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Blake Pontchartrain: John Kennedy Toole

On the author of A Confederacy of Dunces

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Hey Blake,

Can you give me some background on John Kennedy Toole and his family?

Dear reader,

  The author best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, A Confederacy of Dunces, was as enigmatic as many of his characters. John Kennedy Toole was born in New Orleans on Dec. 17, 1937. According to Cory MacLauchlin's book Butterfly in the Typewriter, Toole's father, John Dewey Toole Jr., was a Warren Easton High School graduate who served in the Army during World War I and later worked for a local car dealership. He died in 1972. Toole's mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, was a former teacher who gave private lessons in music and speech. By all accounts, she was eccentric and entertaining, much like her son's characters, and exerted a strong influence throughout his life.

  Living Uptown, John Kennedy Toole attended McDonogh 14 and Alcee Fortier High School and was voted "most intelligent" by his classmates. By all indications he was a quiet, studious loner. After graduating at age 16, he wrote his first novel, The Neon Bible, which would not be published until 1989. Toole earned English degrees at Tulane and Columbia universities. He taught English at Hunter College in New York, the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette and St. Mary's Dominican College in New Orleans.

  Toole began writing A Confederacy of Dunces while stationed in Puerto Rico with the Army. MacLauchlin quotes a letter Toole wrote home at the time: "I have never found writing to be so relaxing or tranquilizing, and I still like what I am working on. Quite a bit has been completed already. Some of it, I think is very funny." Back in New Orleans in 1963, he began approaching publishers with the manuscript with no luck. Suffering from mental illness and years of rejection, Toole committed suicide in March 1969 at age 31.

  His mother began a quest to have her son's manuscript published, eventually getting the work into the hands of author Walker Percy, who urged a friend at LSU Press to publish A Confederacy of Dunces. It was released in 1980 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the next year. Thelma became a celebrity, even appearing on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show on NBC. Though she loved the spotlight, she always gave her "genius son" full credit, often saying, "I walk in the world for my son." She died in 1984.

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