By RICHARD BURGESS
June 23, 2012
LAFAYETTE — The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has acquired a rare personal letter and other memorabilia associated with John Kennedy Toole, the author of “A Confederacy of Dunces” who briefly taught at ULL’s predecessor and is believed to have drawn inspiration there for characters in that classic book.
The UL-Lafayette Foundation paid $12,500 for the materials at a Sotheby’s auction last week in New York, the university announced Wednesday.
The letter in the collection was written in January 1963 to English professors Patricia and Milton Rickels at the former University of Southwestern Louisiana from Puerto Rico, where Toole was serving in the U.S. Army and working on “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
Toole had befriended the Rickelses while teaching English at USL from 1959 to 1960, and the letter offers an apology for not visiting Lafayette when he was home for the holidays because he did not have a vehicle.
“The prospect of traveling via Greyhound stopped me in the planning stage,” Toole wrote.
Anyone familiar with “A Confederacy of Dunces” will likely recall the eccentric, slovenly and overeducated main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, tell of the harrowing trip from his home in 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 Toole collection that the university acquired last week also includes a first edition of “A Confederacy of Dunces,” 10 children’s books that were owned by Toole, critical studies of his writings and a copy of a 1978 issue of “The New Orleans Review” that contains the first published excerpt of “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
The items were once owned by Patricia Rickels, and she had promised them to a friend before her death in 2009, according to information from ULL.
The friend chose to auction the items anonymously, according to the university.
“We think it will be an important part of our heritage,” UL Lafayette Foundation Executive Director Julie Falgout said.
Falgout said the hope is that the Toole memorabilia will serve as the starting point for a larger archive devoted to the author.
“We would obviously like to have more to add to that collection,” she said.
The university plans to exhibit the Toole materials at a special show next year at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum.
“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,” ULL College of Liberal Arts Dean Jordan Kellman said in a news release.
The estimated value of the Toole collection was between $10,000 and $15,000, and the letter was the first of Toole’s to appear at auction in 30 years, according to Sotheby’s.
“We had some competition,” Falgout said of the auction, “but we don’t know who it was.”