Ideas for Papers or Term Papers on John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, the Occasional Series.
Author: H. Vernon Leighton
Institution: Winona State University
The purpose of this list of ideas is to further the study of John Kennedy Toole and of the novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Students and scholars who use these ideas should cite this page as:
Leighton, H. Vernon. Ideas for Papers or Term Papers on John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, the Occasional Series. version 1.20, 1 May 2015 [date viewed]. http://course1.winona.edu/vleighton/toole/Toole_Occasional_paper_ideas.html.
The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Winona State University.
Table of Contents
- Introduction and Purpose
- 1: The Sexual Neophyte
- 2: Archy and transmigration
- 3: Drug Addict and Drop-out as Saint
- 4: Theories of Carnival
- 5: Miltonic Isolation
- 6: Angel in the Wardrobe
- 7: Education of Philosopher-King
- 8: Falstaff and Ignatius
- 9: Gore Vidal again, Greek this time
- 10: Tennessee Williams and Toole
- 11: Evelyn Waugh and Toole, part 1, Ritual Scapegoats
- 12: Minor Saturnine Characters
- 13: Evelyn Waugh and Toole, part 2, Neoplatonism
- 14: Toole and Proust via Waugh
- 15: 1950s Novels of suburban ambition
- 16: Homosexuality and Carnival
- 17: Thelma and A Mother's Kisses
- 18: Toole and James Joyce
- 19: Toole and Eugene O'Neill
- 20: Toole and Rowling's Casual Vacancy
- 21: Myrna as leftist humanism
- 22: Ignatius and H.P. Lovecraft
- 23: Confederacy and Magister Ludi
Introduction to the series
In the five years that I have been pursuing Toole studies, I have been mainly focused on a few large issues. The first is the influence of Chaucer and Robert Lumiansky. The second is the influence of Ficino and Paul Oskar Kristeller. In the process, I have learned much about other possible influences on Toole. Specifically, I have made a side project of reading all of the books that evidently were in Toole's possession. One of the books was in the Toole Papers, and the others were in a bibliography written by Rhoda Faust that is in the Toole Papers. (See my paper Evidence of Influences for a list of books that Toole possessed that he could have read prior to his initial composition of Confederacy of Dunces. Version 2.0, pages 41-42.)
Through the process of reading Toole's library, I have discovered yet other connections between Confederacy and other works. I have neither the time nor interest in chasing down every connection and writing them all up as papers, but I would like to share my observations with the wider public. So I have decided to write in this occasional series of possible topics for papers and term papers regarding Confederacy and other literary works. I will give a brief context, and then offer the thesis. Students of Toole are then free to conduct their own investigations and find the connections for themselves.
Thesis #1: The Sexual Neophyte
[posted Saturday, Sept 4, 2010]
In an article which Toole wrote for Tulane's student literary magazine, he stated that Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye "continues to be one of the finest books of its type ever written." He then recommended a parody of the novel by Turner that appeared in Playboy magazine in July 1956 called "Catcher in the Wry" (Evidence of Influences, version 2.0, 20). That parody features a sexually inexperienced youth who is tricked out of money while he is trying to hire a prostitute.
In the bibliography of Toole's library (Evidence of Influences, version 2.0, 41-42), there is a novel by Gover entitled One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, which also features a sexually inexperienced man's misadventures in the world of prostitutes.
Thesis: Compare and contrast Ignatius Reilly's failure to rescue his imagined Boethian scholar and the failures in the Gover book and the Turner story.
Thesis #2: Archy and transmigration
[posted September 11, 2010]
Toole owned a copy of archy and mehitabel by Marquis. The underlying premise of that collection of stories and poems is that a former poet has died and his soul has transmigrated into the cockroach named archy. archy types the poems. Because he has to jump on keys to type, he cannot capitalize or use punctuation. mehitabel is his friend, a cat who claims to be the transmigrated soul of Cleopatra.
In A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius is characterized as beastly. He is usually compared to an animal and his hands are usually described as paws. It is as though he has the transmigrated soul of a dog or other animal.
Thesis: Compare the use of animal and human characteristics in archy and mehitabel and Confederacy. Note for example that Ignatius tries to play with a cat, then describes her as a prostitute, much as mehitabel is promiscuous. See especially "the wail of archy" and "archy at the tomb of napoleon" within the Marquis collection.
