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REVIEW: John Kennedy Toole

Things You Can't Read:

The Obscure, Early Typewritten Efforts of John Kennedy Toole

john kennedy toole

In the special collections at Tulane University in New Orleans, there are several weighty boxes that make up “Collection 740,” the manuscripts of John Kennedy Toole. The papers are tea-colored, the print is faded, and the staples have nearly rusted into oblivion: But these papers are the last resource for devout fans of Toole who have read his two published tales A Confederacy of Dunces and The Neon Bible and wish for more.

There is not enough writing by John Kennedy Toole in this world. Outside of the material available on we know of two other sources for his prose. One, a box discovered in the passenger seat of a car, beside the author’s dead body: Soon thereafter, it was destroyed in a flood which wiped out the building where police had stored it as evidence. Two, the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane: These papers are still safe, however they are tied up in a legal morass that has prevented their reproduction and worldwide availability. They are merely on hand for in-person perusal.

Legal matters aside, these writings are not enough to merit a bound publication. A cross-country traveler may be disappointed. There are a few short stories and a few poems; a handful of cartoons Toole drew for the college newspaper, manuscripts of his novels which may include different content from the published editions; his undergraduate thesis; and finally, the massive stockpile of letters, clippings, and news articles furnished by Toole’s mother.

Yet there is great value in what smithereens remain of the fledgling literary titan. A short story about an elevator operator introduces us to Toole’s interest with dialect as a source of humanity and forthrightness. Another short tale, “DESPAIR,” involves airy passages of longing for a dead lover mixed with gritty details of death and suicide. It reveals Toole’s wistful sentimentalism, the very kind an author would have to suffuse into 400+ pages of prose as he captured the complex soul of all New Orleans through the pratfalls of his fat protagonist.

The cartoons, letters, and poems (one of which is about New York City) can astound for their distinct placement outside the realm of Southernly Things. Here we see in Toole an urbanite delighting in his own backward origins, the scrupulous scholar who lived in New York, and who returned to Louisiana with a new perspective. And the habit of throwing his tie over his shoulder when drinking coffee.

In Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius is known to frequently tell the saga of his trip to Baton Rouge, one of the events that he claims “significantly formed my worldview.” The joke is that Baton Rouge is an hour’s drive from his home, and it looks strikingly similar to New Orleans, so any change in world-view would either have to be completely psychological or completely fabricated.

Many other jokes from Confederacy require at least a short life in Toole’s setting: that you continually come across the same strangers so often that you fear a convoluted adventure will someday involve you both, that hotdog vendors are indeed a central element of the French Quarter nightlife, and that many patently crazy old ladies hold down clerical jobs with little regulation from their employers. The papers in the Louisiana Research Collection, the arrival at which require navigation through this irregular world, provide the final dusting of insight to Toole’s literary approach.

His undergraduate thesis, The Women in Lyly’s Plays, compress a wide study in ancient drama and literature through the Medieval and Renaissance eras. A precocious attitude, countless phrases rendered in Olde English spelling, recurring use of the word “However”: these elements are all present in full form, just as we would expect. The 39 pages are simple, undergraduate research paper prose.

A few phrases ring out with academic playfulness, that moment of chuckling students experience during the lecture when an expert drops personal opinion into objective discourse. A reader of Toole’s thesis can imagine these bouts of laughter occurring without fail as he taught his courses at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. One of Lyly’s excerpts is “a biting satire on feminine chatter.” Another statement espouses that Lyly’s ornate prose was well-suited to Elizabeth’s court, where she had “decorated the royal chapel in a particularly garish style.”

Maybe these works are not destined to leave their boxes. They may be just right where they are, bound by the original staples and hoarded in a place of restricted access within Tulane University. The Butterfly in the Typewriter, Cory MacLauchlin’s recent biography on John Kennedy Toole, incorporates these resources but it is not them. These are obscure relics, neglected in some sense, but likely overlooked by those who visit New Orleans with Confederacy in hand, who photograph themselves with the statue of Ignatius in front of the D.H. Holmes building and trudge the same footpaths as Toole’s pretentious, fat protagonist.


Read James Whorton, Jr.’s review of The Butterfly in the Typewriter by Cory MacLauchlin.

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