After reading A Confederacy of Dunces recently, I was surprised to learn of the author's Tulane connection. I would like a deeper insight into the author's college days, especially his Irish Channel outings, tamale cart experience and affinity for blues music.
Dear Uncle Larry,
Author John Kennedy Toole, born in New Orleans in 1937, was witty, bright and academically successful. He skipped two grades after attending kindergarten at McDonogh 14, and in 1950, at the age of 12, he enrolled in Alcee Fortier High School. There, the budding writer worked on the school newspaper, Silver and Blue, and wrote his first novel, The Neon Bible.
Toole received a scholarship to Tulane University and began courses in 1954 at the age of 16. He initially majored in engineering, but changed his major to English by the end of his freshman year. At Tulane, Toole contributed satirical cartoons to the school newspaper, The Hullabaloo.
In the biography Butterfly In the Typewriter, author Cory MacLauchlin gives readers glimpses into the people and experiences that contributed to A Confederacy of Dunces. A keen observer, Toole had a knack for capturing the characters and voices of residents of New Orleans' various neighborhoods, MacLauchlin says. Socially, Toole drank at the Napoleon House and danced at the Roosevelt Hotel. To make ends meet, he sold hot dogs during Tulane football games and worked at Haspel Brothers, a clothing factory not unlike the Levy Pants factory where Ignatius worked in A Confederacy of Dunces.
Another biography, Ignatius Rising, by Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy, describes Toole frequenting the Irish Channel, enjoying a local blues band and being close friends with New Orleans guitarist Don Stevens. According to Ignatius Rising, Stevens had a side job as a hot tamale cart vendor, and Toole sometimes filled in for him.
Toole was awarded the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship in English Literature, which allowed him to attend graduate school at Columbia University in New York, a city he visited several times during high school and college. In 1959, Toole earned a master's degree and began teaching at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette). That's where he met Bobby Byrne, a man some believe was the inspiration for Toole's Ignatius character. A year later, Toole returned to Columbia University to pursue a doctorate and to teach at Hunter College.
He was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1962 and stationed in Puerto Rico, where he taught English and began writing A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole returned to New Orleans in 1963 and taught English at St. Mary's Dominican College while also revising his book manuscript. He submitted the work to publisher Simon & Schuster in 1964. The publisher liked the book, but suggested many revisions. Toole began to doubt himself and suffered emotionally, according to biographers.
In 1968, Toole returned to Tulane to work on his doctorate, but his emotional state deteriorated. The following year, he drove to Biloxi, Mississippi, and used a garden hose to pipe carbon monoxide into his car to asphyxiate himself.
His mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, found her son's manuscript years later and tried unsuccessfully to have it published. She eventually met author Walker Percy, who was teaching English at Loyola University and joined her efforts to get the novel into print. In 1980, Louisiana State University Press published A Confederacy of Dunces, which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year.