Thesis #3: Drug Addict and Drop-out as Saint
[posted September 18, 2010]
In Subterraneans, the junky is described as ascetic or saintly (19) and idealist (21). Leo later describes Wallenstein: "his Christ-like blue unshaven cheeks" and "the same pitiless awful subterranean sort of non-violent Indian Mahatma Gandhi defense of some kind" (105).
The Thirsty Evil is a collection of short stories. In one of the stories, "Three Strategems," the character George is a young man kept for sex by a wealthy older woman, Hilda. He is compared to "an emaciated Christus" and "beneath the taut skin [...] I could see the regular twitchings of his heart" (14).
In another story, "Pages from an Abandoned Journal," the gay drug addict Elliott Magren, whose cheeks are streaked with tears because his eyes are hypersensitive, tells the narrator, Peter, that he has a duty to himself to live in the present. This conversation helps Peter come out of the closet as gay. Elliott is compared to Wilde. When the police arrest Elliott one morning for pedophilia and Elliot asks for Peter's help, Peter denies he knows him. When Elliott dies suddenly, it is discovered that he had a malformed heart. "He was buried Christmas Day in the Protestant cemetery close to Shelley" (121). Again, the author seems to portray him as saintly.
Thesis: Confederacy references and uses this tradition of "the drop-out as martyr" when Ignatius meditates on his situation and calls societies failures "the saints of our age" (chapter 9, part 4--page 195 in the 1980 edition of the book). Compare the theme within these three books.
Thesis #4: Theories of Carnival
[posted January 18, 2011]
While I was editing Evidence of Influences for version 1.3, I decided to also add a footnote regarding New Orleans Carnival. I have been working away on a new paper regarding Ignatius Reilly as a child of the planetary god Saturn. Originally, I had planned to make the connection to Carnival and Saturnalia part of that next paper, but as the paper evolved, the point about Carnival seemed to be less newsworthy and more worthy of appearing in a footnote to Evidence of Influences. The footnote also caused me to add three texts to the list of references. By reducing the font size of the references and the list of changes, I have kept the paper to forty pages, but the long footnote has thrown off the pagination of the text after page 27. My apologizes to anyone who quotes from an earlier version of the paper.
Here is the text of the added footnote: "Another connection between Saturn and chaos is the New Orleans tradition of Carnival. Numerous critics have discussed the carnival elements present in Confederacy. While some have used currently popular theories of carnival such as Bakhtin (Williams chapter 5, Lowe 160, Lambert 20) and Stallybrass and White (Gatewood), Toole himself was more likely to have drawn on the popular books about the history of New Orleans Carnival published during his boyhood which reference Frazer's Golden Bough and identify carnival with Roman Saturnalia, the feast of Saturn (Tallant 85, di Palma 14). Neither Tallant nor di Palma appears in the Toole Papers."
As the new footnote to Evidence of Influences indicates, several earlier critics have approached Confederacy's use of Carnival with theories of carnival that are currently fashionable among critics. However, neither the theories of Bakhtin nor Stallybrass and White were available to Toole when he wrote Confederacy. I argue that he was likely influenced by the theory of carnival fashionable in his youth: that of James Frazer's Golden Bough. Because the Williams, Lambert, and Gatewood theses are difficult to obtain, the most accessible discussions of carnival are in Lowe and Gillespie.
Thesis: Compare the effectiveness of two theories of carnival for interpreting Confederacy: the Bakhtin theory of carnival as discussed in Lowe's essay and the Frazer theory of carnival as discussed in either Tallant or di Palma's books. There is at least one major aspect of Frazer's theory that Ignatius fulfills that is not discussed in Bakhtin's theory.
Thesis #5: Miltonic Isolation
[posted March 6, 2011, corrected May 3, 2012]
In Confederacy, Ignatius mentions that he should end his Miltonic isolation and become engaged with the world (chapter 5, section 4, page 109 in the 1980 edition). In Samuel Johnson's essay on Milton in his Lives of the English Poets, he made fun of Milton. Johnson wrote: "Let not our veneration for Milton forbid us to look with some degree of merriment on great promises and small performance, on the man who hastens home, because his countrymen are contending for liberty, and, when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding-school" (page varies with edition).
