A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces is a winding novel that follows the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a lazy, obese, misanthropic, sometime hot-dog vendor in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The book was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Ignatius, unusually for a fictional character, even has his own statue on Canal Street, New Orleans.

The author must have been pretty pleased with all the attention, surely. I mean: A statue. Well, he would have been, but John Kennedy Toole committed suicide in 1969, 21 years before the book was published. The failure to get Confederacy of Dunces and his earlier work, The Neon Bible, into print sent him into a spiral of paranoia and depression.

He killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning when he was 31. We can’t be entirely sure of his reasons as, although he left several letters, his mother destroyed them.

Toole had had high hopes for his Ignatius. He submitted the manuscript to publisher Simon & Schuster, where it reached the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb.

Gottlieb saw potential in the work and encouraged Toole to revise the story. Toole did so but never made it gel to Gottlieb’s satisfaction. In December 1964, Gottlieb wrote to Toole:

“There is another problem: that with all its wonderfulness, the book … does not have a reason; it’s a brilliant exercise in invention, but … it isn’t really about anything.”

After her son’s death, Thelma Toole became mired in mournful thoughts herself. The manuscript that contained Ignatius remained on top of a cedar armoire in Toole’s former room. She then roused herself, and went on a mission to have the book published, to vindicate her son’s talent. She sent it out to publishers but met only rejection after rejection.

However, in 1976, she learned that novelist Walker Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans. Thelma badgered Percy to get him to read the manuscript. And badgered. And badgered. Finally, he agreed, just so she would stop all the badgering. He admitted to hoping the manuscript, which looked ”physically shabby” when he received it, would be so bad, he could discard it after just a few pages. But he read on.

“And on. 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.”

The badgering had paid off. Walker Percy helped to usher the book into print.

But is the version we see in print the original version, or the revised version after Gottlieb’s changes? No-one knows. No-one knows where the original manuscript is. The manuscript that Thelma fought so fiercely for, for so many years, has vanished. Does it even still exist?

Cory MacLauchlin, the author of Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces (Da Capo Press, 2012) spent a long time looking for the manuscript and says:

“I still have hopes someone, someday will uncover the manuscript, hidden in a box in an attic or brought to light during an estate sale.”

Copies of the manuscript certainly exist. In 2013, The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Foundation purchased Lot 228 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. The acquisition included a photocopy of the manuscript, with handwritten corrections. A snip at $25,000.

Imagine the auction price if the original did turn up in that attic or estate sale.

However, the lost manuscripts for me in this story are the ones that were never written. Imagine if someone had published the book deemed worthy of a Pulitzer Prize before its author ran a hose from his car’s exhaust. Imagine what we might be reading now.

Clearly, A Confederacy of Dunces continues to divide readers: some love it, some hate it.

But we’ll never know what might have come next.


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