Today I want to point you to Butterfly In The Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s the Toole biography that I’ll be citing most often as we talk about the book. Also, the author, Cory MacLauchlin, has been a great help in answering questions that I’ve had. Follow him on Twitter if you want to chat about Confederacy.
The story behind the publication of Confederacy might be as well-known (or better known) than the book itself. I know plenty of book nerds here at work who can tell you a lot about Toole’s attempts at publication, but haven’t ever cracked the covers. Their loss, says I, while conceding that the story behind Confederacy is a great one, if tragic.
Here’s the stripped-down-bare-bones-sequence version:
- John Kennedy Toole was a gifted child with a mother who encouraged him to excel on the stage and on the page. She considered him a genius and ceaselessly let him know he was destined for glory.
- Toole became a handsome, well-liked young man who was good at most things tried
- He became an English professor. Like many English professors I’ve known, he wanted to be a writer.
- In 1961 he was drafted by the military and stationed in Puerto Rico as an English teacher. This is where he would write Confederacy.
- He tried to get the book published for years. But even with the interest and encouragement of New York editor Robert Gottlieb (editor of Catch 22 and many other works), it never happened.
- Toole spirals downward, behaving erratically as friends worry about his mental health. Eventually he commits suicide.
- His mother Thelma takes the manuscript and began her own quest to see it published. When it finally happens, it wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and receives positive reviews from just about anyone who reads it.
That’s as much of the story as I want to give you. Otherwise, I’ll be depriving you of many of the pleasures of MacLauchlin’s book. It is meticulously researched and compulsively readable.
I knew practically nothing about Toole before I read the book, except the story of Confederacy’s publication, which was included in the forward of that edition.
It was hard for me to read Confederacy without looking for clues as to why he committed suicide. It still is. Yes, he never saw his masterpiece published, but the majority of aspiring writers out there never get published, and most live through it.
Of course, we can never know Toole’s mind as he made his decisions. However, MacLauchlin’s material leads to what I consider to be the most useful and compassionate questions for anyone who cares to speculate. He gives a careful tour of the theories regarding Toole’s possible homosexuality and/or mental health, and his loving but sometimes overbearing mother, but does not draw the conclusions for the reader.
What else can I tell you today…
A few other highlights and revelations (for me)
- Toole was a gifted mimic
- There is evidence that the bizarre, larger-than-life Ignatius was actually based on someone very specific
- This is a book that couldn’t have happened without New Orleans–that city gave Toole more eccentric, delightful, and tragic material than he could ever use
- There have been attempts (undeserved) to paint Robert Gottlieb as the villain of the story–the man who killed Toole!
- There are parades in New Orleans where people dress up like characters from Confederacy
- Just what exactly a butterfly in a typewriter has to do with anything
- The story behind The Neon Bible, the novel Toole wrote as a teen
All right, now I’m starting to ramble. But seriously, if you have any interest in the story behind the story, or the author of my favorite book, Butterfly In The Typewriter is a great place to start.