Monday, February 04, 2013

Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces

I had never heard of John Kennedy Toole the day that the cover of A Confederacy of Dunces caught my eye on the Harvard Book Store bargain table. That cover was so different from everything else there that it was the first thing I picked up, and I had the feeling the book was going to be special.  And, it turns out that I was correct.  A Confederacy of Dunces is a brilliant novel, and it started my thirty-year fascination with its author, a man who committed suicide at age 31 in 1969, eleven years before his Pulitzer Prize winning novel was even published.

But, largely because of how Toole’s mother solely controlled the documents pertaining to her son, destroying those that did not support the image she preferred, knowing what to believe about the author’s life has not been easy. Butterfly in the Typewriter, the new John Kennedy Toole biography by Cory MacLauchlin, goes a long way in separating the myth created by Thelma, Toole’s mother, from the reality of the man’s brief life. 

The cover that caught my attention
 Toole is, of course, a New Orleans native, and the city was as important to him as anything else in his life ever would be. Despite working and studying in places as varied as New York City and rural Louisiana, the city was forever in his blood. Although it provided him with real-life representations of what would become the key characters of his literary masterpiece, living there with his parents into his thirties was also a constant reminder of his failures. And, finally, after a row with Thelma, John Kennedy Toole ended the last road trip of his life on a deserted road outside Biloxi, Mississippi by inhaling the exhaust fumes from his car until he was dead. 

John Kennedy Toole
Butterfly in the Typewriter follows Toole’s brief journey from birth; through the school years that culminated in degrees from Tulane and Columbia University; to his jobs as an English teacher; and, completing the cycle, back to living with – and financially supporting - his parents in their New Orleans home. Along the way, we meet his friends and colleagues, and learn much about his family, including its history of mental illness.

Toole’s story is complicated by his mother’s unfortunate habit of editing it for her own purposes (and glory), but it would have been complicated enough even without her meddling. To Thelma’s everlasting credit, there is no doubt that, without her efforts, the world would never have heard of A Confederacy of Dunces. She even, with $100,000 of royalty money from the book, established the John Kennedy Toole scholarship at Tulane, a fund that, according to MacLauchlin, is worth more than $1 million today.

Cory MacLauchlin
Butterfly in the Typewriter is an evenhanded biography, one that tries to tell all sides of the story while minimizing speculation and rumor (or at least pointing them out as such). Sadly, though, it appears that we will never know the whole truth of John Kennedy Toole because all we have left is Thelma Toole’s edited version of who he was.  We know that she destroyed his suicide note and other documents that would have certainly offered insights into her son’s mind. And, now that all existing documents have been studied, and most of those to whom Toole was closest have taken their secrets to the grave, Butterfly in the Typewriter may just be as good as it ever gets.  


  1. This one is intriguing to me. It's too bad his mother destroyed documents that mights have given us a more complete picture of who her son was but he sounds like a fascinating character, none the less.

  2. As long as we have his novel....

    In the end, the novel is all we really need to know. While his life story is a fascinating one, probably more fascinating because of what we don't know, it's Confederacy of Dunces that gives it meaning.

    I enjoyed this biography, though I do think it's more of interest to fans than to the general public. I also think we have to lay some of the blame for Toole's troubles and for the trouble we have finding out more about him at Toole's feet. I was struck by how much of the difficulties he had finding a publisher were his own fault.

    Whatever the case, Confederacy of Dunces is one of a small handfull of books I go back to to re-read every ten years or so.

  3. Kathleen, I wish she hadn't destroyed the material, but I can understand what motivated her. Part love for her son, part self-interest, and I tend to think that the self-interest (and protection of her own image) may have been the dominant factor.

  4. James, definitely something that fans of Confederacy will enjoy more than readers who are unfamiliar with the book...I totally agree.

    And, while I agree that Confederacy is the most important thing, and that we are very fortunate that it was finally published, I do think that knowing about an author's life adds to a reader's understanding of his/her work. There is so much in Toole's life that directly pertains to Confederacy, especially the people he knew and worked with, that it helps me better understand the novel and what was going on in Toole's head when he wrote it.

    I still have my original copy of Confederacy of Dunces on the shelves (it's about 30 years old) and I've read it more than once...with more readings, I'm sure, in the future.