John Kennedy Toole Biography
(1937–69), A Confederacy of Dunces, New Orleans Review, picaro
American novelist, born in New Orleans, educated at Columbia University, New York City. His reputation rests almost entirely on one novel, the posthumously published A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. The novel was written in the early 1960s and Toole's failure to place it with a publisher is generally thought to be one of the reasons behind his suicide. In 1979, Toole's mother contacted Walker Percy who acted as Toole's agent; excerpts from the novel appeared in the New Orleans Review in 1979 prior to its publication by Louisiana State University Press. The novel's protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly of New Orleans, is an intellectual picaro, with similarities to Saul Bellow's Herzog, who conducts a one-man assault on the excesses of modernity; his Big Chief tablets (like Herzog's letters) are the occasions for his synoptic philosophizing and provide a kind of internal monologue which operates in counterpoint to the richly inventive comic action of the novel. The title rephrases part of a sentence by Jonathan Swift: ‘When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.’ The novel was both a commercial and a critical success and many critics hold that, had Toole lived, he would be numbered among the most important writers of post-war Southern literature.