John Kennedy Toole, the genius behind ‘Dunces’: 1 of 300

The Times-Picayune is marking the tricentennial of New Orleans with its ongoing 300 for 300 project, running through 2018 and highlighting 300 people who have made New Orleans New Orleans, featuring original artwork commissioned by | The Times-Picayune with Where Y’Art gallery. Today: novelist John Kennedy Toole.

The icon: John Kennedy Toole.

The legacy: Blame Fortuna and her cruel, capricious wheel. There’s no better way to explain the intermingling of comedy and tragedy at work in the story of John Kennedy Toole. His “Confederacy of Dunces” wouldn’t be published until after he took his own life in 1969. He would therefore never see his book, championed by none other than Walker Percy, hailed as a comic masterpiece. He would never hold the posthumous Pulitzer Prize it would win him. And he would neither live to see his book, with its pitch-perfect capturing of the local patois, nearly universally recognized as the quintessential New Orleans novel, nor its main character — the long-suffering Ignatius J. Reilly — embraced as one of the city’s most beloved fictional characters.

The artist: Gabriel Flores,

The quote: “The tragedy of the book is the tragedy of the author — his suicide in 1969 at the age of thirty-two. Another tragedy is the body of work we have been denied.” — Walker Percy, in his introduction to “A Confederacy of Dunces”

Explore more of Gabriel Flores’ work online at and in person at the Where Y’Art gallery, 1901 Royal St.


  • Toole was born at Touro Infirmary on Dec. 17, 1937, the son of John Dewey Toole and Thelma Ducoing Toole.
  • His middle name, Kennedy, is a family name on his mother’s side. For most of his life, he was known as “Ken.”
  • From an early age, he was viewed as exceptional by his teachers, and especially by his mother. As he got older, he was known for his sharp wit, which could turn caustic.
  • Among jobs held by Toole as a teenager were: shelving books at the Latter Library on St. Charles Avenue, typing menus at Wise Cafeteria, clerking at Haspel Brothers clothing factory, stocking shelves at McCrory’s on Canal Street and — not unlike Ignatius — selling hotdogs at Tulane Stadium.
  • Toole graduated from Alcee Fortier High School at age 16, having been voted “Most Intelligent.” He was editor of the school paper and once wrote a humor column under the pseudonym J. Humphry Mollydock.
  • In the summer after his senior year, he wrote his first novel, “The Neon Bible.” He submitted the manuscript to a literary contest and it was rejected. He put it away and never submitted it again.
  • The recipient of a National Merit Scholarship, he then enrolled at Tulane University. He graduated four years later with a number of honors, then attended a two-year master’s program at Columbia University. He finished in one year.
  • After Columbia, he taught briefly at Hunter College in Manhattan and the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now ULL) in Lafayette. It was while at USL that he…

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