A Confederacy of Dunces

» September 30th, 2019


I’d been wanting to write this essay for many years, so was thrilled when Public Books answered my query. By journalistic standards, it’s a lengthy piece, with the introduction excerpted here and a link to the full article appearing at the end. 

Thelma Toole, the mother of the novelist John Kennedy Toole—author of the extraordinary almost-unpublished novel A Confederacy of Dunces—delivered one of the most irresponsible accusations in American literary history. But responsibility really wasn’t her thing. Instead, it was to ensure that her son’s genius would be acknowledged: preferably by the world and ideally by means of Robert Gottlieb, a kingpin of New York publishing.

So when Gottlieb, a young but virtuosic editor at Simon & Schuster, opted not to publish Ken Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the mid 1960s—and then when the 32-year-old author killed himself in 1969, 50 years ago this past March—Thelma mixed correlation and causation, sending up a full-throttled J’accuse from New Orleans to New York. Gottlieb—she stated publicly1—by rejecting Toole’s manuscript, had effectively killed her son.

Gottlieb’s restraint in the face of Thelma’s behavior was more than heroic. He stayed silent, recognizing that a grieving mother will do horrible things to assuage her suffering. But Gottlieb cannot be so easily exonerated from another charge leveled against him. This one came from the broader literary establishment and was backed by the Pulitzer Prize Board, which awarded A Confederacy of Dunces a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Certainly by then, if not before, this accusation could stick: Gottlieb, like much of the New York publishing world at the time (eight other presses would pass on the manuscript), misunderstood Toole’s book.

Today, 50 years after the death of Toole, during a technological era when social media intensify and publicize our status anxieties, and at an ecological point in time when the city where the novel originated—New Orleans—is under seasonal threat of Armageddon, it has never been more important to revisit Toole’s masterpiece.

If only as a critique of late capitalism, A Confederacy of Dunces uncannily identifies the deep ennui that accompanies today’s rat race, questioning what it means to do as the protagonist’s mother begs her son: “Make good.”

Keep reading here.










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