Leighton, H. Vernon > John Kennedy Toole Research > St. Mary's Lecture

John Kennedy Toole's Papers: A cautionary tale of scholarly research

A Winona State University Library Athenaeum Presentation by H. Vernon Leighton
The lecture was presented on March 17, 2010
Editorial corrections to script were made 1 February 2013

Description of Talk (from the application to present):
In the Summer of 2009, I visited Tulane University and studied the papers of John Kennedy Toole, the author of A Confederacy of Dunces. While I am working on an academic paper on this topic, I would like to present some of the findings. The papers, about which no scholar has published a description, prove incorrect at least two claims made in the scholarly literature on Toole.

Note: These findings and many more can be found in my scholarly study: Evidence of influences on John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, including Geoffrey Chaucer. Version 2.0 (July 1, 2011). Self-published on the Web. Format: PDF.

Cite this document as: Leighton, H. Vernon. John Kennedy Toole's Papers: A cautionary tale of scholarly research. The script of a Winona State University Library Athenaeum Presentation. Lecture on March 17, 2010, script revised 1 February 2013 [date viewed]. http://www.winona.edu/library/staff/vl/toole/Leighton_ToolePapers_Lecture.html.


Typographic Conventions in this document:
[text in brackets was not in PowerPoint slide, but my spoken comment on the slide.]
Text in bold appeared on slide and is spoken.
{Text in bold but in curly brackets was on the slide, but not spoken.}


Slide 1:
John Kennedy Toole's Papers
A cautionary tale of scholarly research
[I struggled with how to organize my ideas for this presentation, so I have decided to focus on the problems with the research process. This presentation has a different focus than the paper I have submitted to a scholarly journal.]


Slide 2:
[The] Topic of my Toole Paper:[was]
The influence of the literary works of other authors, especially Chaucer, on John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy).
[Now, I have to say that the whole idea of looking for influences on an author is currently unpopular among literary theorists. Because I had not gone to graduate school in literature, I was blissfully unaware that my general approach was not currently well received by many scholars of literature.]


Slide 3: 
The main topic of this talk: [however, is that]
Intellectual honesty isn't just good for your peace of mind, it's good for the quality of your work.


Slide 4:
[Let's begin with a] Review of Toole and Confederacy

  • [John Kennedy] Toole  was born in 1937 in New Orleans. Part of an old New Orleans family, but poor. [His mother's maiden name was French and she came from an old French Creole family.]
  • [He got scholarships and] Studied literature at Tulane and Columbia.
  • [He] Wrote Confederacy in the early 1960's {sent to S & S, not published. Taught.} [He sent it to Simon and Schuster, and the first reader liked it, but it was eventually rejected. He taught English at a small college in New Orleans to support his parents. He started to work on a PhD.]
  • [Toole] Committed suicide in 1969. [While his mother, Thelma, claimed that it was the shock of being rejected that caused him to kill himself, many think it was more likely the hounding he got from Thelma that pushed him over the edge.]
  • His mother and Walker Percy got the book published in 1980. [It won the] 1981 Pulitzer Prize. [The colorful tale of Toole and his mother is well told in Joel Fletcher's memoir called Ken and Thelma.]


Slide 5:
My own history regarding Confederacy
I took a Chaucer course in [the] Fall 1983.
[In] January 1984, [I] read Confederacy.
From page one on, I saw it as a parody of Chaucer.
[At the time, I] Sketched paper, {poss. for grad school, but} [and figured that if I went to graduate school, I could use the idea;] the connection seemed seemed obvious to me [so I expected another scholar to write an article on it before long].

[Five minute mark in the talk]

Slide 6:
That initial hint of possible reference:
Chaucer’s Miller:
"Upon the cop right of his nose he hade
A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys,
Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys;" (I (A) 554-556)
[Modern English: Upon the right side of his nose he had a wart, and upon it stood a tuft of hair, red as the bristles of a sow's ear." The Miller is a very carnal character in the Canterbury Tales, and Chaucer compares him to a pig.]
Confederacy’s Ignatius, p.1:
"…the fine bristles that grew in [his] ears … stuck out on either side like turn signals …"
[Like the Miller, Ignatius is described in beastly terms.]


