John Dewey Toole, Jr. and his wife, Thelma Ducoing Toole had been married for ten years when their son John was born. He was a precocious child, and his mother, realizing how bright he was, pushed him to develop all of his talents. In reality she pushed him incessantly all his life. She was both his biggest cheerleader and his worst enemy.
John was so smart that he skipped a grade, and graduated from high school at the age of 16. He was probably glad to be out of school since he never fit in with the other kids. Like his parents, especially his mother, he was different – different but gifted. He completed his first novel, The Neon Bible, that year, and began his studies at Tulane University. And though he didn’t know it, at 16 his life was half over.
He did so well at Tulane that he was offered and accepted the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Columbia University where he earned his master’s degree in English in one year. At that point he took a break from his education to teach for a year deep in the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana at what would later be called the University of Louisiana – Lafayette.
In 1961 he was drafted and became an English instructor at an army base in Puerto Rico. It was there that John wrote his masterpiece, and it was there that, for the first time in his life, he fit in with all the other guys. Everybody loved his sense of humor and his ability to mimic almost anyone. He was free – free from the need to earn money teaching and, most of all, he was free from the influence of his controlling and extremely eccentric mother.
When he returned to New Orleans he sent the manuscript for his novel to Simon and Schuster because he admired some of the books the company had published. Robert Gottlieb, an editor there, read the book and worked with John for two years in an attempt to make it publishable. Sadly, Gottlieb did not realize the genius of the book as it had originally been written. His efforts to perfect it were misguided, but luckily John’s mother realized Gottlieb’s mistake, and tore up the revisions. In disgust John put the manuscript on top of an armoire in his parents’ home, and never touched it again.
Depressed, he gave up his dream of becoming a writer, and took a teaching job at St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans. Though he was loved by his students, he was extremely unhappy. It didn’t help that he was still living at home at the age of 30. In part he lived at home to help his parents who were having severe financial difficulties.
He entered the Ph.D. program at Tulane, but his growing depression lead to outbursts in classes, and he soon walked away from Tulane forever. On January 20, 1969 he also walked away from his teaching position at St. Mary’s after having a terrible fight with his mother. He withdrew $1,500 from his bank account and headed to California. For two months he traveled, and for two months he was out of contact with everyone who cared about him. One of the few things we know about his route (through receipts he left behind) is that he was in Georgia for a while before heading to Biloxi, Mississippi, a place he loved. On March 26, 1969 he drove to a familiar wooded area on the outskirts of Biloxi, hooked a garden hose to the exhaust of his car and committed suicide. Except for a very bitter note that he left for his mother, everything in his car (including perhaps the outline for a third novel) was stored in the basement of the Biloxi Police Department. Six months later that building and many others along the Gulf Coast were destroyed by Hurricane Camille. Everything in it was lost.
The story of John Kennedy Toole might have ended with his suicide at age 31, but it didn’t. At some point after his death Thelma found the manuscript of her son’s novel on top of the armoire and set out to get it published. She sent the manuscript, the only copy that existed, to numerous publishers, but they all turned it down. Then she began to pester author Walker Percy who was teaching at Loyola University. Finally Percy agreed to read the manuscript from this tenacious woman who seemed a bit unhinged. He recorded his reaction to her and the unsolicited manuscript in the forward that he later penned for the novel:
“. . . the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.
“In this case I 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.”
Due to the efforts of Walker Percy A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole was published in 1980 – 11 years after his death – by LSU Press. The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It has now been translated into about 40 languages.
There have been numerous reports of plans being made for a movie version of A Confederacy of Dunces, but so far nothing has happened. It’s strange but, like those who control the publishing industry, the people who decide what movies will be made keep wondering if a movie based on the book would appeal to the public. And unfortunately Thelma is no longer here to fight for the movie.