When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.
“My life is a rather grim one. One day I shall perhaps describe it to you in great detail.”
—- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
When Lee first decided to go to Tulane I became reinterested in everything New Orleans. I had always been interested… how can you not be? I had visited and worked there and in the surrounding swamps, and always thought of it as an amazingly unique city – the culture, location and architecture making it a special place – a city that will find a place in your heart if you have to courage to let it.
I have felt that way for decades, and still feel that way, stronger than ever – nothing has ever happened to change my mind.
So I started to read anything New Orleans that I could lay my hands on. There is a lot, by the way. One book I picked up right away – one that is often referred to as the quintessential New Orleans novel, is A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole.
The book has a sad and amazing publishing history. The author, a graduate of Tulane, wrote A Confederacy of Dunces after a stint in the army but could never convince a publisher of its merit. Partly due to his failure as a novelist he fought depression and paranoia and killed himself at the age of 31.
He would have been long forgotten except that his mother found a smeared carbon of the manuscript and started fighting to get publishers to look at it. She kept pestering author Walker Percy (who wrote The Moviegoer, another classic novel of New Orleans – I read it right before A Confederacy of Dunces) – then an instructor at Loyola University – until he read it, mostly to get her to leave him alone. He wrote:
“…the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.
In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.”
The novel was published by LSU press eleven years after the author’s suicide and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
The book is a touching picaresque comedy – memorable for its outrageous and colorful characters. Of course, the city of New Orleans is a main character – possibly the most outrageous and colorful. The protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, a large lumpin monstrosity that is convinced, probably accurately, that he does not belong in the twentieth century. He stumbles through his beloved city (he has only left New Orleans once – on an abortive bus trip to Baton Rouge, which he remembers with horror) like a bull through a china shop, leaving a wake of confusion and consternation – somehow coming out alive and intact – though barely.
Ignatius J. Reilly is not easy to like. He is pompous, self-important, lazy, slovenly… pretty much an all-around loser. You can’t help but love him, though. He is all of us, really. We simply don’t have the courage to admit it.
At any rate, I read that there was a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly on Canal Street in New Orleans. In the opening scene of the novel he is standing on Canal underneath the clock outside the D.H. Holmes department store holding a sack and waiting for his mother. The store is long gone, but the building is occupied by the New Orleans Chateau Bourbon Hotel. They found and replaced the clock and put up a life-sized bronze statue under it.
I had to find the statue. It wasn’t hard. The Saint Charles streetcar let me off across Canal and there he was, stupid floppy hat and all. Thousands of people walk by every day on their way to work or around the corner to the attractions of Bourbon Street… not many notice him.
So I salute you Ignatius J. Reilly, forever wearing a bad hat, and worse fashion, standing there with your shopping bag, waiting for your mother to come out of an extinct department store. She will never show, but still, you look like you know things the rest of us will never dream about.
“I am at this moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
—- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces