Jonathan Swift once wrote, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” (from Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting) Swift’s pithy but pessimistic saying inspired the title of John Kennedy Toole’s comedic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, published in 1980 — 11 years after the author committed suicide. No doubt Swift’s words also described Toole’s general outlook on life.
Toole’s novel featured the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a well educated but lazy 30-year-old man living with his mother in an uptown New Orleans neighborhood in the early-1960s. Walker Percy, in his introduction to the book, describes Ignatius as “a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Ignatius is a dreamer who doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the world; a man born at least a century too late, and who feels that fate is against him.
Toole had a lot in common with his literary character. Toole (December 17, 1937-March 26, 1969) was something of a scholar who lived in New Orleans with his mother well into his adulthood. And apparently he shared with his literary creation the same paranoia, the same fatalistic worldview. Toole spiraled into a deep depression following years of rejection slips. His first novel The Neon Bible was repeatedly rejected, and the writer finally shelved the book. His next and only other novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, fared no better. At the promising age of 31, Toole took his own life.
Toole’s mother never found the original manuscript for Confederacy, but one day she came across a smeared carbon copy of the novel. She wanted to see her son’s book published, so she, too, tried to interest a publisher — any publisher — but to no avail. However, like the persistent widow of the Bible verse Luke 18:5, Thelma Toole refused to give up. She contacted Walker Percy, an author and college instructor at nearby Loyola University New Orleans, and asked him to read her son’s manuscript. He politely refused. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She continued to pester the instructor, now demanding he read it.
Percy writes in his introduction: “…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. …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.”
Percy recommended Toole’s book to an editor at Louisiana State University Press, and A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published in 1980, with a print run of a mere 2,500 copies. The novel was an immediate critical and popular success, was quickly reprinted (and is still in print today), and ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Was its author right? Was the world filled with dunces too blind to see his genius — and all of them arrayed against him? That’s not important, really.
The lessons we truly need to take from Toole’s story are about persistence … and seeking help, both emotional and practical. We’ve mentioned the importance of having a “Barnabas” (a facilitator, or someone to help open doors of opportunity, as in Acts 9:26-31) — as well as the importance of being a barnabas. Imagine how differently things would have turned out if initially someone had just taken the time to read Toole’s manuscript; or had been there to share the author’s sorrows. Toole probably would be alive today, and we’d have several more books by him.
Please take the time to see what people “are about.” Don’t slam the door before you even give them a chance. And if you can, be a Barnabas! On the other hand, if you feel like you’ve reached the end of your rope, whether due to rejections or other problems, please don’t wait to reach out for help — to a doctor or a spiritual leader. The world is NOT against you! People can be callous and uncaring, but few if any actually have an agenda to keep someone from succeeding. Above all, if you have a pessimistic, paranoid, even fatalistic outlook on life, put your focus on God. He is 100% FOR YOU.
“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 NIV)