LAFAYETTE — A copy of a manuscript for John Kennedy Toole’s classic “A Confederacy of Dunces” and photos of the author on a tractor have found a new home at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where Toole taught English from 1959 to 1960.
The UL Lafayette Foundation paid $31,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York this month for the photocopied manuscript with editing marks and three photos of Toole.
The manuscript and photos will add to a collection the foundation began last year, when it paid $12,500 for a rare personal letter from Toole to former UL-Lafayette colleagues and other memorabilia.
The manuscript is not an original, but Sotheby’s estimated the document is from 1966, before Toole committed suicide in 1969.
Cory MacLauchlin, author of the 2012 Toole biography “Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of ‘A Confederacy of Dunces,’ ” said Wednesday that he has examined the document and questions whether it is from the 1960s.
MacLauchlin said he thinks it might instead be a copy of the manuscript that was typed after Toole’s mother brought a badly smudged version to novelist Walker Percy in the 1970s in her effort to get the book published after her son’s death.
At first reluctant to read it, the book won Percy over and he was ultimately successful in having in published in 1980.
The acquisition by the UL Lafayette Foundation is interesting nonetheless, more so for its source and for the photographs that accompany it, MacLauchlin said.
He said that Toole’s mother, Thelma, gave the manuscript to Cary Laird, a close childhood friend of Toole who is pictured with the author in the photographs.
The photographs, which show Toole as a teenager on a tractor in McComb, Miss., were taken on one of his rare trips as a boy outside of New Orleans. The trip was the inspiration for his first and lesser-known novel, “The Neon Bible,” said MacLauchlin, who learned of the photos when interviewing Laird’s sister.
“It was his first experience on a farm. He was just a city boy and had never really been out of New Orleans,” MacLauchlin said.
He said Toole wrote “The Neon Bible,” which is set in rural Mississippi, soon after returning from his trip with Laird.
The young author entered the book in a writing contest and lost, and the work did not surface again until several years after “A Confederacy of Dunces” was published.
MacLauchlin said Toole’s experiences with Laird also influenced the author’s characters in his more widely known novel.
He said Toole even co-opted the name of the Laird family’s neighbor for the book — Irene Reilly, the mother of the eccentric protaganist, Ignatius J. Reilly.
He said Laird and Toole would sometimes sit quietly and listen through the walls of the duplex to Irene Reilly’s lively rants.
The two boys would also spend their days together on the streets of New Orleans soaking up the local culture and then re-interpreting it for their amusement.
“They would observe the colorful characters and would come back and put skits together about them,” MacLauchlin said.
Laird died a few years ago, MacLauchlin said, and the manuscript copy and photos had been passed on to his sister.
Sotheby’s estimated the value of the lot at between $30,000 and $50,000.
The items purchased this month come after the UL Lafayette Foundation last year purchased a letter Toole wrote in 1963 to English professors Patricia and Milton Rickels.
Toole wrote the letter from Puerto Rico, where he was serving in the U.S. Army and working on “A Confederacy of Dunces.” He had befriended the couple while teaching English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now UL-Lafayette, from 1959 to 1960.
In the letter, Toole apologizes for not visiting Lafayette when he was home for the holidays, explaining that he did not have a vehicle and that the “prospect of traveling via Greyhound stopped me in the planning stage.”
The note brings to mind Ignatius J. Reilly’s story of his harrowing trip from New Orleans to Baton Rouge on a Greyhound Scenicruiser: “By the time we had left the swamps and reached those rolling hills near Baton Rouge, I was getting afraid that some rural rednecks might toss bombs at the bus. They love to attack vehicles, which are a symbol of progress, I guess.”
The UL Lafayette Foundation’s Toole acquisition are expected to be a part of a planned celebration of Toole’s life and work in Lafayette next year, said Linda Alessi, with the local Friends of the Humanities, a group that works to encourage the study of the humanities at UL-Lafayette.
“To me, it’s phenomenal,” Alessi said.
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