Another theme that relates Milton to Confederacy is New Orleans Carnival. The first major Krewe of Carnival was the Krewe of Comus. It is named after a court masque that Milton wrote as a young man. In that masque, Comus uses magic to turn people into monsters who are half-human, half-beast. Those transformed people cannot see that they are beastly, and see themselves as god-like.
Thesis: Compare Milton's big talk and small walk to the same pattern in Ignatius's behavior. Throw in the carnival/masque theme if you want to add to the paper.
Thesis #6: Angel in the Wardrobe
[posted Sunday, March 27, 2011]
In #4 of this series, I suggested that Toole may have gotten some of his ideas about the theory of Carnival from Robert Tallant's book Mardi Gras. Another Tallant book may have also influenced Toole's writing of Confederacy. Ken Owen, the Louisiana Specialist at Tulane University's Louisiana Research Collection, suggested that Confederacy can also be seen as a parody of Tallant's melodramatic novel called Angel in the Wardrobe, also published in 1948. Whereas Tallant's Mattie Lou receives advice from an angel in her wardrobe, Irene accepts advice from Angelo Mancuso. Whereas Tallant's reclusive child molester, Sylvester, is committed to a mental hospital at the end of Angel, Toole's bestial onanist, Ignatius, narrowly escapes commitment at the end of Confederacy.
Thesis: Compare the two books. There are many parallels, and the claim that Confederacy is a parody is not far-fetched.
Thesis #7: Education of Philosopher-King
[posted Tuesday, May 31, 2011]
In the Toole Papers at Tulane, there is a folder of college assignments from Philosophy (in 2009, it was box 2, folder 8). There is an assignment there dated 9 January 1956 submitted by Toole to Dr. Ballard in Philosophy 101. Leaf two of the assignment discusses the proper education of Plato's Philosopher-King. At age 17, the future king should engage in a ten-year study of geometry, solid geometry, astronomy and harmonics. At age 30, the student should have mastered mathematical forms and be ready to rationalize and not depend on the visible. In Confederacy, Ignatius, who is 30 years old, has toiled for many years as a student in isolation, and the plot of the novel shows him trying to go out into the world and take action.
Thesis: Discuss Ignatius as a parody of a budding Platonic Philosopher-King.
Thesis #8: Falstaff and Ignatius
[posted Thursday, August 18, 2011]
[This may be a large paper.] In many of the reviews of Confederacy and even in Percy's introduction, Ignatius is described as "falstaffian." In the Toole Papers, there is a college assignment that establishes that Toole was familiar with Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 (Evidence of Influences version 2.0, 12-13). Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton 1959) investigated the connection between Shakespeare's plays and Saturnalian ritual (see especially pages 205 and 206, which connect Falstaff to Frazer's Golden Bough). From 1900 to 1917, one of the Krewes of New Orleans Carnival season was called The Falstaffians (Perry Young, Mistick Krewe, 1931, p. 265).
Thesis: Investigate the connection between Ignatius and Falstaff, especially at the level of both being a Saturnalian Lord of Misrule. There is no evidence that Toole was familiar with Barber's work, but even if he did not read it, the ideas could have been discussed in Toole's circle. Note in Henry IV Part 2 that Falstaff courting Doll is referred to as Saturn courting Venus (II, iv). Note also that Barber ties this theme to Freudian psychology, and there is evidence in the Toole Papers for his knowledge of Freudian psychology and literary criticism. (To pursue this point, you would have to visit Tulane and study the Toole Papers.) Tie them all to New Orleans Carnival, of course. What are some reasons why the parallel might not be actual influence?
Thesis #9: Gore Vidal again, Greek this time
[posted October 9, 2011]
In the Toole Papers, Faust's bibliography of Toole's library includes Gore Vidal's Thirsty Evil (see Evidence of Influences version 2.0, 42). That short story collection was discussed in Thesis #3. In this thesis, I want to draw attention to the story called "The Ladies in the Library." According to Robert Phillips essay called "Gore Vidal's Greek Revival" (Notes on Modern American Literature, 6, no. 1, item 3), Gore's story is a comtemporary version of Virgil's Aeneid. The Parker sisters are in fact the Parcae, or the Fates. Walter's sister "Sybil is the Cumaean Sibyl who guided Aeneas in his descent to the underground" (1). Phillips explains why a contemporary author would write such a modern allegory: "The parallels raise the story from the particular to the universal, and the story becomes not only that of the misfortune of Walter Bragnet, or of Aeneas, but of all men" (2).
