A Review of René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy, Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole

Baton Rouge:

Louisiana State University Press,




The title of this biography is Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole. But, while reading it, one wonders whether this biography would better had been issued under the title Ignatius Rising: The Lives of John Kennedy Toole and His Mother, Thelma Toole. John Kennedy Toole indeed wrote the novel; but Thelma Toole delivered the book from oblivion.

About Thelma Toole, one thing is certain. In the years following the suicide of her son, she battled tirelessly for the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces, and this she accomplished against almost all odds. The efforts of those years brought triumph, but the recognition they brought, at least for Thelma, was never quite enough, for her son and for herself.

The biography presents two impressions of Thelma Toole: one that marvels at her love for her son, a love increasing rather than diminishing in the years following his death; and a second impression of a darker kind, which unmasks that love and sees it as a disguise for her own ambitions and social claims. Whichever impression one favors, it is clear that Thelma Ducoing Toole was the shaping force in the short life of John Kennedy Toole.

In the Faubourg Marigny, that ancient neighborhood of New Orleans, Thelma Toole was born of an old Creole family, the Ducoings. Although her mother was Irish, Thelma Toole saw her Creole heritage as her birthright, the received tradition by which she defined her identity and her social ambitions. Her Creole hauteur, so much a part of her character, informed every gift of mind and talent she possessed; and every human being she ever loved became either instruments or coadjutors as she sought her claims of place in society. Undoubtedly she saw her rightful destiny in her remove and her progress from the fading and faded faubourg of her ancestors and of her childhood, to uptown New Orleans, around, or near, or in that place of social and cultural plenty, the Garden District, the Quartier Américain, which Elizabeth Hardwick, with muted irony, calls “The Garden District Myth.”

The impress of hierarchy has always been inescapably present in public conduct in New Orleans; and habits of speech, dress, and manners are absolute signifiers of one’s class. They are cultivated not only by those who seek social ascendancy but also by those who command preeminence. The premiums placed on these elements of social identity define and generate much of the enduring drama in the amphitheater of society in New Orleans. There one presents, better still, represents oneself in society in choices of speech, dress, and manners.

Early in life, Thelma Toole became aware that she possessed a gift for language and that she had talents, theatrical and musical, invaluable assets in a city in which one moves and acts and shapes one’s role in society. And so in childhood, Thelma invested her energies and gifts in roles that would further her social ambitions. As musician, actress, pianist, elocutionist, she performed with energy and determination, and not without certain brilliance. But, sadly, in seeking recognition of her birthright, she became enslaved to performance and to the mimetic, the consequences being that she denied the deeper experiences of selfhood not only in her life but also in the life of her son.

Her courtship by John Dewey Toole, five years of concerts, balls, and social events, convinced her that he would bring to her life what she was entitled to as the daughter of a Ducoing: a level of social and cultural distinction. But ten years of marriage, ten years of unwise choices at the company he worked for, that and the Great Depression, brought only a sustenance for Thelma Toole and himself — certainly not enough for her to live the kind of life she thought herself so deserving. Her husband, she soon realized, would never be able to deliver her to this world of which she believed herself entitled; and her recognition of his failure shadowed the marriage with her melancholy and growing despair. But things changed in 1937 when Thelma Toole, then forty years old, found herself pregnant. On December 17 of that year, John Kennedy Toole was born.

René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy observe: “From his birth, Thelma Toole placed an extraordinary importance on her child, identifying with his successes and bemoaning his failures, stamping his life with the force of her powerful personality” (16). And from memorabilia, documents, interviews, letters, and various other accounts of Toole’s life, the authors establish that, from his birth, Toole was the object of Thelma’s self-authorized destiny. Not only did her son renew her lifelong ambitions and dreams, but he also made Thelma determined that he would be capable of realizing them for her as his father could not. As Toole steadily manifested a precocious command of language and wit, Thelma took command of these gifts and “assimilated” them to her own purposes. His powers of mind, his gifts, were channeled into performance, performance of the kind Thelma, early in her life, had so resolutely pursued: “From the time Kenny could talk he was encouraged to perform” (19). And always behind his performances were the old social imperatives and pieties of the Faubourg Marigny of Thelma Toole, now not only her heritage, but the heritage of her child. Through the talents and gifts of her son both would reclaim what she conceived of as the lost aristocratic legacy of the Ducoings: “Kenny was also studying to be a Southern gentleman,” Nevils and Hardy point out (19). And, to the designs of his mother, Toole surrendered completely, perhaps too willingly, too unresistingly. In his own words, spoken as a toddler to his mother, one perceives his early yielding to her cultural and social ambitions: “Turning to his mother the little boy said, ‘I am going to be good to my teacher.’ And when questioned as to what that entailed he answered, ‘I am going to serenade her, then dance, do tricks, and make signs.’ For the next ten years he practiced doing that” (19). And, whatever Toole would do for his teacher, he would do even more for his mother, not only in childhood, but for most of the rest of his life. The paradigms of Thelma became the paradigms of his childhood, and the paradigms, of his childhood became the paradigms of his adulthood. Behind everything he did, no matter how demanding, these were the driving principles of his life. His life became a protean performance, the energies and gifts of his mind moving in and out of roles as son, scholar, and gentleman.