Slide 7: Meanwhile, [my own] life went in other directions.
[I never did go to graduate school to study literature.]
In Summer [of] 2007, my bookclub read Confederacy. I decided to find out who had written that [ to me obvious] paper.
Answer: No one.
[So, I decided to give it a try.]


Slide 8:
In my first attempt at a paper, I ...
1. Read quickly the entire scholarly literature on Confederacy (which isn’t that big), hunting for references to Chaucer. I used some paper excerpts in {CLC.} [the reference series called Contemporary Literary Criticism.]
[Confederacy has not really been accepted into the canon of literature of works that should be read by all students. So there is much less critical interpretation of him than, say, of Chaucer.]
2. I asked Kent Cowgill for advice on surveys of the current Chaucer scholarship. [Kent at that time had just retired as the WSU professor who taught Chaucer].
3. Combed carefully through Confederacy.
4. Over about a year, I found about 14 thematic similarities between them and wrote a "kitchen sink" paper.



Slide 9:
A sample parallel
Contrast between the Ideal and the Sensual.
[This is a Platonic distinction between a world of abstract ideas and a world of sensations. To Plato, the abstract world was more "real" than the observable world.]
Chaucer's Knight's Tale: exemplifies Boethian idealism.
[Boethius was a late Roman philosopher who shaped Platonic philosophy into a form compatible with Christianity. Very influential to medieval thinkers. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Chaucer was the first person to translate his Consolation of Philosophy into English. The Knight's Tale, the first of the Canterbury Tales, rests on a philosophical foundation of Boethian idealism. From the audience: John Kerr spoke up and did correct me. There had been an earlier translation.]
[Chaucer's]Miller's Tale [the second tale in the Canterbury sequence] is an earthy parody of the Knight's Tale. A carnal antithesis.
Confederacy: Ignatius Reilly [embodies the contrast: he] proclaims Boethian idealism while his person and manners are beastly and grotesque.


Slide 10:
Kent Cowgill kindly agreed to read my paper. He correctly judged that my paper’s claim was not compelling. [I had not proved a thing.]
The problem was not that the parallels did not exist;
The problem was that those same themes were common throughout the history of literature, both classical and modern.
None of the parallels had to be caused by a Chaucerian influence.


Slide 11:
The Chaucer / Toole connection had seemed obvious to me, not because of how much I knew about literature, but  because of how little I knew about literature.
I nearly gave up on the project.

[15 minute mark]

Slide 12:
Concurrent with my studies and writing, though, I contacted the Tulane University Special Collections Library about the Toole papers and a possible assistant.
  [I was aware that archive directors often know of local individuals who are willing to contract as research assistants for distant researchers. When I was in library school, for instance, I worked in the University of Illinois Archives, and I picked up side jobs doing such research. And yes, it is true that, while I was working there, the papers of the Nobel-prize-winning professor from Illinois, John Bardeen, were not consulted as much as the papers of that Illinois alumnus, Hugh Hefner.]
[On the advice of the Tulane University Archivist,] I hired a retired archives employee, Assistant #1, and asked her to look for Chaucer in Toole's Papers.


Slide 13:
Paydirt!
{She knew of plenty of evidence of Chaucer in Toole's Papers. Plus, her own personal experience with Lumiansky.}
[After I settled the contract with Assistant #1, I gave her the topic, and she replied immediately that she knew that there was plenty of material in the Toole Papers on Chaucer. She had herself also studied under the Tulane Chaucer professor, Robert Lumiansky, and she knew how charismatic a professor he had been. She knew that Toole had studied under Lumiansky and that there were a number of Chaucer assignments in his papers.]
Just after I got the bad news from Kent, I got good news from Assistant #1.
The project was back on track. [I went from standing on the brake to standing on the accelerator.]


