Toole, John Kennedy
- Manuscript on paper
Photocopy typescript manuscript with numerous autograph corrections, 290 pages (11 x 8 1/2 in; 280 x 215 mm), ca. 1966, given to the author's high school friend Carey Laird; title and final pages somewhat toned and edgeworn. [With:] Three snapshots of Laird and Toole, ca. 1960.
A Confederacy of Dunces' storied publication is literary legend. Genius under-recognized, an author’s suicide and the final successful championing by the writer’s mother, rightfully convinced of her son’s singular gift. John Kennedy Toole began the novel ca. 1962 while stationed with the army in Puerto Rico (his rank of Sergeant giving him an office and time to write). He returned to New Orleans in late 1963 after receiving a hardship discharge due to his parents’ poor financial situation. Toole sent his completed manuscript of Dunces to Simon and Schuster where it reached editor Robert Gottlieb. Two years of correspondence between author and editor ensued, with Toole becoming increasingly despondent over Gottlieb’s suggested changes. Toole was crushed by his work’s final, definitive rejection. Years of slow decline followed, until overcome with depression and paranoia, Toole committed suicide aged 31 in 1969, attaching a garden hose to his car’s exhaust outside a cheap motel in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Thelma Toole, John Kennedy’s mother, never gave up hope in her son’s genius. After retrieving a battered manuscript from her son’s bedroom years after his death, she sent it out to publishers and received seven rejections. Finally in 1976, she contacted (or more truthfully put, harassed) the novelist Walker Percy, then teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans. She called Percy and, despite his best efforts to avoid her request to read a long and unpublished novel, he finally succumbed when she appeared at the door of his office holding “a badly smeared scarcely readable carbon” manuscript in her hand. He had hoped that the first few pages, “would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther.” He was pleased from the first paragraph reading the book “first with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.” Walker Percy and Thelma Toole finally managed to have the book published, though not until 1980, by Louisiana University Press. The book originally sold poorly but enjoyed critical acclaim. It soon started to grow in popularity, and A Confederacy of Dunces went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Ignatius’ tales continues to be not only the essential New Orleans novel, but one of the best-loved of any post-war American novels.
The present manuscript contains over 140 holograph corrections in blue ink, in either script or careful block printing. Additionally there are numerous earlier corrections in holograph script as photo-copied from an earlier corrected typescript. It is evident that the same hand is at work in both stages of editing. While conventional wisdom is that only a single copy of the original manuscript existed atop Toole's armoire (now famously lost) the nature of some the changes found herein suggest choices only the author would make. For instance on p. 217 of the manuscript, “Don’t imagine” (a perfectly acceptable Southern vernacular) becomes the more correct “I don’t imagine” which is the final reading in the published novel. More intriguing is the very strong similarity between the hand at work in the present manuscript and Toole’s hand in the letter sold in these rooms (15 June 2012, lot 155).
The recipient of the present manuscript, Cary Laird, was Toole’s closest high school “running pardner” and his family’s neighborhood characters provided key inspiration for Confederacy. Irene Reilly (inspiration for Ignatius’ mother) was the Laird’s landlady, whose fights with her family were so loud and profane a visiting Toole would often sit in the Laird’s bathroom to better listen and absorb the local color.
Toole’s biographer, Cory MacLauchlin, records the present gift from Thelma to her son’s best friend, “…she sent one of the first typescripts… with handwritten corrections to her son’s best friend, Cary Laird.”
No original, or even early, manuscript of Confederacy can be found in either Walker Percy’s papers at UNC, or in the Toole collections at Tulane.