Conundrum is as Conundrum Does

John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We don’t read too much about John Kennedy Toole these days, but back in the eighties his story was a constant literary discussion point.  He is the author of A Confederacy of Dunces which he finished writing in 1964.  He was working as a teacher at Dominican College and submitted his manuscript to Simon and Schuster in late 1964.  Over the next two years the editor at Simon and Schuster, Robert Gottlieb, and John went back and forth on corrections that Gottlieb felt needed to be made.  Toole was not anxious to change his book and in the end he and Gottlieb agreed to suspend the effort since John rejected most of the suggestions for change.  Toole stopped working on any more revisions and placed the manuscript on an armoire in his bedroom.  It sat there until his death at thirty-one years old in March of 1969.  John Toole had been severely depressed over his inability to get published on his terms and took his own life.  An additional seven years passed while his mother attempted to find a publisher to prove that her son had talent and deserved to be published as written.  She wrote many letters to the author Walker Percy (The MoviegoerNational Book Award Winner) who was a professor at Louisiana State University until he finally agreed to read the manuscript.  He was very impressed and wrote the foreword of the book.  The first printing had a run of 2500 copies printed by the Louisiana State University Press. A year later in 1981 A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has since sold over one and on half million copies.

John Toole was convinced that his book was good enough to be published without heavy editing.  So much so, that he refused to make changes requested by the editor Robert Gottlieb.  Had he made the changes he more than likely would have been published in the late sixties instead of early eighties.  Would getting published have saved John from taking his own life?  It is really hard to tell.  He presumably took his life because he was depressed over his book going unpublished.  This then sets up the conundrum; making the changes and giving up his principles may have caused him to be depressed as well, and the ending may have been the same. On the other hand, if he had made the changes and gotten published would he still have won the Pulitzer Prize?  The nature of a conundrum means we will never know, but one thing is clear; John Toole was very talented and stuck to his guns even if it eventually cost him his life.


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