Slide 14:
A Major Problem: On Boethius
Prior to 1995, two critics had offered interpretations of Confederacy that depended on Toole understanding Boethian philosophy well.
[So there was a budding line of Boethian interpretation of Confederacy.]
In 1995, an interview with Robert Byrne was published. [Most people who had been close to both Toole and Byrne agree that Byrne is] The real-life Ignatius.
[Like Ignatius, Byrne was a medievalist who was large, loud, and bumbling, and he regularly spouted off about Boethius. A mutual friend of Byrne and Toole said, "I don't think Bobby Byrne is the model for Ignatius, I know he is."]
Byrne did not believe that Toole had an understanding of Boethian philosophy. [This effectively put a damper on Boethian interpretations of Confederacy.]


Slide 15:
The Major Discovery: my nugget of gold
Within an assignment on Chaucer, Toole demonstrated he had a solid working knowledge of Boethian philosophy. The current understanding in the scholarly literature [from Byrne] is false.
[I advertised this talk as showing at least two items in the published literature wrong. This is the first. If nothing else in my research gets published, this fact should, as it could change the direction of Confederacy scholarship.]
[Note to script: I was able to publish this fact in the journal Notes on Contemporary Literature, as the article "The Refutation of Robert Byrne" in 2012.]


Slide 16:
Because of Kent's critique
The problem of evidence of influence became broader. Could I find evidence in the Papers of the possible influence of other authors? Based on the evidence, which [potential influences] were most plausible?
[Here we see a hint of why the effort to discern influence is so theoretically dodgy. What counts as influence? What are an author's intentions in the first place? Is that knowable?]
I decided to expand my project and try to find out all references in his papers to other authors, and compare {them} [those references] to comparisons made by earlier critics. {ex. Salinger}
[For example, other critics had made comparisons to the works of Mark Twain, Walker Percy, J. D. Salinger, etc. In the current literature, searching for influence has been discouraged by literary theorists, such as Terry Eagleton. But workaday critics write about influences anyway. Many of the articles about Toole are detailed comparisons of Confederacy with earlier works, but the critic stops the comparison just before the forbidden concept: the logical conclusion that the earlier work might have influenced Toole. I am fool enough to say the word "influence."]


Slide 17:
Problems with Tulane
Assistant #1 was not working out {due to health}.
[Assistant #1 developed serious health conditions, and it was not clear that she would be physically able to continue. She would take months to respond to emails, for example. I contacted the archivist again, and asked for a younger and healthier assistant. I was given the name of someone who was a current part-time employee.]
{I hired a part-time archives employee,} Assistant #2, {who} was younger, more prompt, etc.
Assistant #2 was also more accurate and thorough. Some of Assistant #1's quotes were not entirely accurate. [Assistant #1 got the gist correct, but I was writing a scholarly paper, so I needed the precise quote. Assistant #2 even got permission from the Archives and was able to send me ] Photocopies [of critical pages].

[25 minute mark]

Slide 18:
For the sake of intellectual honesty, [part 1]
I decided that I had to reread the Toole critical literature to look more carefully for the treatment of other authors. I decided I must read the full text of excerpted articles.
Surprise #1: The excerpts often left out comparisons with other literary works. Sometimes the entire thesis of the article was missing from the excerpt.
[Example: McNeil's paper compares Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with Confederacy, but the excerpt had no mention of Twain. The very thesis was missing.]


Slide 19:
For the sake of intellectual honesty, part 2
I also decided that if I was going to publish the [very] first scholarly article on the Toole Papers, I had to actually go to New Orleans and see the Toole Papers myself, despite my having gotten excellent information from a research assistant.


Slide 20:
I had the time in August [of 2009] to make a road trip to New Orleans. I discovered that in mid-August, New Orleans is ... 


