Nothing Recedes Like Success*: A Confederacy of Dunces – Part I

I am pleased that Rebecca Jones, co-founder of the VCU Working Titles Book Club, has written the following commentary on John Kennedy Toole’s novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, which was posthumously published in 1981, and later won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Rebecca thoroughly enjoyed discussing and defending this book at our June Meeting. I invited her to write a commentary on her appreciations of the book, and thankfully she agreed. The following Introduction is Part 1 of 4. The other selections will follow this week.

                                                         Part I – Confederacy Introduction and Background

John Kennedy Toole’s novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, exactly 20 years after the author began writing it. The novel was composed between 1961-1965 but never saw publication during Toole’s lifetime due to the author’s death in 1969. American novelist Walker Percy reluctantly agreed to read the manuscript in 1976 at the insistence of Toole’s mother. Percy was quickly won over by the novel’s originality and was instrumental in stewarding it toward its publication in 1980.  The book soon became a cult novel, a status it still enjoys.

It seems fitting that this book would burst upon the literary world at the dawn of the Reagan eighties, just as a conservative social backlash against the spirit of the 1960s was overtaking American politics and culture. A Confederacy of Dunces is revered for its hilarious and incisive critique of both strains of the early 1960s zeitgeist: the prevailing middle-class values of fifties America and the cultural forces bent on burning them down. According to its unforgettable anti-hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, American culture’s premium on success and self-improvement are “perversions” (a favorite Reilly word) that trap and enslave the gullible. Far better to keep your head down, stay where you’re planted, and cultivate a rich inner life. These ideas fly in the face of both mid-century American upward mobility and its return in the form of 1980s yuppie values. They are articulated by the thundering and grandiose Ignatius, a man who is rarely right, but not exactly wrong, either.

Ignatius’ creator and possible proxy, the Columbia-educated John Kennedy Toole, was drafted in 1961. Conscription for most is a life-interrupting annoyance at best, and a deadly cataclysm at worst. But for Toole, an unchallenging desk job in a typewriter-equipped U.S. Army office in Puerto Rico was a writer’s paradise, affording him a small salary and hours of time to work on his novel. In the late nineteenth century, Henry Adams famously moved to England in order to see American culture more clearly and write about it more astutely. Similarly, Toole’s accidental retreat on an Army post in San Juan gave enough distance from his New Orleans home – and from mainland American culture – to satirize it with wicked clarity.

Anyone who questions the writing workshop maxim that “the more specific it is, the more universal it becomes,” need only look at Toole’s book to see that it’s true. Even readers who have never tasted a beignet or seen a streetcar in real life will emerge from this full-on immersion into working-class New Orleans having lived in in the mind and the city of Ignatius J. Reilly. In the 1960s, when the book was written, the interstate highway system had been completed for less than a decade. From rabbit-eared television sets, Dinah Shore and Pat Boone serenaded America to “see the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.”  A fine car was itself second only to home ownership as a shining emblem of having made it. For Ignatius, the reverse is true; transportation is a reliable route to disaster. His mother’s automobile accident in the first chapter sets off a chain of events that hurl him into the lonely, doomed world of daily labor, as he is compelled to earn money to help her pay off the damages. “Seeing the world” has always been a bad idea, according to Ignatius. Roughly a decade earlier, he endured his life’s only voyage out of the New Orleans’ city limits: a bus trip to Baton Rouge where he was a student and, later, the world’s worst teaching assistant. So traumatized was Ignatius by this seminal event that he frequently has nightmares involving Trailways Scenicruiser buses. Later, while laboring as a hot dog vendor in the tourist quarter, Ignatius declares “Only degenerates go touring!” His journals dismiss the Smithsonian Institution as a “jumbled grab-bag of the nation’s detritus” and even the folk song “Turkey in the Straw” elicits a diatribe against vernacular American culture. (“Don’t you see? It’s what’s wrong with this culture! Look at the way children recite it, like sorcerers!”) To a world bent on “moving out and moving up,” Ignatius believes that the wise man stays put, geographically, professionally and socially.

*Attributed to Walter Winchell and to Warren Buffet, depending on where Google takes you.

Rebecca Jones Photo (July 2017)
Rebecca Jones Photo (July 2017)

Rebecca Jones earned her M.A. in English Literature at VCU in 2016. She is an editor and copywriter at VCU and a Co-founder and Coordinator of the Working Titles Book Club.

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