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Thelma believed in her son even when no one else did, including himself. But mommas tend to be like that don’t they?
Unique among all of God’s creatures, mothers bear us in their bodies for nine months, and then bear us in their hearts and minds for the rest of our lives. And when it comes to her son, a mother’s faith lasts even longer.
John, her son, was an imaginative boy who began writing a story in his teens. Seeing snippets of his work, she encouraged him to keep it up. “You’ve got something good brewing there,” she said.
Kept it up he did. He worked on it all through high school and college. He continued hacking away at it when his studies were interrupted by Uncle Sam during the Vietnam Conflict. He kept working throughout his time in the Army until at last, in 1969, he finished it.
But apart from his mother, no one was remotely interested. John, like the main character in his novel, was a man out of sync with his time. “There’s no market for it,” said the first publisher to which he sent the novel. A line heard more than half a dozen more times.
“It’s a great book,” Thelma insisted. But after hustling hither and yon to no avail, John just gave up in the Winter of 69’. But Thelma wouldn’t let it go.
She copied manuscripts and wrote letters on her son’s behalf. She pestered mailmen and doormen alike as she flooded PO boxes with drafts and buttonholed publishers in lobbies and elevators. 8 publishers, but no success.
Eventually, Thelma marched into the office of the man who was teaching English at Loyola in New Orleans. He had had some success in the publishing world so she decided to enlist his help–whether he wanted to give it or not. His name was Walker Percy.
He said, “There I was being accosted by a formidable woman who was pressing a soiled yellow envelope in my chest, insisting that I read the work of her son who happened to be a genius.”
Percy said he knew that she would only keep coming back if he didn’t agree to her terms. So he took the boy's scribblings home.
At first he read hesitantly, but “then I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that is was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.”
He contacted Thelma and told her that he thought he could get the manuscript before the eyes of the folks over at the Louisiana State University Press. “It’s the most colorful rendition of New Orleans I’ve encountered” said Percy. “I think they will jump all over it.”
They loved the story so they took a chance, hoping to sell enough copies to cover the printing cost.
The first print run in 1980 produced only 2,500. But it sold 40,000 copies within mere weeks. Critics hailed it as the best novel of the year. And in 1981 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Of course, with a prize like that comes the recognition and affirmation that John deserved yet had failed to find. Thelma, his tireless mother, accepted the award on his behalf.
He didn’t even attend the ceremony. Frustrated by years of rejection, and deeming himself a failure, John put a pistol to his temple in March of 69’ and ended his life at the age of 32. 1
The famous novel takes its title from a line by satirist Jonathan Swift, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
John Kennedy Toole believed that he was indeed the victim of a world that couldn’t appreciate his gifts, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” So he gave up a world he believed had given up on him. It hadn’t. Because she hadn’t. But mommas tend to be like that don’t they?
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Correction: I misremembered while writing. Toole committed suicide, but he killed himself using a garden hose and attaching it to the tailpipe of his car.