As I have argued in Evidence of Influences, Ignatius displays Saturnine qualities, both in his role as an agent of disorder and in his role as a Saturnalian Lord or Misrule.
Thesis: Compare Toole's use of classical symbolism to Gore's use of the same. Was Toole motivated by the need to distill the universal into the particular, as Phillips claims Gore was, or by some other motivation?
Thesis #10: Tennessee Williams and Toole
[posted November 11, 2011]
In the Toole papers, there is only one mention of Tennessee Williams in the papers from pre-1963. In an undergraduate assignment(see Evidence of Influences version 2.0, 11), when Toole discussed Chaucer's Wife of Bath, he compared her to Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Joel Fletcher, a college friend of Toole and confidant to Thelma toward the end of her life, argued in his memoir that Confederacy parodies A Streetcar Named Desire (Ken and Thelma, 26). In a critical essay, Robert Siegel argued that in Williams's work, the flesh and the spirit "seek, test, and do battle with each other" ("The Metaphyics of Tennessee Williams," in Magical Muse, 2002, 112). In Roger Boxill's Tennessee Williams (1987), Brick is described as "a child in a world of adults" (117).
Castration is also a theme common to Williams and Toole (to say nothing of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer). Boxill sees a castration theme in "Three Players" (115), a short story which represents an early draft of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Castration is a theme in the symbolism of the planetary god Saturn and in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which Young claims was a predecessor to New Orleans Carnival.
In Confederacy, Ignatius spouts Boethian ideals while clearly himself being very carnal. He is also treated and acts like a child, though he is thirty.
Thesis: Compare the relationship between the carnal and the spiritual in Toole and Williams, and the issues of immaturity and castration.
Thesis #11: Evelyn Waugh and Toole, part 1, Ritual Scapegoats
[posted January 6, 2012]
There is solid evidence that John Kennedy Toole was exposed to, and may have been influenced by, the writings of Evelyn Waugh. In Joel Fletcher's memoir about his friendship with Toole, Ken and Thelma, he writes that he and Toole shared a fondness for both Flannery O'Connor and Evelyn Waugh (16). Another friend of Toole's, Nicholas Polites, was quoted by Randy Sue Coburn as opining that "Toole's ambition was to be a Southern Evelyn Waugh ..." (Washington Star, 2 June 1980, page D3). Finally, Rhoda Faust's bibliography of Toole's library includes a copy of Brideshead Revisited (Brideshead), which Faust described as "Condition: Very poor, pages darkening and falling out" (see Evidence of Influences 42).
A number of critics have interpreted Toole's vision as dark or nihilistic (see Evidence of Influences 31), but one can be negative about one's own society from a positive religious perspective, which one finds in Waugh's writings.
Sure enough, one can find themes in common between the writings of Waugh and Confederacy. Here I want to call attention to the threads of ritual scapegoat in Brideshead and their homologies in Confederacy. For example, Samgrass's book depicts the noble sacrifice of Lady Marchmain's male relatives as ritual victims "so that things might be safe for the traveling salesman, with his [...] grinning dentures" (bk 1, chap 5). Bridey himself is described in terms of being both partly animal and very alien to the society around him. "Bridey was a mystery; a creature from under ground; a hard-snouted, hibernating animal who shunned the light." Later, "He achieved dignity by his remoteness and agelessness; he was still half-child, already half veteran; there seemed no spark of contemporary life in him; [...] an indifference to the world, which commanded respect" (bk 2, chap 3). In a related theme, Brideshead portrays some women as emasculating men around them (Lady Marchmain and Celia) and gives symbolic weight to the act of male escape from suffocating female dominance: "my cuckold's horns made me lord of the forest" (bk 2, chap 2). The ending of Brideshead is positive: the small red flame is a beauty for the soul in the age of Hooper (Epilogue).
