Confederacy of Dunces:
A masterpiece by the tragic John Kennedy Toole
"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." - Johnathan Swift, "Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting"
John Kennedy Toole wrote Confederacy of Dunces, in turn creating the comical character Ignatius Reilly, one of the great buffoons in American Literature...
A statue of John Kennedy Toole's comical character is located at 819 Canal Street, in front of the Chateau Bourbon Hotel, which used to be the popular D.H. Holmes Department store, and also the location of the opening scene of Toole's hilarious, signature New Orleans novel.
Toole is a homegrown writer, born in New Orleans in 1937 and dying tragically in 1969 by his own hand. A professor and habitué of the French Quarter, he is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Confederacy of Dunces. Ironically, the Pulitzer was awarded to Toole after his death.
Confederacy of Dunces is set in New Orleans and features many of the unique and colorful characters one could find in this eccentric town, including the main character, the buffoon extraordinaire Ignatius Reilly. Ignatius -- chief dunce of a book populated with dunces -- is a hot dog vendor with a penchant for getting himself into trouble. Many people have called Toole’s book one of the funniest books they have ever read and report erupting into uproarious laughter while reading it.
Some of the other dunces in the story include the Keystone Coppish Angelo Mancuso, the slutty and shady stripper Lana Lee, the senile secretary Miss Trixie, the anal-retentive yet bumbling manager Mr. Gonzalez, the garishly wealthy Levy family, the juvenile delinquent George, the liberal student Myrna Minkoff, plus a list of secondary characters that only add to the rip-roaring and swashbuckling fun of it all.
As wonderful a writer as he was, Toole suffered from identity issues over his sexuality in addition to mental problems. Not only that, but he experienced heart wrenching difficulty getting his novel published and committed suicide at the tender age of 31 never knowing that his book would become a tremendous success.
Toole’s passing was a great loss to his mother, a proud bruising woman whose eccentricity could have placed her rightly in the middle of Confederacy of Dunces. Discovering her son’s dusty manuscript hidden in a closet, she set out to get the work published. She brought it to many publishers unsuccessfully, until she found a sympathetic ear in the editor, writer, and professor of English, Walker Percy. Percy adored the mother and the book. He called the Ignatius Riley character “a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas.”
The story of Toole’s mother valiantly fighting for the publication of her son’s work is quite touching, and Walker Percy proved himself to be a great judge of talent as the book went on to become an international bestseller, translated in over a dozen languages.
Inventing New Orleans: Writings by Lafcadio Hearn
Edited by S. Frederick Starr
In New Orleans’ French Quarter, the conventional life of bankers, secretaries, and working class people of all stripes falls by the wayside. Beauty and eros come to the fore, as people quit their jobs to become bohemians and live out their days in pursuit of good food, love, art, and fun.
No doubt this was the case with 19th century writer Lafcadio Hearn, who left behind a hardscrabble existence in Europe and Ohio before settling in the city he called the “Marseilles of the Western World”. Hearn, who developed his writing skills as a journalist in Cincinnati, worked for local New Orleans newspapers, and with the eye of an anthropologist documented his new surroundings, its pleasures, and its last vestiges of iconic Creole culture.
In turn, asserts S. Frederick Starr, editor of Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, Hearn created an image of New Orleans that exists to this day – an image that includes voodoo, gumbo, Mardi Gras, aristocrats, cemeteries, and charming street vendors. Ignoring the many modern aspects of New Orleans, Hearn focused on the idyllic, Gothic, and Romantic elements.
Hearn lived in a two-story townhouse on Bourbon Street, in what is today a wild saloon called the Bourbon Cowboy (516 Bourbon St.). Back in the 1870s and 1880s, however, it was a quaint location in the heart of the Quarter and Le Monde Creole.
Inventing New Orleans is an indispensable resource for a Big Easy history buff and scholar. The wonderful introductory essay by Starr is itself worth the price of the book. With the deft hand of a polished academic, Starr places Hearn in the context of French Romanticism and the 19th century Realism movement.
Starr writes of the world Hearn related: “To experience authentic New Orleans is, for the moment, to reject the modern world of which one is a part and to revel in an innocent world of beauty and eros in the moments before its demise.”
It is highly interesting to note that after a decade or so in New Orleans, Hearn picks up again and moves to Japan, renaming himself Yakumo Koizumi. He becomes a celebrated writer for his observations and stories about that land of the rising sun.
Time to Recognize One of the French Quarter's
Literary Lights: Zora Neale Hurston
The French Quarter claims Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner as their honorary sons. But they should add a daughter to that list, Zora Neale Hurston. Zora, in addition to being a best selling novelist in the 1930s and 40s, was an anthroplogist and writer who did extensive research on voodoo in the city of New Orleans, and then wrote about it in the classic Mules and Men. Her book, along with the writings of Robert Tallant, give us some of the clearest pictures of what voodoo in New Orleans was like.
