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A letter and other memorabilia linked to Pulitzer Prize-winning author and one-time UL Lafayette (then called USL) English professor John Kennedy Toole was on the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York recently and our local university was the high bidder.
Among the items in Lot No. 155 was a letter Toole penned to Drs. Patricia and Milton Rickels and their son, Gordon. Kennedy became close to the Rickels during his short tenure at the university from 1959-’60. The lot also bore a first-edition copy of Toole’s rollicking New Orleans masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces, which earned him a posthumous Pulitzer.
Here’s the full press release from UL announcing the acquisition, with some interesting if increasingly well-known tidbits about Kennedy and his famous character, Ignatius J. Reilly:
A rare letter penned by John Kennedy Toole and other memorabilia associated with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author are now owned by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The UL Lafayette Foundation purchased Lot No. 155 at a Sotheby’s New York auction last week. The most appealing item in it was a letter, signed “Ken,” that Toole had written to Drs. Patricia and Milton Rickels, former English professors at UL Lafayette, and their son, Gordon. It was the first Toole letter available at auction in 30 years, according to Sotheby’s.
The lot also featured a first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole’s picaresque novel, which was once owned by the late Pat Rickels. Toole was an associate professor in UL Lafayette’s English Department for one year, from 1959 to 1960, and became a beloved friend of the Rickels family.
Other treasures in the collection are a copy of a 1978 issue of The New Orleans Review that contains the first published excerpt of Confederacy, 10 children’s books previously owned by Toole and three critical studies of Toole’s work from Pat Rickels’ library.
Toole wrote Confederacy, the tale of New Orleans hot dog vendor Ignatius J. Reilly, in 1963 and tried for several years to get it published. He committed suicide in 1969. Three years later, his mother, Thelma, began a crusade to convince a publisher to print it. Confederacy was published in 1980, more than a decade after his death. Toole was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction posthumously the following year.
Connections to UL Lafayette
“The archive is significant because of the apparent influence of Toole’s UL Lafayette colleagues on his Confederacy masterpiece,” said Julie Bolton Falgout, executive director of the UL Lafayette Foundation.
It’s common belief that the author derived at least two of the novel’s central characters, Ignatius and Myrna Minkoff, from fellow faculty members whom he also considered friends.
The late Bob Byrne, a former UL Lafayette English professor, is considered one of the primary inspirations for Ignatius. Like Ignatius, Byrne was a devotee of the 6th-century philosopher Boethius and a self-described slob. Myrna, referred to by Ignatius as “that minx,” was presumably inspired by Pat Rickels.
“Through their years of friendship, Toole had likely gained a muse in Pat Rickels and she had become an incidental collector of Toole memorabilia,” said Dr. Carolyn Bruder, UL Lafayette’s interim provost and an English professor.
Pat Rickels, who died in 2009, bequeathed the Toole materials to a friend in Louisiana. He chose to auction them and to remain anonymous.
Significance for Louisiana
The signed letter and Toole’s cult classic novel share origins of time and place, as well as references to a bus ride.
In his Jan. 7, 1963, letter from Puerto Rico to the Rickels, which also refers to their mutual colleague “Bobby Byrne,” Toole explained that he could not visit Lafayette for the holidays because he lacked a vehicle. He wrote, “The prospect of traveling via Greyhound stopped me in the planning stage.”
That same year, while serving in the U.S. Army in Puerto Rico, Toole wrote his Confederacy novel. His Ignatius has an aversion to leaving his birthplace of New Orleans, and frequently recounts a perceived traumatic Greyhound bus journey from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.
“It’s important to retain such artifacts and documents in the state. It’s also appropriate to preserve these John Kennedy Toole items at UL Lafayette because of their connections to our campus and the university’s growing reputation as keeper and interpreter of Louisiana’s rich culture and history,” said Dr. Jordan Kellman, recently appointed dean of UL Lafayette’s College of Liberal Arts. He cited the UL Press, which is the publishing arm of UL Lafayette’s Center for Louisiana Studies, and the Ernest J. Gaines Center, which has the largest collection of scholarship of the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying.
Falgout said the university has identified at least two donors interested in contributing to the Toole archive’s preservation. She and other university officials are seeking private contributions to preserve or make additional acquisitions, as well as donors willing to give significant art or literary works.
UL Lafayette plans to show the Toole materials during a special exhibit in the spring of 2013 at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum.
A Movie in the Works, Again
In the meantime, a New York Magazine entertainment blog reported last month that Paramount Pictures is working on a film adaptation of Confederacy and has enlisted actor Zach Galifianakis to play Ignatius. In the three decades since the novel first appeared in print, several film adaptations have been attempted but none has yet made it to the silver screen.
“I would advise that the road to success for a film of A Confederacy of Dunces begins with a visit to the University of Louisiana campus in Lafayette,” said Bruder. “There are several faculty who still remember John Kennedy Toole, Bobby Byrne and Pat and Milton Rickels.”
|Photo courtesy of Sotheby's|