From childhood his performances were always stellar: at Miss Mercadel’s elitist preschool, at the children’s Mardi Gras ball, in classes at McDonogh 14 Elementary School. And the performances continued, sometimes in new roles, but always with the old motives. In high school and in college, his academic distinctions abounding, Ken assumed a new role as “Ken the scholar.” At Alcée Fortier High School, for four years, his name appeared on the honor roll. His intellectual prowess was manifested in debates, speeches for civic organizations, essay contests, writing for the school newspaper, and work on the yearbook. He was a member of the National Honor Society and was awarded a National Merit Scholarship. At Tulane University, he duplicated these kinds of academic successes: his name was on the Dean’s list for four years, he wrote for the student newspaper, he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and, in 1958, he was graduated from Tulane, crowning his undergraduate days by being awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for graduate work at Columbia University. His intellectual efforts brought public honors of the kind in which the Tooles reveled and had expected of their son. After thirty years of residence in uptown New Orleans, they now had a son who had graduated from Tulane with honors. Nevils and Hardy remark with an undertone of irony: “. . . the Tooles were certified as ‘uptown’ with Faubourg Marigny far behind them” (41).

As a graduate student at Columbia, Toole continued to perform as Ken the scholar. Within one year, he earned a master’s degree in English. But what Myrna Minkoff promises New York will do for Ignatius, it surely did not do for Toole. Myrna conceives this city in the same fashion as that in which Marx conceived the industrial metropolis, as a locale where boundaries are broken and crossed, where masses of men confront each other in struggles of ideas and class. These are the kind of confrontations which make for a deepening of the mind, disenthralling it from the provinciality of origins, of place and time. Here Toole should have entered new courts of intellectual and cultural life, in a domain of other worlds and other minds. But his compulsion for performance arrested intellectual engagement, though he had earned his master’s degree in English within a single year. That year -— given solely to the earning of a degree — was a performance which, however impressive, cost him much.

With a master’s degree earned in record time, at so distinguished a university, he returned to Louisiana, almost for respite. At the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, then Southwestern Louisiana Institute, Toole accepted a position as an associate professor, and there found himself performing again, this time as “teacher, partygoer and jolly bachelor,” his audience, a fascinated group of faculty and students. His biographers describe his year there as “the happiest year of his life” (53).

A year later, he returns to Columbia for his doctorate, this time without a fellowship. He complains of the gravity and arrogance of his professors. These strictures reveal more about him than his professors. He feels a painful uprooting from the gentility and courtly scholarship of Tulane and New Orleans.

Gentility and sophisticated conversation were secondary at Columbia. The power of ideas, in dialectic and argument, called for rigorous exploration and the obligation to be intelligent. This was the Columbia of Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and Jacques Barzun. For this world, Toole was not prepared. His academic ambitions had no place for intellectual and spiritual soundings.

Looking back at the early years of his academic life, one finds no single thinker, no one book, that engaged his attention; and his whole adolescence and his early adulthood were without intellectual and religious crisis. An observation by Robert Byrne is not without relevance: he noted that Toole often enjoyed discussing medieval philosophy, but never achieved a profound understanding of what it was about (55).

Toole’s decision to return to New Orleans and to complete his graduate work at Tulane was, perhaps, a nostalgic reentry to a time and a place before his identity was challenged by the turbulent intellectual life of Columbia. But his call to military service interrupted this return and, for two years, he served at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico, with distinction and success. Away from New Orleans, from father and mother, away from social and academic expectations, he gained a sense of liberation. True, new constraints fell upon him, but they were responsibilities of a different kind. His duties in the army were impersonal, free from the neurotic imperatives of his mother. The freedom of that moment enabled Toole to compose A Confederacy of Dunces. In a letter to his mother, he describes the experience of writing as a “renaissance” in his life, and the letter reveals a certain firmness and confidence, as Toole rejects Thelma’s suggestion that he enter law school after his release from the army.

