May 4, 2008

A Confederacy of Dunces

Tulane University Home

Ignatius Comes of Age
Heather Heilman
Photography By Kenneth Harrison

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In 1963, Sgt. John Kennedy Toole (A&S '58) was stationed at the U.S. Army Training Center at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, where overeducated draftees with expired student deferments taught English to Puerto Rican recruits. Toole had arrived in Puerto Rico in November of 1961. He did not enjoy his first year at Fort Buchanan. In letters home, he complained that everything there started late and that "nothing on this island can seemingly be subdued or rational or orderly," an astonishing gripe for a native of New Orleans. He described his students as "somewhat like characters from a Puerto Rican version of Grapes of Wrath." The rainy season depressed him. He was heartbroken when he lost his Tulane class ring. He was homesick and drinking too much.

But by the spring of 1963 something had changed. In his letters, he describes himself as content, relaxed and stable. He was productively at work on a novel.

"Some of it, I think, is really very funny," he wrote of his work-in-progress. Later, as the time of his discharge from the Army approached, he wrote, "About the thing I am writing I have one conviction: it is entertaining and publishable, and I have more than a degree of faith in it."

The working title of the novel was Ignatius Reilly, but we know it as A Confederacy of Dunces. It was published in 1980, 11 years after the author's suicide, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Tulane English professor Dale Edmonds identifies four quintessential literary works set in New Orleans: Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and A Confederacy of Dunces--a motley group of books despite their common setting. Confederacy is the most peculiar of the four, a chaotic account of the misadventures of obese, slovenly, delusional, pretentious, obnoxious, hunting-cap-wearing Ignatius J. Reilly. But that string of adjectives barely begins to describe him. He's a character who resists quick description--he's someone the reader has to experience directly.

The novel is set in New Orleans in the early 1960s. Ignatius "graduated smart" from a certain uptown university, but has since managed to avoid gainful employment. He lives at home with his mother and spends his time reading the Roman philosopher Boethius, filling up numerous Big Chief tablets with "a lengthy indictment against our century," and talking back to Hollywood musicals at the Prytania Theater. But cruel Fortuna conspires against him, and his mother sends him out to look for a job. In his search for employment he encounters a cast of only-in-New-Orleans characters, from Irish Channel Yats to the strippers, pornographers and homosexual bon vivants of the French Quarter.

Heather Heilman is an editor in the Tulane publications

office and a regular contributor to Tulanian.

This article originally appeared in the
Fall 2001 issue of Tulanian.�

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