Slide 21:
Hot and Humid! [foggy picture of a mansion in the Garden District.]
[Discussion of New Orleans: This picture is foggy because of the lens on the camera. In New Orleans, it gets over 90 degrees by 9 a.m., the archives had air conditioning, but my glasses fogged every time I stepped outside. You always had to carry an umbrella because of sudden thunderstorms and downpours. ]


Slide 22:
More observations on [the John Kennedy Toole] Papers:
  • They have at least one assignment from nine out of his thirteen English courses at Tulane.
  • They have nothing from [Toole's time at] Columbia [University] except his Master’s Thesis on John Lyly.
  • Thelma had edited what went into the collection. Letters from one friend missing. [That friend was, in Fletcher's opinion, a likely model for Dorien Green.]
  • The finding aids have errors: nothing about [for example, Toole's undergraduate transcripts from] Tulane {transcripts in aid}, but they were present [in the Toole Papers].


Slide 23:
Another Claim rebutted
Claim: The only comment in the scholarly literature about Toole’s studies said that Toole’s knowledge of John Lyly would help him understand Jacobean bourgeois comedy (Ruppersberg, 1986).
Rebuttal: In his master’s thesis, [however,] Toole says “Lyly was catering to the socially elevated – and particularly the courtly – circles of Elizabethan England.” [Toole saw Lyly as courtly and] Not bourgeois.
[I advertised this talk as having two claims rebutted, and this is the second.]


Slide 24:
Surprise #2: Assistant #2 and I had a misunderstanding: she only reported the reference if the entire assignment was about that author, whereas I was looking for any mention. She passed over many references to authors. My brief look at the papers stretched to four days.


Slide 25:
An example of what was missed
Assistant #2 did not report any reference to J.D. Salinger in the Papers, because Toole had not written a whole essay on him.
But Toole was a [huge] fan of Salinger.
[Here is a quote that she didn't mention:] {Quote:} "Catcher in the Rye continues to be one of the finest books of its type ever written. No college student should fail to read it …"


Slide 26:
Moral of my story: There is a reason for intellectual honesty: Intermediaries (such as excerpts, assistants) don’t know which aspects of an original are of interest to you. So be thorough! Intellectual honesty, it's not just good for your conscience, it's good for your research.


Slide 27:
Thank you
[Others who have read my drafts: John Kerr, Matt Lungerhausen, John Campbell, Kenneth Holditch, Lauren Leighton, Colleen Burlingham, Joel Fletcher, Rachel Dowling, Ann Leighton, and Assistant #1 and Assistant #2.
I leave the assistants nameless because my remarks could be seen as criticisms of their performance.]

[40 minutes.]

Question and answers

Question from the audience: Could Walker Percy have written Confederacy?

My answer in the lecture: That is sort of the "grassy knoll" conspiracy theory of Confederacy. (I then explained Giemza's article from Southern Cultures about how the pattern of Percy / Toole is similar to the pattern of Kierkegaard / and Kierkegaardian hoax.[1])

My Ultimate Answer [which I thought of after the audience had left]:  Thelma Toole was obsessed throughout Ken's life that he was a genius. She was the first reader of Confederacy, she loved it, and she was its ultimate editor, as she probably destroyed the revisions Ken had made for Robert Gottlieb and preserved only the original first draft (according to Fletcher). Once it was published, she would be invited to parties and would recite passages from memory. Her notes in the Toole Papers show that she compared the book to the writings of Flannery O’Connor and others. She wrote lyrics called "My Worldview" in which she identified Dante, Chaucer, Milton, and Ben Jonson as predecessors to Confederacy. She immediately understood the quality of the analysis of Confederacy by Patteson and Sauret. The idea that she would not have noticed or would have allowed Percy to change a comma of the text is ridiculous. Thelma is a more plausible candidate for being called the author of Confederacy than is Walker Percy.



[1]. Giemza, Bryan. "A Conspiracy of Dunces? Walker Percy's Humor and the Chance of a Last Laugh." Southern Cultures 9.2 (2003): 6-27.

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