In Confederacy, Ignatius is described mostly in animalistic terms (see Evidence of Influences 22). He is alienated from contemporary culture and is treated as a 30-year-old child. At the end of the book, he is a ritual scapegoat, whose expulsion renews the society. Toole may have been referencing the tradition of writers influenced by Frazer's Golden Bough (see Evidence of Influences 30n16), and Waugh was known to have been part of that tradition via the influence of T.S. Eliot. Confederacy features a theme of renewal after throwing off suffocating female dominance (see Evidence of Influences 23-24). Obviously, the ending of Confederacy--comic expulsion of the Saturnalian scapegoat to renew the community--is much different from that of Brideshead, but the comparison of the two texts shows a more positive side of Confederacy.
Thesis: Compare the scapegoat and Saturnine themes within both Brideshead Revisited and Confederacy.
Thesis #12: Minor Saturnine Characters
[posted May 4, 2012]
Now that my paper on Toole, Ficino, and Kristeller has been published, I am more free to discuss topics that brush up against its thesis. As I have argued in Evidence of Influences version 2.0, 30n16, one can study Confederacy's use of Carnival using the framework of Saturnalia from Frazer's Golden Bough. Ignatius displays Saturnine qualities, both in his role as an agent of disorder and in his role as a Saturnalian Lord or Misrule. But other, minor characters also display Saturnine qualities. To research this topic, you might want to consult a book by Walter C. Curry called Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences. This book was very familiar to Lumiansky, who was Toole's Chaucer professor. This book discusses the qualities of the planetary god Saturn. Also, the popular book by di Palma on Carnival points out that Saturn reputedly reigned over a Golden Age. Saturnalia was also a feast of the dead.
Thesis: Discuss the positive Saturnine qualities of Claude and Clyde. Ignatius and Trixie are linked by green head gear. Discuss that connection and Trixie's Saturnine qualities, especially her symbolic connection to death.
Thesis #13: Evelyn Waugh and Toole, part 2, Neoplatonism
[posted Saturday, August 18, 2012]
As described above, Toole read Waugh, especially Brideshead Revisited. Beyond the theme of ritual scapegoat, Confederacy shares other themes with Brideshead. For example, Waugh plays with the theme of homosexuality (bk 1 chap 2) and its relation to the medieval and renaissance Neoplatonic ideas that love for another human is a foretaste of human love for God (bk 2 chap 4). Confederacy plays with roughly the same connection between homosexuality and love of ones fellow man in the "Save the World Through Degeneracy" campaign. See my paper "The Dialectic of American Humanism" regarding Toole's use of Ficino and Neoplatonism.
I have tried to find a literary study of Brideshead from prior to 1961 (when Toole started planning Confederacy) that discusses the Neoplatonic elements of Brideshead, and I have not found it. So one cannot point to a critical text as a possible inspiration to Toole to use Neoplatonism in his own novel. I have found the Stopp book, Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of the Artist (Princeton, 1958), to be useful. A more recent study that does discuss the Neoplatonic elements of Brideshead is the book by Robert M. Davis called Brideshead Revisited: the Past Redeemed (Boston: Twayne, 1990).
One huge difference between Waugh and Toole is that Waugh embraced Neoplatonism, while Toole critiqued it by making Ignatius a Carnival version of Ficino's philosophy. In his book The Creative Element (Hamish Hamilton, 1953), Stephen Spender examines Brideshead in chapter 9. He argues that the main character, Ryder, is ultimately shallow. The essay ends, "It is when [Waugh] identifies his prejudices with a moralizing religion that qualities anachronistic and absurd in his view of life--intolerance, bigotry, and self-righteousness--work against his talent, and even tend to caricature the very ideas he is supposed to be supporting" (174) Toole could have been aware of the contents of Spender's essay.
Thesis: Discuss the Neoplatonic aspects of both Confederacy of Dunces and Brideshead Revisited. Include a comparison of their approaches to Neoplatonism and homosexuality.
Thesis #14: Toole and Proust via Waugh
[posted Monday, October 1, 2012, updated Tuesday, January 1, 2013]
In an article on Waugh and Proust ("Remembrance of Things Past: Proustian Elements in Evelyn Waugh 's Brideshead Revisited," Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, vol. 18, no. 3, 1984, pp. 1-5), Hodgson discusses Waugh's intertextual references to Proust's work in Brideshead Revisited. For his part, Ignatius in Confederacy declares that he has Proustian qualities.
