John Kennedy Toole will perhaps always be touted more for his potential than for his accomplishments, for his first published novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, was not printed until eleven years after his death. Born in 1937 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Toole was the son of John Toole, a car salesman, and Thelma Ducoing Toole, a teacher. The author, who had written his first novel at the age of sixteen, received a B.A. from Tulane University in 1958 and an M.A. in English from Columbia University the following year. After teaching at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Toole served in the army, writing A Confederacy of Dunces while stationed in Puerto Rico from 1962 to 1963. Later Toole returned to New Orleans, where he worked toward a Ph.D. at Tulane University and taught at Saint Mary’s Dominican College. In late 1968, he left New Orleans to travel and a few months later committed suicide in his car in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was thirty-one years old.
The Neon Bible, which Toole wrote at the age of sixteen, was finally cleared for publication in 1989, following legal battles among the author’s heirs. The novel is set in a small southern town in the 1940’s and focuses on young David, who must deal with eccentric family members and the rigid, unforgiving religious fanaticism of the small-town community. David’s crisis occurs when his father departs to fight in the war, his favorite aunt leaves town, and the preacher takes his mother away.
The publication of A Confederacy of Dunces has a unique history. Between 1963 and 1966, Toole negotiated with the publishing house Simon and Schuster, which, after commanding numerous revisions, finally rejected the work in 1966. Toole apparently gave up hope of the novel’s ever being published. After Toole’s death, however, his mother sent the worn, nearly illegible carbon copy to eight more publishers during the next seven years. In 1976 she began repeated efforts to persuade novelist Walker Percy, teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans, to read her son’s novel. In the novel’s foreword, Percy describes his unsuccessful attempts to dodge Thelma Toole as well as his eventual determination to see the novel through to its publication by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. Despite the many rejections by publishers, A Confederacy of Dunces was a surprising critical success, selling forty-five thousand hardcover copies...
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