Monday, December 14, 2009

Mallord: One Step Closer

Many thanks to the remarkably helpful staff at Tulane Special Collections! They provided more clues that will allow me to once again pick up the search for Mallord.

Susanna Powers reminded me that Mallord published two books, a fact that I had filed away during my last search. Today my copy of Moving Against Quiet arrived in the mail. It was published eleven months after Love Alone Finds Cold. On the back cover there is a picture of Mallord (sans beard), which graces this post.

The content of the book is similar to Love Alone Finds Cold, a blend of psychedelic writings and Romantic posturing with echoes of the beat generation. It is worlds away from Toole's literary forte of acerbic wit. But somehow these two writers connected, if only for a brief moment, just before Toole's final journey.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Searching for a lost poet

In the course of writing this biography I have found several trails leading to dead ends. But there is no dead end more intriguing to me than the connection between John Kennedy Toole and a poet who went by the name of Mallord.

His full name is Richard Mallord Silverman. He published a book of poems in New Orleans in 1969 titled Love Alone Finds Cold (Silver Bicycle Press). He gave Toole a copy and inscribed it January 20th, 1969--the day Toole fought with his mother and left New Orleans, never to return.

For years I have sought Mallord. In addition to the book of poems, I found two letters that he wrote to philosopher Bertrand Russell. From those letters it appears Mallord lived in Crestwood, NY in 1967 with a Laurie Gamola—or at least he was receiving mail through her. But here is where the trail ends: a book of poems, a New York address from the mid-sixties, his near obsession with the Romanitic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as indicated in his letters, and a hitherto mysterious connection to American novelist John Kennedy Toole.

Perhaps Toole and Mallord were mere acquaintances, fellow students at Tulane, or perhaps they just shared a drink at a bar. Regardless, Mallord might offer insight into a time period in Toole’s life when he was shutting off from the world, succumbing to his consuming paranoia.

So I open up this question to you, dear readers, in hopes to find a way around this dead end. Does anyone have any information about the elusive poet named Mallord?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Elemore Morgan Jr.: LA Artist and Toole's Friend

Two years ago when I approached Joel Fletcher about this project, he recommended I contact Louisiana artist Elemore Morgan, Jr. who had lived in the apartment above Toole in Lafayette from 1959-1960. I delayed and I missed my opportunity to speak with him before he passed away.

But yesterday I enjoyed a lovely conversation with his wife. She is now going through many of her husband's papers and there is a good chance she will find more material that could help me bring readers into the moment of Toole's life in Lafayette in 1960. Toole formed many lasting friendships in that year. And in his friends he had an audience that enjoyed his short tales of New Orleans life.

Here is a short video about Morgan's work.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Yellow Brick Road

After several revisions my agent has placed his seal of approval on the book proposal. How nice the title page looks with an agency logo at the bottom! He will begin pitching it to major publishing houses next week.

I now stand on the margins of the modern publishing industry, closer than I have ever been before. But from my limited vantage point, I have gained some insight into this most elusive world. And it has given me some perspective on Toole's struggle with publication.

I sympathize with his two years of revisions, as Confederacy was under consideration by Simon & Schuster. But how fortunate he was to send a manuscript directly to Simon & Schuster, have an editor read it, and then engage in an elaborate correspondence with the particularly brilliant editor, Robert Gottlieb.

Thelma Toole was wrong to blame Gottlieb for her son's mental collapse. She made him the scapegoat for her son's mental illness, which had elaborate underpinnings, including his homelife with his mother. Ultimately, Gottlieb mentored Toole--offering advice and criticism. And he did so with compassion, as his letters testify.

For better or worse the major publishing houses of today are much larger than in Toole's day. For a new writer to step into this world it takes precision, a balance between the roles of artist and salesperson, and the crucial services of an agent.