New Orleans was famous for mocking nobility. (See Tallant's Mardi Gras for an tale about mocking the Russian Archduke, and then read Mitchell's book All on a Mardi Gras Day for a refutation of Tallent's story.) Old families of New Orleans had a sense of entitlement that was fading, but the Carnival element of New Orleans culture simultaneously celebrates that desire for nobility and mocks it. For their part, Waugh and Proust both mourned the loss of the refined, aristocratic culture of the 19th century.
Thesis: How does the relationship between Waugh and Proust alter the burlesquing of a longing for medieval traditions that one finds in Confederacy? One could throw in a discussion of the theme of the visual arts and art criticism from Proust, Brideshead, and Confederacy.
Thesis #15: 1950s Novels of suburban ambition
[posted Tuesday, January 1, 2013]
In Toole's letters to Robert Gottlieb, he mentioned that one of his favorite novels was Bruce Jay Friedman's Stern. Indeed, Toole had decided to send the manuscript of Confederacy to Simon and Schuster because they had published Stern.
Stern is about a Jewish husband from New York who tries to make a go of getting a house in the suburbs. Things go very badly in a darkly comic way. Friedman never hit it big, but he did have a following, and one of his followers, besides Toole, was Woody Allen. Allen then hired Friedman to work on some of his films, and the two have a similar humor about being Jewish in contemporary America.
An earlier novel about a struggle to deal with post-war suburbia was Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In it, a very upper class WASP WWII veteran navigates the suburban 1950s martini culture and achieves emotional and financial stability. One might argue that Stern is a send up of the sort of narrative represented by Flannel Suit.
One thread of Flannel Suit is to warn the reader against devoting ones life to ambition at the expense of ones emotional and social life. In Wilson's novel, the overworked Mr. Hopkins, the president of the United Broadcasting Corporation, is emotionally estranged from his daughter, who is determined to live a wild, carefree life with her wealth. She is convinced that good times will make her more fulfilled than her workaholic father.
Thesis: Compare Stern, Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and A Confederacy of Dunces. Note Ignatius's relationship to the owner of Levy Pants. Note the contrast of Hopkins's situation with the situation of Gus Levy.
Thesis #16: Homosexuality and Carnival
[posted Monday, April 1, 2013]
There have been several critics that have investigated the theme of homosexuality and queering in Confederacy. Hardin examines several passages that can be interpreted as double ententres in the book. Pugh discusses the general queerness of the narrative, and he claims that the book "queers medievalism." (see Other Works Cited from my "Annotated Bibliography of Obscure Toole Research" for complete citations).
On the one hand, Toole does include gay and lesbian characters in his novel. On the other hand, gays and lesbians are negatively stereotyped in Confederacy. The lesbian characters are not even two dimensional. In my own study on Toole's use of Neoplatonism ("The Dialectic of American Humanism"), I conclude that Toole used the novel's lesbians to represent the furies who punish Lana Lee ("Dialectic of American Humanism," p. 208). And gay men are not treated much better. The only reason not to view the book as gay-bashing is because all of the characters, not just the gay ones, are preposterous, and the main character is even more ridiculous than the gay characters he dislikes.
That having been said, no one in the scholarly literature has pointed out that the gay theme ties into the Carnival theme. The first gay ball in New Orleans history occurred in 1959, two years before Toole began to plan Confederacy. The New Orleans police raided gay Carnival balls in the early 1960s.
The biography of Toole Ignatius Rising discusses in detail Toole's interactions with fellow soldiers in Puerto Rico who were gay, but Fletcher (Ken and Thelma) and others have criticized that biography as poorly researched and unscholarly. Use that biography with extreme caution or not at all. Cory MacLauchlin's biography of Toole, Butterfly in the Typewriter, is well-researched and scholarly, and it discusses the possibility of Toole being gay, but MacLauchlin does not have the same stories of gay activity in Puerto Rico. Perhaps he could not corroborate them.
In my "Dialectic" paper the long footnote (number ten) has a discussion (point four) of homosexuality in Confederacy related to the writings of Marsilio Ficino.
Thesis: Discuss the role of homosexuality in A Confederacy of Dunces against the background of the history of homosexuality and transgender behavior associated with New Orleans Carnival, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Thesis #17: Thelma and A Mother's Kisses
[posted Sunday, September 1, 2013]
This is the first of these occasional ideas that is not directly about A Confederacy of Dunces.
