understood it, finally became a reality. Four years later Louisiana State University Press, persuaded by Percy’s enthusiasm, published Toole’s book to global acclaim.
Toole’s novel identifies the deep ennui that accompanies today’s rat race, questioning what it means to do as the protagonist’s mother begs her son: “make good.”
The contrast between Percy’s reaction and that of the New York publishing establishment is instructive. One plausible reason for the divergence, I believe, is this: Walker Percy was a Southerner steeped in the same regional literary tradition and sensibility that nourished Toole’s creativity. This Southern literary tradition—from the Agrarians’ I’ll Take My Stand (1930) to Faulkner’s critique of motorized modernity in The Reivers (1962) (and even to the work of Jesmyn Ward today)—critiqued the homogenized American gospel of hard work and progress.
In Toole’s novel, the Horatio Alger, up-from-the-bootstraps narrative—as well as axiomatic cultural notions such as entrepreneurial advancement, endless industrial progress, and commercial ambition in a modernizing America—come under an extraordinarily sustained and satirical scrutiny.
The New York publishers were wrong. A Confederacy of Dunces did, in fact, make a point, a fundamental one. Percy grasped it immediately: the book was a screed against American materialism and optimism, a defense of the oddball outcasts who live on the fringes and resist the push of progress, and a celebration of those who try to drop out with dignity.
The novel delivered one of American literature’s finest condemnations of a national obsession so pervasive that, with the exception of the South, the United States experienced it the way a fish experiences water: A Confederacy of Dunces challenged the whole idea of work.
Toole’s critique begins and ends with the novel’s protagonist, the unprecedented antihero Ignatius J. Reilly. Ignatius, 30, is a flatulent and grandiose medievalist who lives with his mother, reads Boethius, and, between chronic bouts of masturbation and moviegoing, scribbles “a lengthy indictment against our century.” But this life is tragically interrupted when Ignatius’s mother drives her Plymouth into the wall of a French Quarter townhouse on St. Ann Street (after drinking three Dixie beers in a Bourbon Street dive bar called the Night of Joy). Now Ignatius is forced to find employment within that dank workhouse of the century he despises.
“It is inconceivable that I should get a job,” he tells his mother. “Employers,” he observes, “sense in me a denial of their values.” Later, after a morning of not finding work, he concludes, “Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.” On one of his signature Big Chief tablets, in the “sanctuary” of his disgusting bedroom, he channels the fate of that “humble and pious peasant” Piers Plowman, in order to get a grip on his own situation:
The Great Chain of Being had snapped like so many paper clips strung together by some drooling idiot; death, destruction, anarchy, progress, ambition, and self-improvement were to be Piers’ new fate. And a vicious fate it was to be: now he was faced with the perversion of having to GO TO WORK.
When he does find employment, Ignatius undermines its very premise. He lasts two weeks at the New Orleans Public Library, pasting checkout slips into books, but doing so at a rate of only three or four a day because “I had my own aesthetic about pasting those slips.” He is hired to grade papers as a graduate student, but that gig ends when he dumps ungraded essays out the window and onto students’ heads. “I also told the students that, for the sake of humanity’s future, I hoped they were all sterile,” he tells his mother.
Ignatius is not lazy. He works with diligence on his “lengthy indictment,” not to mention the hyperbolic but wildly articulate verbal vitriol he routinely dashes off to his platonic girlfriend from the Bronx, Myrna Minkoff. And in a way, his ongoing subversion of the American work ethic requires an exhausting, Quixote-like commitment to the fantasy of his medievalist worldview.
“Confederacy” is so funny that it’s easy to miss how Toole’s critique of conventional commercialism extends to every character in the novel with the unfortunate fate of employment.
When offered a position filing papers at Levy Pants, Ignatius immediately subverts his responsibility by tossing the company’s files into the trash, growing bean plants with tendrils that loop like kudzu through the handles of the now empty file cabinets, decorating the place with streamers and a large Celtic cross, and writing a libelous letter on Levy Pants letterhead under the guise of the company’s owner to its biggest client (“If you molest us again, sir, you may feel the sting of the lash across your pitiful shoulders”).
After being fired from Levy Pants, Ignatius takes a job selling hot dogs from a cart he pushes around the Quarter. Deciding that selling “weenies” for Paradise Vendors might be “one of our society’s few worthwhile services” and pleased that his smock “looks like an academic gown,” he assures himself that he’ll be able to “spend his time parked somewhere by the river accumulating notes for the Journal.” Ignatius almost enjoys the unsupervised work undertaken in the streets of a city “which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive.” The catch, of course, is that he ignores the most basic rule of commerce: you’ve got to sell stuff. Naturally, Ignatius eats far more “savories” than he sells.
It’s all very funny. So funny, in fact, that it’s easy to miss how Toole’s critique of conventional commercialism—as well the subversion it fosters—extends to every character in the novel with the unfortunate fate of employment.
Burma Jones, the Night of Joy’s janitor, sees himself as stuck in modern slavery (“Whoa! If I gonna be a doorman, I gonna be the mos sabotagin doorman ever guarded a plantation”); Patrolman Mancuso is rewarded for his religious faith in hard work by being summarily assigned to a bus station bathroom stall, where he’s ordered to nab the agents of the New Orleans underworld; and the Levys—of the pants company—are rich and miserable (“Your daughters are disillusioned. I’m disillusioned. That young man you fired is disillusioned”). When Ignatius bellows to his mother, “Optimism nauseates me,” there are a half-dozen characters between him and the Quarter to back his point.
Gottlieb might have thought the novel was quite humorous. But perhaps the most significant word Percy used to describe it was “sad.” And indeed, that’s the secret of this novel: its pervasive sadness. During my most recent reading of A Confederacy of Dunces, something different happened: I got teary at the end. Watching Ignatius try to reconcile cultural commodification with his utopian notion of a previous era’s “austerity and tranquility”—or “theology and geometry”—evoked in me an unexpected ache for those who tilt at windmills (and for their troubles get sent, as Ignatius almost does, to the asylum for it).
Sure, Ignatius critiques what many others have critiqued. Sure, he can be an ass. But he has the guts (or the “pyloric valve”) to entertain a perspective that—although bizarre, antiquated, fantastical, rigid, and intolerant—reminds us, as the best Southern literature always does, that there are imagined alternatives to modernity. Even if it took pushing a weenie cart through the Quarter while pondering Boethius to bring those possibilities to life, Ignatius was game to pursue them.
Another thing happened in my most recent reading. Rather than fixate on the ending—Myrna drives from New York to New Orleans to rescue Ignatius from the nut house—I finished the book and recalled something I had never before noticed. It’s a great insight into the novel, what New York missed, and what we so sorely need today.
What I remembered was in the novel’s opening scene. When Patrolman Mancuso tries to arrest Ignatius—thereby setting off the novel’s madcap chain of events—Ignatius Jacques Reilly is standing alone on Canal Street, waiting for his mother, lost in his private worldview: doing nothing more than minding his own strange and beautiful business.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.