I have been fortunate to have such a patient and dedicated agent. Thus far my first few steps have been challenging, but enjoyable. Of course, I recognize the road ahead will have significant trials. But like any aspiring writer, I have some degree of faith that it will end in triumph.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rest in Peace--Dr. Patricia Rickels

Dr. Patricia Rickels, one of Toole's dearest friends, passed away on Tuesday. I only had three conversations with Dr. Pat, as she was lovingly called. But each one of our conversations lasted several hours. Each time I hung up the phone and as I drove away from her house in early April, I felt I had been in the presence of a remarkable person, someone in love with life and literature, despite her many hardships. From the short time I knew her, I found her to be a teacher of the purest kind. Her legacy lives on in the countless people she inspired. Thank you Dr. Pat.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A call to anyone at Fort Buchanan 1961-1963

Piggybacking on the previous post, it occurs to me that I might have readers in Puerto Rico now, some of whom may be able to help shape this book. Since I have been writing about Toole in Puerto Rico I have spoken with many of the instructors that served in Company A. But it has always bothered me that I have yet to speak to any of the trainees (or Puerto Rican recruits). My attempts to contact anyone from the Puerto Rican side of this story have not been successful. I would love to speak with any of the Puerto Rican trainees who came through Company A, B or C in the early 60s. So, dear readers, if anyone can help me make this connection, you would have my eternal gratitude. Gracias!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Review in Puerto Rico

I would have never expected to have gained my first bit of media recognition as a Toole biographer in Puerto Rico, but it seems apropos considering I have been continuously thinking about the Puerto Rico, and more specifically Fort Buchanan, of 1962 and 1963 over the past few months.

Sofia Cardona, a professor at University of Puerto Rico, contacted me a few weeks ago to ask some questions about Toole. We exchanged a few emails and then she posted a link to her very interesting review of Confederacy. She approaches the novel from a Puerto Rican perspective, which I think is an approach that deserves more exploration.

Her review was published in Claridad, a primary source for news and arts in Puerto Rico. View it here: "Sobre el libro de aquel gringo"

For those of you who do not speak Spanish, Google translator will give you a rough translation--but enough to get an idea of the article.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Chapter Completed and A Morning Remembered

I just finished the chapter on 1963 (chapter 10), which was a turning point in Toole's life. In January of 1963 he returned to Fort Buchanan, PR from a holiday trip to New Orleans and decided to begin writing Confederacy.

In May of 1963, his writing was going so well he decided to move back to New Orleans. In the chapter I explore his experience writing the book, some of the literary influences he gathered in Puerto Rico, and his eventual decision to move back home. It is a great deal of content to cover, but all of it very important to understanding Toole. It was this year in his life that gave us Confederacy, although his decision to return home was an ill-fated one.

As I struggled through this chapter, I recieved some sad news from Lafayette, LA. One of Toole's closest friends, a woman he loved dearly, has become quite ill.

I spent a few hours with her at her house in April. She served me coffee and cookies and we talked about Toole, art, teaching, politics and humanity. She made me promise to teach the stories of her friend Ernest J. Gaines in my next Southern Literature Course. I agreed.

I showed her photos of Toole, many of which she had never seen. She looked at his Army pictures as if he were a stranger; she never saw him in a uniform. Then I showed her my favorite picture, Toole sitting at a table with a genuine smile that looks like he could erupt into laughter at any moment. She pointed to it and said, "Yes, that's the Ken I remember. He looked just like that."

Then she showed me her paintings and a beautiful pink rose she had picked; it was to be the subject of her next watercolor.

It was a lovely morning in the heart of Cajun country.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New Title

The book has a new title....

Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Brilliant and Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole

This title alludes to the last stanza from an unpublished poem by Toole titled "The Arbiter." With permission, I will include this final stanza on one of the first pages of the book:

The book sold well, we understand,
Although the cover itself would command
A buyer’s attention: A large abstract bee
Crushing a butterfly with a typewriter key.

"The Arbiter"
John Kennedy Toole

The original manuscript of the poem is in the Toole Papers in the .Special Collections at Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Question Posed

Dear Readers,

I am happy to report that I now have a literary agent, which brings this biography one step closer to your bookshelf. As I prepare my book proposal for potential publishers I have been thinking about the population of readers that scholars tend to neglect. They are the casual readers, those strolling through a Barnes and Noble on a Sunday afternoon with an overpriced coffee in hand, or those at the airport bookshop looking to read something on their flight. I have asked myself, why would these readers pick up this biography? What about this story might appeal to them?

And so I hand over this question to anyone willing to offer their thoughts. If you are familiar with Toole, what do you want out of this biography? And if you are not familiar with Toole, what do you look for in a biography? What would make you stop in the bookstore or the airport, pick up this book, and buy it.

