John Kennedy Toole Research

by H. Vernon Leighton

A collection of resources on A Confederacy of Dunces

Table of Contents

The below resources have been written on the topic of John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

Scholarly Publications:

Leighton, H. Vernon. “The Dialectic of American Humanism: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Marsilio Ficino, and Paul Oskar Kristeller.” Renascence 64.2 (Winter 2012), 201-215.


A Confederacy of Dunces (Confederacy) by John Kennedy Toole portrays an interplay between competing definitions of humanism. The one school of humanism—called by some the Modernist Paradigm—saw the Italian Renaissance as the origin of nineteenth- and twentieth-century modernist views that celebrated science, technology, and individual human freedom. The other school, led by Paul Oskar Kristeller, sought to historicize humanism by establishing that Renaissance writers and thinkers were generally conservative and preserved the philosophical ideas of the medieval era. Kristeller was the President of the Renaissance Society of America and was at the height of his influence at Columbia University during the late 1950s, when Toole studied for his Master’s degree there. The main character in Confederacy, Ignatius J. Reilly, presents a parody of Kristeller’s position, which he uses to critique modern society. Ignatius also plays the part of a child of the planetary god Saturn, both by acting out the ancient astrological tradition of associating Saturn with misfortune and disorder and by being a parody of the Renaissance concept of the Genius as a Child of Saturn begun by the Renaissance philosopher whom Kristeller studied most, Marsilio Ficino. Ignatius’s worldview is an antithesis of the Modernist Paradigm. Confederacy is critical of both Modernist humanism with its attendant materialism and its antithesis—Ignatius’s dysfunctional version of Kristeller’s Renaissance philosophy. When the community expels Ignatius as a scapegoat, Toole appears to gesture toward a dialectical synthesis of the two concepts of humanism in the novel’s happy ending.


  • EBSCOHOST: Download Full Text if you are on a college campus, and if your library subscribes to EBSCO’s Academic Search, MegaFile, or MasterFile databases. This link will not work if you are off your campus. It might not even work from the campus dorms. It does not use your local proxy server.
    If off-campus, go to the library’s website, enter the database, and search for “dialectic of american humanism” including the quotation marks.
  • Gale: If your library subscribes to Gale’s Expanded Academic ASAP, InfoTrac Student Edition, or OneFile databases, then you can go to the library’s website, enter the database, and search for “dialectic of american humanism” including the quotation marks.
  • Other (pay per view): If you are not affiliated with a library, and you want to purchase the article online, Click Here to buy it from the Philosophy Documentation Center. ($20 last time I checked.)

Leighton, H. Vernon. Evidence of influences on John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” including Geoffrey Chaucer. Version 2.1 (June 2, 2014).


This study investigates many literary works and authors who may have been possible influences on John Kennedy Toole when he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces. It reviews the contents of the John Kennedy Toole Papers held at Tulane University Special Collections Library. The study then analyzes themes common to both Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Toole’s Confederacy. Originally published in July of 2010. This page also provides access to version 2.0 of the paper, from July of 2011, which is the version cited in the scholarly literature and which is now only available via ResearchGate.

Leighton, H. Vernon. “A Refutation of Robert Byrne: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Chaucer, and Boethius” Notes on Contemporary Literature 42.1 (January 2012), 11-12.


This short article is an excerpt from my Evidence of Influences paper (pages 6 through 8). In 1995, an interview was published with Robert Byrne, the real-life model for many of Ignatius Reilly’s mannerisms. This paper uses evidence from the John Kennedy Toole Papers to refute one of his claims about what Toole did and did not know when he wrote Confederacy. Specifically, Byrne claimed that Toole did not understand the philosophy of Boethius, while the Toole Papers prove that Toole didhave a working knowledge of Boethian philosophy.


  • Gale: If your library subscribes to Gale’s InfoTrac Student Edition, then you can go to the library’s website, enter the database, and search for “refutation of robert byne” including the quotation marks.

Non-Scholarly Publications:

Leighton, H. Vernon. The Dialectic of American Humanism: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Marsilio Ficino, and Paul Oskar Kristeller. Lecture for the Winter 2012 Presentations for the Minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, Winona, MN, delivered on March 28, 2012. Script available here on November 3, 2012.


Viewing the novel A Confederacy of Dunces filtered through the ideas of the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino adds layers of meaning to the text not discussed before. This perspective allows one to read A Confederacy of Dunces as a commentary on the scholarly dispute over the meaning of Humanism that was taking place at Columbia University in the 1950s when Toole was there as a graduate student. This presentation will discuss the investigative principle and methods that were used to discover the connection between Toole’s contemporary novel and Medieval and Renaissance studies.

Leighton, H. Vernon. A Critical Annotated Bibliography of Obscure Scholarship on John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces Version 1.5 (June 1, 2012).


The purpose of this bibliography is to summarize texts that might be difficult for the average scholar to obtain and to evaluate the quality of those obscure texts. Most of these are Master’s theses or Ph.D. dissertations that have at least some portion devoted to a discussion of John Kennedy Toole or the novel A Confederacy of Dunces. The opinions are my own.

Leighton, H. Vernon. It was the best of books, it was the worst of books. Dated July 25, 2007.


My Amazon Review of A Confederacy of Dunces. It discusses Confederacy’s relationship to Visual or Physical Comedy. This essay does not adhere to the standards of a scholarly paper. It outlines an explanation as to what in the nature of the book generates the humor, such as it is. It also tries to explain why many find the novel to be extremely funny, while others with a reasonable sense of humor do not find it humorous. It builds on some ideas that I explore more fully in the paper “Evidence of Influences on John Kennedy Toole’s ...” (above). In particular, Ignatius as an Agent of Disorder is closely related to Ignatius as a physical comedian. This connection between disorder and physical comedy links the literary tradition of Ignatius under the sign of Saturn to Confederacy’s relationship to film. I used this essay in 2007 to establish evidence that I was working on interpretations of Confederacy without revealing the content of my scholarly paper.

Leighton, H. Vernon. Ideas for Papers or Term Papers on John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, the Occasional Series Version 1.20 (May 1, 2015).


A collection of suggestions for possible themes for studies of A Confederacy of Dunces. Originally posted to my blog on John Kennedy Toole. These ideas had occurred to me as I was researching other studies on Toole.

Leighton, H. Vernon. John Kennedy Toole's Papers: A cautionary tale of scholarly research, lecture script Lecture for the Library Athenaeum, Winona State University, Winona, MN, delivered on March 17, 2010. Script available here on February 1, 2013.


In the Summer of 2009, I visited Tulane University and studied the papers of John Kennedy Toole, the author of A Confederacy of Dunces. While I am working on anacademic paper on this topic, I would like to present some of the findings. The papers, about which no scholar has published a description, prove incorrect at least two claims made in the scholarly literature on Toole.