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READER RESPONSE: Butterfly in the Typewriter

john kennedy toole

The following letter was sent to us by a reader in response to the book review “Ignatius Screamed,” (issue 77) by James Whorton, Jr. The review discusses the new biography, Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces (Da Capo Press, 2012), by Cory MacLaughlin (the review is available here). Whorton, Jr.’s response follows.



Dear OA,

I was interested to read in your last issue James Whorton’s mostly approving and mostly perceptive review of Cory MacLauchlan’s new biography of John Kennedy Toole, Butterfly in the Typewriter.

My partner, John Copenhaver, and I were privileged to witness Cory’s project from its inception and to observe his intelligence and diligence in pursuing sources and his scrupulous evaluation of them. We had many discussions with him about his research, usually over our lunch or dinner table.

We are pleased but certainly not surprised that he has written such an excellent biography. As I told Cory after I finished reading his manuscript, I now feel that I know Ken Toole much, much better than when I actually did know him.

I was disappointed that Mr. Whorton in his review gave some credibility to the previous biography of Toole, Ignatius Rising, by René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy. Many of Toole’s friends, myself included, were appalled when that book appeared and presented such a distorted and unrecognizable portrait of Toole.

The late Nick Polites, one of Ken’s good friends, who had been interviewed by the authors, put it best in a letter to the editor of LSU Press after he saw the galleys of the book:

So much of the information I provided has been embellished, distorted and fabricated…. Please allow me to say that, to the best of my recollection, these pages strike me as one of the most unprofessional pieces of writing I’ve seen in some 35 years of a publishing, editing, writing and communications consulting career…. The problem (aside from the brainless chatterbox style in which it is written) is that the writers have demonstrated their irresponsibility not only by inflating, but by distorting, taking quotes out of context, and putting words into people’s mouths…. Unfortunately, because the book will be published by a university press, these factoids will be footnoted in subsequent scholarly publications and cited as facts. It will take a long time if ever to eradicate them.

Ignatius Rising was a last mean blow to Ken’s tragic life, disfiguring him for posterity.

Mr. Whorton’s acceptance as a possibility that the thesis of Nevils and Hardy, based on the flimsiest of evidence, that Toole was a closeted homosexual and an alcoholic shows that Nick was right about their pernicious factoids being with us for a long time. “Some portion of all gossip happens to be true,” Mr. Whorton writes. Except, of course, when it happens to be totally untrue. 

In the years that I knew him, nothing about Ken ever caused me to think that he might be gay, something I am pretty sure I would have picked up on. I once thought he might be asexual, but there is some evidence of his heterosexuality, and none of his alleged homosexuality. In addition to the fact of his several girlfriends and crushes on women, he once told Polites, referring to a woman friend on the Southwestern English faculty: “I’d like to fuck Pat Rickels.” It is a remark that I cannot imagine being made by any of the many gay men I have known.

Nevils and Hardy delivered Ken to gay studies departments everywhere and I am sure their scholars will be reluctant to surrender him. I wonder if Ken would be amused or annoyed. 

Amusement was his usual response to absurdity. I, however, am annoyed that Ken’s writing is being interpreted through the prism of his being gay when there is no evidence that he was. Ken was who he was and cannot be, for reasons base or worthy, who someone else wants him to be.

Cory does a thorough job of exploring the reasons that Ken fell apart. A struggle with his sexual identity was not among them.

Joel L. Fletcher

Fredericksburg, Virginia



Response to Joel Fletcher, June 24, 2012

Mr. Fletcher didn’t mention his own book, Ken and Thelma—another source for readers trying to understand Toole. 

My point about gossip is that sometimes it is true, and that makes it difficult for a biographer to sort out. When the picture isn’t clear, why not leave it at that? We don’t have to classify writers by their sexual inclinations.    

The best thing about Ignatius Rising is that it includes a series of letters exchanged between Toole and Robert Gottlieb, the editor at Simon & Schuster who rejected A Confederacy of Dunces. Gottlieb thought Toole could do better and kept asking him to send more. Their correspondence is warm, witty, and urgent. For those who never knew Toole, the letters are a place to find him speaking for himself.

James Whorton, Jr.



Response to James Whorton, Jr., September 12, 2012

I did not mention my book because I was writing to praise Cory’s book, not plug my own. Ken & Thelma is a memoir drawn from my friendship with Toole and his mother. I was pleased that it helped inspire Cory to write his excellent biography and Joe Sanford to make his brilliant documentary film: John Kennedy Toole…the omega point, the shorter version of which can be seen at his website:   

Ken & Thelma also contains the Toole-Gottlieb correspondence, with the difference that I had Robert Gottlieb’s permission to publish his letters and Hardy & Nevils did not. My book also includes the complete texts of eight letters that Toole wrote to me from New Orleans, New York, and Puerto Rico. They make me laugh every time I re-read them all these many years later, but then leave me with sadness because he was gone so soon, long before his great gifts got the attention they deserved.

In his reply to my letter, Mr. Whorton seems to be making the same argument that Cory made: since it is impossible to know about Ken’s sexuality, it is wiser not to speculate.

Joel L. Fletcher
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