1980: ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ hilariously holds up a mirror to New Orleans
In 1980, LSU Press published “A Confederacy of Dunces,” a rollicking comic novel by John Kennedy Toole, an unknown author who had committed suicide 11 years earlier. Despite those less-than-favorable portents, the book — about a handful of distinctly odd, yet utterly recognizable, New Orleans characters — won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and Ignatius Reilly, the sardonic layabout who was the book’s main character, became a sensation.
The book has sold millions of copies in dozens of languages, and Loyola University held a yearlong celebration of all things “Dunces” in 2010-11. It has been adapted for the stage several times.
- Credit for getting the book published goes to Thelma Toole, the author’s indefatigable mother, who was determined to make it happen. She thrust the manuscript on Walker Percy when the author was teaching at Loyola University. He said in the book’s foreword that he was prepared not to like it, but Toole’s account of Ignatius’ travails made him laugh out loud — and recommend it.
- “Dunces” was the first novel from a university press to win a Pulitzer Prize. Among the 1980 books that “Dunces” beat out was Percy’s “The Second Coming.”
- Despite repeated efforts, no movie adaptation of Toole’s book has been made. That has given rise to rumors of an “Ignatius curse,” as three portly performers — John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley — died after they were mentioned as potential Ignatiuses.
- In February, it was revealed that New Orleans filmmaker David DuBos was working on a film adaptation of the nonfiction book “Butterfly in the Typewriter,” about Toole and the writing of “Dunces.” Among the stars attached to the film are Susan Sarandon, Thomas Mann and Nick Offerman.
- Toole worked on “A Confederacy of Dunces” while in the Army in Puerto Rico, where he taught English to Spanish-speaking recruits. When he returned to New Orleans, he taught at St. Mary’s Dominican College.
- The journey that led to his suicide started early in 1969, when he left New Orleans after arguing with his mother. He drove to the West Coast and then to the Milledgeville, Ga., home of Flannery O’Connor before stopping outside Biloxi, Miss., and running a garden hose from his car’s exhaust pipe to the passenger cabin. He left a note, which his mother destroyed.
“Dunces” and its wacky characters have become a beloved part of New Orleans lore. The book has inspired panel discussions, college seminars, blogs and articles in learned journals, as well as this tangible tribute: a statue of Ignatius Reilly erected where the character stands, waiting for his long-suffering mother, as the novel opens: outside the Canal Street building that used to house D.H. Holmes department store.