In the Toole Papers, the bibliography of Toole's library included some books published after 1963, the year when Toole wrote most of Confederacy. I did not include those books in the Appendix to Evidence of Influences because they could not possibly have been influences. Nevertheless, one book in particular is very interesting when compared to Toole's own biography.
Though there was no copy of Bruce Jay Friedman's novel Stern in the bibliography (see thesis 15 regarding the influence Stern had on Toole), there was a copy of Friedman's novel A Mother's Kisses. In that book, the mother of the narrator is an oppressively controlling and overbearing person who messes up her son's life. She bears a frighteningly close resemblance to Toole's own mother, as described in Joel Fletcher's memoir Ken and Thelma.
Thesis: Compare Thelma Toole to Meg, the mother in Bruce Jay Friedman's A Mother's Kisses.
Thesis #18: Joyce's Ulysses and Toole's Confederacy
[posted Sunday, December 1, 2013]
Okay readers, I am not going to spoon feed you a paper this time. In theses #11, 13, and 14 (above), I investigated the possible relationships among Toole and Waugh and Proust. But I gave so many details, that I virtually wrote an article for you, or at least a paper of a length suitable for the journal Notes on Contemporary Literature, if not longer. So I will truly try to give the idea without giving many details.
In the Toole Papers, the bibliography of Toole's library included both James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. Like Joyce, Toole wrestled with Catholicism, gentile poverty, and Irish ancestry. My "Dialectic" paper argues that Toole built a complex symbolic connection between Ignatius Reilly and the Medieval and Renaissance ideas about the planetary god Saturn. As I have argued in Evidence of Influences version 2.0, 30n16, and in the "Dialectic" paper, one can study Confederacy's use of Carnival using the framework of Saturnalia from Frazer's Golden Bough.
Critics have discussed at length the connection between Joyce and Frazer. For example, Vickery devotes five whole chapters of his book on The Literary Impact of the Golden Bough to James Joyce, more than for any other writer. (Admittedly, Vickers wrote after Toole, so Toole could not have been influenced by Vickers himself.) Both in general symbolism and the Frazer connection, Toole seems to be more in the literary school of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce than in the literary tradition of such writers as Toole's contemporaries such as Thomas Pynchon.
Thesis: Explore the possible connections and influences of Joyce on Toole's work. If you are ambitious, compare Joyce's Aristotelianism to Toole's dialectic between Neoplatonism and Pragmatic Humanism.
Thesis #19: Toole and Eugene O'Neill
[posted Saturday, February 1, 2014]
In the Tulane University student magazine Carnival (no. 9, 1956) Toole discussed the fact that Yale published O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," which he described as "a brilliant autobiographical play." The play describes the disintegration of family fortunes. "The miserly actor-father, the dissipated older brother, the vague and mercurial mother [...]" Toole stated that if it were not based on facts, it would be too melodramatic. He concludes that in the end there is "some sort of redemption for the family in general." (pp. 13-14)
Thesis: Discuss similarities and differences between O'Neill's play and Confederacy of Dunces. Does Confederacy have the same relationship to Toole's biography that "Long Day's Journey" has to O'Neill's biography?
Thesis #20: Toole and Rowling's Casual Vacancy
[posted Monday, May 12, 2014]
J.K. Rowling's recent novel Casual Vacancy appears to use elements from the Frazer dying god / Saturnalia tradition: sausages and obesity (Howard Mollison), a scapegoat (Fats Wall), death associated with regeneration (Krystal and Fats having sex near Barry's grave), gender ambiguity (Sukhvinder), a mask-like obsession with looking youthful and sexy (Samantha), and a withered woman who is grotesquely sexual (Maureen). Confederacy of Dunces also shares such elements: Clyde the king of sausages, Ignatius as a mock scapegoat with gender ambiguity, Mrs. Levy's mask-like appearance, and the withered Trixie.
One huge difference is the sense of collective responsibility in Casual Vacancy. People do die in that book, and others share blame. Many people could have saved Robbie's life, but they were too wrapped up in themselves to take action. There are evil people, such as Obo, and unscrupulous ones, such as Simon Price. Fats as scapegoat takes on the sins of the community, and there are a lot of them. By comparison, Confederacy is a carnival romp with a largely happy ending.