I will consider all your comments. And as I reference this blog in the proposal, your comments may very well be seen by a publisher.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Meaningful Praise and A Lesson Learned

I just received feedback on one of my chapters from Toole’s close friend Dave Kubach. Toole met Kubach in Puerto Rico—and it was on Kubach’s typewriter that Toole began composing A Confederacy of Dunces. I sent him the chapter on Toole’s first year in Puerto Rico. Needless to say, Kubach’s opinion of my work was very important to me. Only he could verify the accuracy of my portrayal.

I was pleased when he wrote, “I'm happy you gave ample evidence of [Toole’s] fundamental decency of character….There is little in your chapter I would quarrel with.” And I was overjoyed when he finished his letter with:

“Your use of his letters home to chart his development as a comic writer is a really useful contribution to understanding how Confederacy of Dunces got written, a valuable move away from the general fascination with the details of biography. Quoting substantially from his letters home also gives us a useful sense of the texture of John's life in Puerto Rico.”

But Kubach also doubted one section of my chapter, with which I admittedly struggled. He wrote, “I'm not sure John was so much the detached observer of Company A you make him out to be.” In the chapter on 1961 I characterize Toole as “operating on the social margins of Company A, waiting for an opportune moment at any party to inject his trademark wit.” In some ways this description was a compromise between the conflicting character assessments several other members of Company A offered of Toole. But in the end I think it was something more than a mere compromise.

Allow me to digress. I was at a party yesterday with my wife’s family and I found myself listening to several conversations. Periodically I would interject a witty comment, never seeking center stage. I was acting my usual self during a social gathering. But as I became more self-aware of my behavior within the context of the party, the words that I wrote about Toole seemed applicable to me. I too was “waiting for an opportune moment to inject my wit.”

And so it occurred to me that when I wrote about “Toole within the social context of Company A,” I may have let my own personality shape my description. If so, it was not intentional, nor was I cognizant of my actions. But it makes me wonder, does the biographer, in the act of attempting to write objectively about his subject, fight against writing his autobiography? Or, in the subject he chooses, does he in some way actually write his autobiography without knowing it? Scholars might be abhorred at such a proposal. But do we not find traces of the biographer in every biography?

I suppose the best biographies are those that keep this violation to an untraceable minimum. But I also venture to guess that any biographer would admit, perhaps in the rarest of moments, his subject eventually becomes interwoven with his own life, and thereby (either consciously or subconsciously) becomes part of his autobiographical narrative. And thus, such an exchange becomes tempting grounds for subjective assessment. It is a fine line to walk, especially with a subject who is not alive to right the wrongs of a biographer.

For me, this lesson was an important one in the subtleties of the potential pitfalls in any biography. Thank you Mr. Kubach.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Conversation with JKT's Cousin

The other day I interviewed JKT’s cousin (on his father’s side). Never sustaining a consistent familial relationship with the Toole side of the family, JKT reconnected with his cousin at several points in his life. The information he shared with me offered intriguing insight into the final moments of Toole’s life, details that contradict some commonly held beliefs about his last days. I will not go into the details of the conversation here. After all, I must keep something for publication.

However, I will say that his cousin, unlike most people I have interviewed for this book, did not focus on Toole’s wit or humor. As a biographer, I tend to look for consistency in recollections. Expectedly, I have found Toole’s wit and humor, as evident in his novel, the qualities of his personality that his friends find most memorable. But my conversation with Toole’s cousin highlighted a different aspect of Toole. And expectedly so. Their exchange was based on brief, but important interludes in Toole’s life. It seems Toole contacted his cousin when he sought a confidant who could relate to the challenges of life in the Toole household.

My conversation with JKT's cousin reminds me of the complexity of that elusive thing we call personality. Each one of us refines and displays behavioral characteristics, which eventually become iconic of our person. Even with our closest friends and family, social dynamic may determine our behavior. But at times, we may seek counsel with friends or family members on the margins of our circle--the friend of a friend, or a distant cousin. Do we gravitate to such individuals because we can momentarily discard the mask in which we live and find a more authentic discourse? And after doing so, do we maintain that authenticity? Or having refreshed ourselves, do we once again don the mask, because it is where we are most comfortable?

In the face of such questions, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman echo in my ear:

“Why drag about this corpse of your memory lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?” Emerson asks.

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" Whitman proclaims.

