John Kennedy Toole was born on December 17, 1937, to Thelma Toole, a teacher, and John Dewey Toole, Jr., a car salesman, in New Orleans. His mother was his earliest tutor and coach, an ambitious stage mother who assembled a troupe of young performers with her ten-year-old son as the comic star. In high school in the 1950s, he wrote for the school newspaper and yearbook, was a debater and delivered papers in his Oldsmobile. He liked to play pranks with his friends. At the age of 16, he wrote his first novel, Neon Bible (1954). He won a National Merit Scholarship and graduated from Tulane University as an English major in 1958 with honors. During his college days, he liked to hear blues bands in the French Quarter and actually worked a hot tamale cart for a friend, the basis for the hot dog episode in A Confederacy of Dunces. At that time he also worked in a clothing factory similar to Levy Pants. Continuing his education at Columbia on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, he earned a master’s degree in English in one year.
In 1959 Toole taught English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana where he met Bob Byrne, a slovenly professor who was the model for Ignatius Reilly (also based on Toole’s own character). Byrne was a medievalist and the two often discussed Boethius. Byrne played the lute and wore a hunting cap, like Ignatius. In 1960, Toole took a teaching job at Hunter College so he could be near Columbia to pursue a Ph.D. In 1961 he was drafted into the army and taught English to Spanish-speaking recruits in Puerto Rico for two years. He was depressed in Puerto Rico and began drinking heavily. This is where he began writing A Confederacy of Dunces. He returned home to live with his parents since they were having difficulty. His father suffered deafness and dementia. Toole’s mother was very controlling and difficult to live with. To support the family he took a teaching job at Dominican College. He continued work on Dunces and tried to get it published, but without any luck. Because of his home life, lack of literary luck, and the political assassinations in the 1960s (President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.), he became depressed and drank more heavily, suffering behavioral changes, such as paranoia, so noticeable he was suspended from teaching in 1968. He left home in his car in 1969 without saying where he was going. He visited the Hearst mansion in California, then Flannery O’Connor’s home in Georgia. Finally, he committed suicide in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was only 31 years old.
Thelma Toole then became her son’s advocate and agent, prevailing on Walker Percy, the novelist, to read Dunces. It was finally published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Toole would be happy that Dunces is now part of the Southern literary canon, along with the works of O’Connor and Faulkner. Neon Bible was published in 1989 and made into a film in 1995.