But his return to New Orleans and the continuance of his old life were the undoing of whatever autonomy he had gained in the army. Against the advice of his friends, he lives with his parents and teaches at a small college for girls; and here he falls into the old coercions, though they are not without returns and satisfactions. At St. Mary’s Dominican College, Toole has an audience of genteel Catholic girls, all of them mesmerized by his style of teaching. Toole finds himself acting out the old patterns of performance as a gentleman and scholar. These performances now undo those strengths of self gained in the army, and the discipline of writing is dissipated. Little time is given to further work on the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces. On impulse, he mails it to a distinguished publishing house in New York, and his manuscript gains the notice of one of its readers. Periods of exhilaration and enthusiasm follow, and Toole doubtless sees his literary aspirations as being fulfilled. But when Robert Gottlieb informs him that, as brilliant as the manuscript is, it has serious flaws that require revising and rewriting, Toole, according to his mother, is broken in spirit, and suffers a growing apathy and despair from which he never recovers. Thelma Toole saw these criticisms as vicious, and her censures of Gottlieb are unkind and unconstrained.

Against the claims made by Thelma Toole, the letters of Gottlieb stand in contradiction. Reading them, one may only conclude that Gottlieb’s intentions were sincere and his criticism cogent. Indeed, his letters to Toole are gentle and honest in their criticism of A Confederacy of Dunces, and never wavering in their recognition of Toole’s talents, always encouraging him to continue writing. One letter of June 15, 1964, is invaluable for understanding the central weakness of A Confederacy of Dunces, repeating with an emphasis and a finality what Gottlieb had already been telling Toole: that his novel is dominated by a brilliant mimicry which isolates its characters and prevents them from achieving a common unity of theme. Gottlieb writes of these characters: “What must happen is that they must be strong and meaningful all the way through — not merely episodic and then wittily pulled together to make everything look as if it’s come out right” (126).

What is extraordinary, even uncanny, is that the advice given Toole by Gottlieb was not new to Toole. Indeed the counsel given Toole is almost identical with the advice given him in a letter from Emilie Griffin a few months before he entered the military, some time before he began writing A Confederacy of Dunces. Emilie, a close friend of Toole, writes that she is beginning a literary career. She knows Toole shares similar ambitions, although her concerns in writing were religious — concerns of a kind to which Toole has never shown interest. Griffin writes: “I hope that your work is going well. I think it must be just that you have to be saying something that you really mean . . . not just dredging characters and situation up because they are charming” (74).

The accord of these two letters, written years apart, is not missed by Nevils and Hardy, and the bringing of them together is the most brilliant and valuable moment of the biography. But the letter from Griffin portends not only what the weaknesses of A Confederacy of Dunces will be, it also recalls what was the central tragedy of Toole’s life. Perhaps her deep religious commitment enabled her to see what was so much absent from his character. Griffin possessed a religious scrutiny of self, of which Toole seemed incapable, possibly because he could never free himself from the mimicry of folly. Quick to discover failings in others, he never realized or could accept failing in himself. Nor did he ever seek to find in human failings the larger meaning of human experience. John Kennedy Toole could not disenthrall himself from the identity his mother imposed upon him.

What Erik Erikson calls “meaning it” in his Young Man Luther (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993) resonates with the counsel that Griffin and Gottlieb gave to Toole. Erikson observes of that grace of mind and maturity which came to Luther as he moved into an affirming religious vision, away from childhood fixations on imperatives, imitations, and performances: “Meaning it, means to be at one with an ideology in the process of rejuvenation; it implies a successful sublimation of one’s libidinal strivings; and it manifests itself in liberated craftsmanship” (Erikson 210). How that famous phrase resonates in both of the letters of Griffin and Gottlieb, and creates a central illumination. “I think that you have to be saying something you really mean . . . not just dredging characters and situations up because they are charming” Griffin counsels Toole. And later, in the same vein, Gottlieb criticizes him: “What must happen is that they must be strong and meaningful all the way through, — not merely episodic and then wittily pulled together to make everything look as if it’s come out right.” And so the advice given of “meaning it” calls for a craftsmanship liberated from mere charm and a strained picaresque.

The title of this biography is Ignatius Rising and, though its subtitle is The Life of John Kennedy Toole, it is indeed a biography of two people, John Kennedy Toole and Thelma Ducoing Toole. Whatever the flaws and failings of Thelma Toole and her son, both shared a destiny out of which came a distinguished work of art. On finishing the book, the lines of W. H. Auden’s elegy “In Memory of William Butler Yeats” come to mind with new meaning, at least for me: “You were silly like us, / your gifts survived it all.” Only the few of us, the very few, can find redemption of this kind.

Maurice W. duQuesnay