And so, I recognize that every contradiction needn't be resolved, for the complexity and the idiosyncrasies of the individual, as Emerson and Whitman argue, is a condition to celebrate.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Suicide as Psychache

Past conversations of Toole’s suicide have been dominated by conjectures of the psychological stressors in his life that he could not resolve. Of course, Thelma Toole (his mother) blamed Robert Gottlieb, the editor at Simon and Schuster. For her, the trauma of a two year correspondence resulting in nothing drove him to madness. Nevils and Hardy (authors of Ignatius Rising) suggest Toole suffered from both a conflicted sexual identity and an overbearing mother, which eventually resulted in his escaping through self-destruction.

But in regards to pondering Toole’s suicide, I have found this question of “why” to be an unsatisfying pursuit. In the end, a single condition, such as a conflicted sexual identity, seems an inadequate reason for suicide. Not to say that such a condition might not contribute to such an act, but labeling a root cause of such a complex act reeks of oversimplification.

I understand the impulse. When someone dies we want verifiable facts, whether it is a biological or psychological condition; we believe the facts will help us cope. But in terms of suicide, these facts rarely achieve a fulfilling answer to the question of “why?” Of course, Toole’s last words might help us better understand, but Thelma destroyed the suicide note that Ken wrote just before he attached the hose to his exhaust pipe; his last words are forever lost.

To better understand the last moments in Toole’s life and his final decision to take his life, I find the writings of Edwin Shneidman most helpful. He is the founder of suicidology and he coined the term psychache. In his book Suicide as Psychache: A Clinical Approach to Self Destructive Behavior he offers this explanation:

All our past efforts to relate or to correlate suicide with simplistic nonpsychological variables such as sex, age, race, socioeconomic level, case history items (no matter how dire), psychiatric categories (including depression), and so forth were (and are) doomed to miss the mark precisely because they ignore the one variable that centrally relates to suicide, namely intolerable psychological pain; in a word, psychache.

I can already hear the critical reader muttering, “aren’t we just playing semantics here.” Perhaps. But in this case the semantics mean something. To evoke the term “ache” suggests a physical-like pain. This carries a more substantial societal meaning than conditions deemed “emotional.”

Imagine after a battle a soldier’s arm begins to hurt, yet there is no apparent physical injury. The physical pain becomes so overwhelming it consumes his every waking moment. He cannot think, he cannot sleep, he cannot breath without an all-consuming pain penetrating through his arm. And let us also assume doctors have no drugs that relieve him of this pain. Eventually, he might consider and perhaps desire an amputation. His actions to relieve his pain would be drastic, but understandable. The reason for the amputation is not the battle, but rather the insufferable pain. And ending his arm's "existence" is not escapism, but a desperate measure to end his suffering.

So why should we not use the same sympathy and understanding when we discuss suicide, in this case, Toole's suicide?

As I consider Toole’s tragic end, I find more meaning in understanding his final decision as a way to relieve his overwhelming psychological pain—not the end result of a diagnosable condition. Discussions of the trauma of artistic rejection or conflicted sexual identity in relation to his suicide are disingenuous until we address this notion of psychache. Indeed, the greatest tragedy of the story is not how he committed suicide, but rather that he felt there was no way to cope with the pain that consumed him. His end was awful, but his suffering leading up to that final moment must have been equally so.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Toole and Pragmatism

At the time of his death John Kennedy Toole had a small book on his bookshelf titled Pragmatism and American Culture. Most likely this book came from his days at Columbia University, where Pragmatism had substantial roots with William James offering his eight-lecture series on the topic at Columbia University in 1907. Over the past few days I have been reading these lectures of Williams James as a preface to reading Pragmatism and American Culture and an exercise in pondering the educational foundations of Toole.

In the lectures, William James takes to task the two oppositional schools (rationalism and empiricism) that vehemently damned the Pragmatic method. He argues that all of the abstract or factual minutiae of philosophy must find a pragmatic connection to the actual or real individual experience in order for it to have value. Ultimately, William James claims a descent from the ivory tower to consider the lives of the average person a necessary task for any true philosopher. It was a sentiment that may have resounded with Toole who, after a few months of PhD studies at Columbia began to question the pragmatic value of his studies. It seemed so disconnected from the experience of life that was so colorful in both reality and fiction writing.

