Scholars gathered at UL Lafayette’s Ernest J. Gaines Center to learn more about one of Louisiana’s most famous novelists.
The UL Lafayette Foundation has acquired a rare copy of a manuscript of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.
The Foundation purchased Lot No. 228 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York earlier this month. The acquisition includes a 290-page copy of Toole’s typed manuscript, with handwritten corrections. It also includes photographs of Toole and his friend, Cary Laird. The writer’s mother, Thelma Toole, had given the manuscript to Laird.
No known original manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces exists.
The hammer price for the items was $25,000, which Sotheby’s had estimated could go for as much as $50,000.
The Foundation also obtained several items last June, including a personal letter Toole wrote to the late Drs. Patricia and Milton Rickels, both former English professors at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and their son, Gordon.
The Confederacy manuscript copy, letter and other artifacts related to Toole, who was an English professor at the University from 1959 to 1960, will be utilized for study, research, exhibition and an upcoming symposium.
A celebration of Toole’s life and work is being planned for next year, said Linda Alessi of the Friends of the Humanities, which will sponsor the event.
Friends of the Humanities is a nonprofit organization established in 1989 to support and encourage interdisciplinary humanities at UL Lafayette.
“We are still in the very early planning stages, but some of the activities being considered include a daylong symposium, and perhaps a screening of a film about the author,” Alessi said.
A Confederacy of Dunces, which The New York Times called a “masterwork of comedy,” centers around the farcical exploits of a French Quarter hot dog vendor named Ignatius J. Reilly.
It’s common belief that Toole, an associate professor of English at UL Lafayette from 1959 to 1960, modeled the picaresque character on his friend, the late professor Bob Byrne.
Patricia Rickels, another friend of Toole’s, is believed to have been the inspiration for the character Myrna Minx.
“Through their years of friendship, Toole had likely gained a muse in Pat Rickels,” Dr. Carolyn Bruder, UL Lafayette’s interim provost and an English professor, has stated.
Toole, who was known as Ken while at UL Lafayette, according to Joel L. Fletcher’s memoir Ken & Thelma, was a popular, charismatic, witty and an observant instructor and colleague.
Fletcher, a Lafayette native whose father was once the president of the University, and Toole became friends during the summer of 1960 while both worked on campus.
“Ken has a real gift for mimicry and a refined sense of the absurd….the English faculty at USL, which is divided into several camps of war, both fear and court Ken because of his biting comic talent,” Fletcher wrote in the memoir, quoting a journal entry he jotted down in the summer of 1960.
“Pat Rickels said he was really in his glory during his time (at the University),” said Cory MacLauchlin, author of the biography Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Short Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces.
Toole didn’t live to see the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces. He committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31. There has been speculation that he had become despondent, in part, because of an inability to publish his manuscript.
Following her son’s death, Thelma Toole began a tireless crusade to see the manuscript become a book. After racking up many rejections from publishers, she eventually enlisted the assistance of novelist Walker Percy, who was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Percy, who had won the National Book Award for his novel The Moviegoer, was reluctant to read the manuscript initially, according to MacLauchlin.
“He was a writer, not an editor or a literary agent. He had already convinced himself it would be a shoddy manuscript,” MacLauchlin said.
Percy finally relented and “became its champion,” MacLauchlin added.
A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.
Photo: Former UL Lafayette professor John Kennedy Toole (seated) is shown with high school friend Cary Laird. The UL Lafayette Foundation has acquired a copy of a manuscript for the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which was given to Laird by the writer’s mother, Thelma Toole.
The "manuscript contains over 140 holograph corrections in blue ink, in either script or careful block printing. Additionally there are numerous earlier corrections in holograph script as photo-copied from an earlier corrected typescript. It is evident that the same hand is at work in both stages of editing. While conventional wisdom is that only a single copy of the original manuscript existed atop Toole's armoire (now famously lost) the nature of some the changes found herein suggest choices only the author would make. For instance on p. 217 of the manuscript, 'Don’t imagine' (a perfectly acceptable Southern vernacular) becomes the more correct 'I don’t imagine' which is the final reading in the published novel. More intriguing is the very strong similarity between the hand at work in the present manuscript and Toole’s hand in the letter sold" also to the UL Lafayette Foundation. (15 June 2012, lot 155).