John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ before committing suicide at age 31.


John Kennedy Toole was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1937. An intelligent and accomplished student, he made his first foray into writing during his senior year of high school, when he wrote a novel titled The Neon Bible. After college Toole was drafted into the Army and over the next two years began work on a new novel titled A Confederacy of Dunces. When he completed the novel but was unable to find a publisher, Toole grew increasingly depressed, becoming despondent and displaying highly erratic behavior. He later committed suicide in March 1969. A Confederacy of Dunces was published more than a decade later and in 1981 received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Gifted Student

John Kennedy Toole was born on December 17, 1937, in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, John Dewey, was a car salesman and mechanic, and his mother, Thelma, was a former teacher who gave private lessons in music and speech. She was by various accounts a domineering presence and was very controlling of her son, dictating much of his social life during his youth. ­

As for the young Toole, he demonstrated remarkable intelligence at an early age, skipping the first grade after receiving high marks on an IQ test. Convinced of his genius, Thelma thrust her son into the limelight at age 10, making him a part of various stage productions, securing him a spot as the MC for a child-focused radio show and helping him gain several modeling jobs.

When Toole entered high school, however, he set aside his budding career as an entertainer to focus on his studies. He excelled academically, wrote for his school newspaper and yearbook and during his senior year, at age 16, made his first foray into fiction, penning a short novel in the Southern Gothic style titled The Neon Bible.

In 1954 Toole’s grades earned him a full scholarship to Tulane University, where he initially studied engineering before choosing to pursue a degree in English. He graduated with honors in 1958 and then received a fellowship at Columbia University. Taking on a heavy course load, he received his master’s in English literature a year later.

Academia and Army

In 1959 Toole returned to New Orleans and became an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. When not teaching he led a very social life, attending parties and nightclubs and earning himself a reputation as one of the smartest and funniest people in town, although some noticed that he become particularly withdrawn when his mother was around.

In 1960 Toole accepted a teaching position at Hunter College in New York, where at the age of 22 he became the school’s youngest professor ever. While teaching, he also pursued a doctorate at Columbia University, but became unhappy with his progress and abandoned his efforts. The following year, he was drafted into the Army and stationed at a base in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

'A Confederacy of Dunces'

Serving as an English teacher for Spanish-speaking soldiers, Toole distinguished himself in the Army and quickly attained the rank of sergeant, the perks of which included a private room in the barracks. Taking advantage of his solitude, Toole turned his attention back to writing and began a new project. In 1963, however, Toole was granted a discharge from the military when his father’s health began to fail. He returned to New Orleans, moved in with his parents and took a teaching position at Dominican College to help support his family.

Despite his unhappiness about having to live at home, Toole’s relatively light schedule afforded him the opportunity to continue work on his new novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. Completing an early version in 1964, he sent it to Simon & Schuster and initially received a favorable response. But when he and the publisher could not come to an agreement on the novel’s need for significant revisions, it was ultimately rejected and Toole took his manuscript back. At his mother’s urging, a despondent Toole made further attempts to find a publisher but was unsuccessful.

Road to Oblivion

The rejection of A Confederacy of Dunces soon sent Toole on a downward spiral. He began to drink heavily, became increasingly paranoid and frequently appeared disheveled and agitated. By the fall of 1968, his erratic behavior necessitated his taking a leave of absence from teaching, and when Toole was still unable to return to work the following January, the school hired a replacement.

The strain of Toole’s deteriorating mental state, coupled with the financial difficulty that his unemployment caused his family, soon led to a serious argument between Toole and his mother. The next day Toole gathered some belongings, withdrew money from his savings and left. Two months later, on March 26, 1969, Toole was found dead of suicide in his car outside Biloxi, Mississippi, a garden hose running from the exhaust pipe to the window.

Publication and Pulitzer

Two years after Toole’s death, his mother began a quest to find a publisher for A Confederacy of Dunces. After receiving numerous rejections, she soon set her sights on the novelist Walker Percy, who was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans, and badgered him into reading the manuscript. Though Percy was greatly impressed by the book and agreed to help find it a home, it was not until three years later, in 1980, that a small 2,500-copy printing was released by Louisiana State University Press.

A satiric work centered on the misadventures of an intelligent but lazy and haughty man named Ignatius J. Reilly, who lives with his mother and bungles his way through menial jobs he considers far beneath him, A Confederacy of Dunces draws heavily from Toole’s own life. Though not initially successful at the time of its publication, the novel was a critical hit, and in 1981 Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It has since sold nearly two million copies and been translated into almost 20 languages, and is considered one of the greatest Southern novels of the 20th century. In 1989 Grove Press published Toole’s The Neon Bible to much less acclaim.

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