Pragmatism may have influenced his writing of A Confederacy of Dunces as well. While readers tend to focus on Ignatius (how could you not?), I have always agreed with Walker Percy in that Burma Jones is Toole’s greatest literary character. And perhaps it is because Jones is a pragmatist. Consider the following passage from lecture four “The One and the Many.” In discussing the simultaneity of both unity and multiplicity in the world James writes:

“…the pragmatic value of the world’s unity is that all these definite networks actually and practically exist. Some are more enveloping and extensive, some less so; they are superposed upon each other; and between them all they let no individual elementary part of the universe escape. Enormous as is the amount of disconnexion [sic] among things (for these systematic influences and conjunctions follow rigidly exclusive paths), everything that exists in influenced in some way by something else, if you can only pick the way out rightly.”

Throughout Confederacy, Ignatius seeks to control these parts. He strives to be the center of Fortuna’s wheel; he seeks to unify parts of this New Orleans world—through his attempts to mobilize rebellious mobs. For certain readers he becomes the driving force turning the fates of every character. But if William James were reading Confederacy I suspect he would find Burma Jones a superior philosophical character to Ignatius. Jones, through his slightly abstracted distance from the world (which his sunglasses and smokescreens signify) he is able to see the simultaneous disconnection and interconnectedness of the New Orleans world. He does not end up the victor in the novel because of fate, but rather because he picked “the way out rightly” with the subtlety of a pragmatist.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Looking backward, generation to generation

I have completed Chapter 9, which documents Toole’s first year in Puerto Rico where he was an English instructor in the Army.  The chapter ends a few months before he begins writing Confederacy, but offers some key experiences that clearly influenced the development of the novel. In studying his letters from 1962 I have been keenly aware of the challenge of rendering the idiosyncrasies of a generation.

Toole’s letters from Puerto Rico in 1962 are filled with humorous observations, but they are often at the expense of Puerto Ricans.  He makes some lamentable comments that would have broken the hearts of his students had they read his letters.  But yet, he was known as a caring and devoted teacher to his Puerto Rican students. In context, his letters are private and, as I point out in the chapter, a game of narrative voice.  But that does not make his most deplorable comments anymore palatable to me as a reader.

So the question becomes, how do we understand such commentary from a person reared in a social climate and generation that considered racial differences inherent and natural?  Is it unfair to impose our own values of the politically correct onto a moment in history that had yet to cultivate those social values?  Or are we obligated to uproot these inequities and take them to task? 

Of course, decades from now, our children will struggle with our own idiosyncrasies.  They might despair the contradiction of our lip service to “going green,” but our actual laziness when it came to changing our lives for such a principle.  Or perhaps they will find the resolution to the debate on same sex marriage a simple question of civil rights.  Indeed, our children will shake their heads at us too.  But hopefully they will seek to understand the milieu of our era, as I do the same in this project, not as a justification, but as a way to better understand the slow movement of change, the hard earned lessons of any generation.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why a Critical Biography of Toole?

After two years of research I have had many wonderful experiences in researching for this book. It is difficult to know where to begin. My impulse is to justify why this book needs to be written through academic reasoning, citing its place within Modern Novel Studies or American Literary Biography. While such reasoning led me to the idea to write a biography on John Kennedy Toole, it is not the reason I have dedicated so much time and energy to this pursuit.

I derive motivation from an ever increasing sense that his story needs to be told with sensitivity and objectivity. The most uplifting moments in writing this book have been the opportunities to speak with Toole's friends. I have found that their love for him runs deep. They still harbor disappointment and pangs of guilt that they could do nothing to save him. They, above all else, offer glimpses into the mind of Toole, his mannerisms and behaviors. And they all feel that his life has yet to be cast into a proper biography.

Through the conversations I have held with people like Joel Fletcher, Pat Rickels and Dave Kubach I feel I have come to know Toole on a more personal level. I can almost hear how he might laugh or the tone of his voice. These are not delusions of my own grandeur. But, as I have found, a necessary process for the biographer to connect with the subject. And through this process of getting to know Toole, I am convinced that he deserves a fair narrative, considering he had so little control over his own legacy.

I am not so bold to suggest I am the only one to undertake such a task. There is another person other than myself, working to understand Toole. Joe Sanford is currently making a documentary on Toole's life. I invite everyone to visit the film website: Joe and I will continue our collaboration. Our projects are distinct, but we share a similar goal to offer an exploration of Toole's life.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

First Post

This blog will serve as a depository for thoughts and experiences as I write a critical biography of John Kennedy Toole.