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John Kennedy Toole (December 17, 1937–March 26, 1969) was an Americanmarker novelist from New Orleans, Louisianamarker, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

Toole's novels remained unpublished during his lifetime. Some years after his death by suicide, the author's mother Thelma Toole brought the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces to the attention of the novelist Walker Percy, who ushered the book into print. In 1981 Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Toole, known throughout his life to friends and family as "Ken", lived a sheltered childhood in Uptown New Orleans. His mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, was a charmingly flamboyant but narcissistic woman, who doted on her only child. Toole's father worked as a car salesman and mechanic before succumbing to deafness and failing health, while his mother supplemented the family income with music lessons.

After earning an undergraduate degree from Tulane Universitymarker, Toole received a master's degree at Columbia University, and spent a year as assistant professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (then University of Southwestern Louisiana) in Lafayette, Louisianamarker. Toole's next academic post was in New York Citymarker, where he taught at Hunter Collegemarker. Although he pursued a doctorate at Columbia, his studies were interrupted by his being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961. Toole served two years in Puerto Rico teaching English to Spanish-speaking recruits.

Following his military service, Ken Toole returned to New Orleans to live with his parents and teach at Dominican College. He spent much of his time hanging around the French Quartermarker with musicians and, on at least one occasion, helped a musician friend with his second job selling tamales from a cart. While at Tulane University, Toole had worked briefly in a men's clothing factory. Both of these experiences inspired memorable scenarios in his comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

Toole sent the manuscript of his novel, written during the early 1960s, to Simon and Schuster and, despite initial excitement about the work, the publisher eventually rejected it, commenting that it "isn't really about anything." Toole's health began to deteriorate as he lost hope of seeing his work—which he considered a comic masterpiece—in print. He stopped teaching at Dominican, quit his doctoral classes and began to drink heavily while being medicated for severe headaches.

Toole's biographers, Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy, have suggested that a factor in Toole's depression was confusion about his sexuality and identity. In their biography, Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole, they tracked down and interviewed many of Ken Toole's acquaintances. While one friend suggested that his domineering mother left no emotional room for any other woman in Toole's life (although he did date some women exclusively in his lifetime), others have disputed the suggestion that he was a homosexual, including David Kubach, a longtime friend who also served with Toole in the army. According to Kubach, the authors of Ignatius Rising were not personally acquainted with Toole, and "not knowing him makes a big difference."


Toole disappeared on January 20, 1969, after a dispute with his mother. Receipts found in his car show that he drove to the West Coast and then to Milledgeville, Georgiamarker. Here he visited the home of deceased writer Flannery O'Connor. It was during what is assumed to be a trip back to New Orleans that Toole stopped outside Biloxi, Mississippimarker, on March 26, 1969, and committed suicide by running a garden hose from the exhaust pipe in through the window of the car in which he was sitting. An envelope was left on the dashboard of the car and was marked "to my parents". However, the suicide note inside the envelope was destroyed by his mother, who made conflicting statements as to its general contents. He was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.


After his death, Thelma Toole in 1976 insisted that author Walker Percy, by then a faculty member at Loyola University New Orleans, read the manuscript for Dunces. Percy was hesitant at first, but eventually gave in and fell in love with the book. A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980, and Percy provided the foreword.

The first printing was only 2500 copies by LSU Press. A number of these were sent to Scott Kramer, an executive and producer at 20th Century Fox, to pitch around Hollywoodmarker, but the book generated little initial interest there. However, the novel attracted much attention in the literary world. A year later, in 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies in 18 languages.

Toole's only other novel is The Neon Bible, which he wrote at age 16 and considered too juvenile a writing attempt to submit for publication while he was alive. However, due to the great interest in Toole, The Neon Bible was published in 1989. The novel was made into a feature film of the same name in 1995; it was directed by Terence Davies.






  • Ronald W. Bell, "The Nihilistic Perspective of John Kennedy Toole," (California State University [Dominguez Hills] M.A. thesis, 2000).
  • Joel L. Fletcher, Ken and Thelma: The Story of A Confederacy of Dunces, (Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, Louisianamarker, 2005).
  • Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Handy, Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole, (LSU Press, 2001).


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