Thesis: Compare the tragic use of Saturnalian themes in Rowling's Casual Vacancy to the comic uses thereof in Confederacy of Dunces. See if you can fit in some concepts from Marsilio Ficino (you can).
Thesis #21: Myrna as Leftist Humanist
[posted Monday, September 1, 2014]
My work with Toole's Confederacy of Dunces and Ficino has not caused a huge buzz of activity surrounding the topic, or at least, not a buzz that I can hear. One aspect of Confederacy and Humanism that I did not explore in the "Dialectic of American Humanism" paper, and which I had expected to appear when the chatter went viral, was the issue of more politically and socially leftist versions of 20th century humanism. I am very disappointed in all my blog followers (wait, I have no blog followers!) that I have to bring this topic up myself.
In my Dialectic paper, I discussed the influence of Paul Oskar Kristeller on John Kennedy Toole. I cited the work of James Hankins. However, Hankins also studied the ideas of Eugenio Garin, an Italian leftist, who formulated a more culturally leftist form of philosophical humanism. In Hankins's essay, "Two twentieth century interpreters of Renaissance humanism," he compares Kristeller's ideas to those of Garin. That essay is found in volume one of Hankins' opus, Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance.
Within Confederacy, Myrna and her more socially leftist worldview stands as a counterweight to Ignatius and his Neoplatonic worldview, both offering a critique of mainstream American culture. This counterweight is somewhat similar to the counterweight Garin offered to the ideas of Kristeller.
Thesis: Discuss the possibility that Myrna and her worldview are a carnivalesque version of Garin's humanism. You could even speculate on why I chose not to include Garin in my own paper on Toole's use of humanism in Confederacy of Dunces.
Thesis #22: Ignatius and H.P. Lovecraft
[posted Thursday, January 1, 2015]
I have to admit, even after long study of Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, there are some aspects of the tale that are still beyond my understanding. One has been Ignatius Reilly's fascination with destruction and apocalypse. I think I now have the beginning of a connection, and it is tied to the phrase "wrong theology and geometry." According to the interview that Robert Byrne gave to Carmine Palumbo, Toole got that phrase from Byrne, and Byrne got it from H.P. Lovecraft (see the discussion of this in my paper Evidence of influences on John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces," including Geoffrey Chaucer, page 7 in version 2.0).
I personally have never read H.P. Lovecraft. However, in the December 18, 2014, New York Review of Books, Charles Baxter has an essay discussing Lovecraft in relation to the new annotated volume of Lovecraft's writings. The essay is freely available online at this URL: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/18/hideous-unknown-hp-lovecraft
The passage from the essay that caught my eye and made me think of a deeper connection to Ignatius Reilly was this one: "As for Lovecraft, who died in 1937 at the age of forty-six, he never really grew up. 'Adulthood is hell,' he once wrote in a letter." That certainly describes Ignatius Reilly. And Reilly fantasizes about violence and destruction, much like a goth fan of Lovecraft. I could say more, but I don't want to write your paper for you.
Thesis: Discuss the psychology of Ignatius Reilly in comparison to the themes present in the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
Thesis #23: Confederacy and Magister Ludi
[posted Friday, May 1, 2015]
Hermann Hesse published Magister Ludi, or The Glass Bead Game, in 1943. Not a great time to be writing in German. The novel is set in a utopian future where an organization of scholars, the Order, controls an educational and intellectual establishment. That organization is a lot like the Catholic hierarchy and monastic orders of western Europe during the middle ages. Members of the Order, apparently all male, remain poor, do not marry, and devote themselves to intellectual pursuits. All knowledge converges on an ultimate truth that is articulated and manipulated by the glass bead game. It is a very Neoplatonic vision, worthy of Ficino. There is early in the novel an explicit dialectic between the ideal, the Geist, and the worldly, called Natur, as represented by Knecht's friend Plinio.
A Confederacy of Dunces, as I have shown in "Dialectic of American Humanism", is a send up parody of Ficino's Neoplatonic ideas. It also features a dialectic with worldliness.
Thesis: Contrast the dialectic between Geist and Natur in Hesse's Magister Ludi with Toole's dialectic between worldliness and "Neoplatonism in drag."