Zora's method of research was to participate in local culture, and for the purpose of studying voodoo in New Orleans she went through several initiations. One French Quarter denizen she met, in late 1928, was the two-headed doctor Luke Turner, aka Samuel Thompson, who alleged to be the grandnephew of the greatMarie Leveau and who claimed to possess the skin of her sacred rattlesnake. Taking part in an initiation with Turner, Hurston was compelled to lie face down and naked for nearly seventy hours, without food or water.
834 Orleans Street
The address where the initiation took place is, I believe, 834 Orleans. If one follows the timeline in Valerie Boyd's eloquent biography of Zora, Wrapped in Rainbows, which places the date of the initiation in the autumn of 1928, and cross reference it with a letter Zora wrote to Langston Hughes during that same time, where in talking about her field research she mentions a "splendid 'experience' from the old man at 834 (Orleans)", we can safely assume that 834 is the address where the initiation took place. (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters)
I submit this for the scrutiny of historians. Not only that, but I'd like to see theFriends of Libraries USA place a plaque on this location to commemorate the great writer Hurston is. In addition to this location, Zora also mentions a Third Ward drugstore at 3000 S. Rampart where she read poetry, also in 1928. This site is now an empty field but it would also be a worthy location for a commemorative plaque.
THE GREAT AND BRAVE ZORA NEALE HURSTON: In 1928, voodoo was illegal in New Orleans and Zora had to be careful about the deep research she was doing around town, which included initiations by two-headed doctors. In this picture, we see the house where one of those initiations took place under a man who claimed to be the grandnephew of Marie Leveau. (834 Orleans) (Photo by Louis Bardel)
A check of the city registry in 1928 did not turn up the names of Luke Turner or Samuel Thompson. This, however, does not disprove Zora's account; it only says that these names were probably aliases to protect those involved, because the practice of voodoo during this time was outlawed.
A check of the New Orleans Register of Conveyances to see who owned the building at 834 Orleans in 1928 also did not turn up the names of Turner or Thompson. What I found was that the house was in the possession of the Claverie family in 1928. It was acquired by Jean Marie Claverie (perhaps French Creole) in 1880, and the house was not sold until at least 1948.
Zora Neale Hurston is the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and several other anthropological and literary works. She is a primary member of the early 20th century arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Fridays at Mollie's House
The French Quarter Tradition of Literary Salons
Outside salon hostess Mollie Davis' townhouse on the 400 block of Royal Street, c.1905
Literary salons are a French Quarter tradition. Grace King, author of Balcony Stories and a literary suffragette, hosted Le Petite Salon for many years at 620 St. Peter; Sherwood Anderson, who pennedWinesburg, Ohio among other short story classics, regularly opened up his apartment on Jackson Square (540 St. Peter) to the literati during the 1920s, and Mr. French Quarter (aka Lyle Saxon) staged salons in and around the Quarter that were more like parties. According to historian Alan Brown, author of Literary Levees of New Orleans, Saxon's literary meetings were notable for their "democratic" nature, where people from all walks of life had a voice, and probably a cocktail as well.
Another view of the 400 block of Royal Street, c. 1905. Notice the period dress, the horse-drawn carriages, the large paving stones on the street, and the long-gone streetcar line.
Another notable member of the salon set was Mollie E. Davis-Moore. Her meetings, which were held at the turn of the 20th century, were called "Fridays". Notable guests included George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, and Pearl Rivers (aka Eliza Nicholson, the first female newspaper publisher in the United States). According to Brown, Moore's salons attracted "belles, beauxs, papas, mamas, poets, painters, musicians, journalists, statesmen, scientists, churchmen, men and women of letters, foreign and homebred officers, military and naval."
Davis-Moore wrote in several genres and her work at its peak of popularity, c.1900, outsold Chopin, according to Brown.
The location of Davis-Moore's salon was at 406 Royal Street, which was knocked down in 1908 to make way for the construction of the Louisiana Supreme Court building.
Davis' French Quarter courtyard
by the eloquent Edmund White
When we go on our French Quarter Literary Pub Crawl we not only take in the rich literary history of New Orleans, but also get to scope out the architecture, the multitudes of sights and sounds, and get a general sense of the streets, jazz clubs, restaurants, bars, museums and local folklore.
Much is gained by seeing the city on foot. Edmund White's fine book highlights the delights of walking, as he delves into the world of the flaneur. The French word flaneur has a rich literary history. Poet Charles Baudelaire explained the term to mean a person who walks the city in order to experience it economically, culturally, and historically.
A delicious read, White's book is set in Paris but offers countless ideas about what is possible when one hits the pavement of any city.
The New York Times Book Review writes:
“One has the impression, reading The Flâneur, of having fallen into the hands of a highly distractible, somewhat eccentric poet and professor who is determined to show you a Paris you wouldn’t otherwise see…Edmund White tells such a good story that I’m ready to listen to anything he wants to talk about.”
Hot On The Trail Of The Bank Robber O. Henry
O. Henry (real name William Sydney Porter) is well known for his brilliant short stories with surprise endings, but much less is known about his shadowy life as a man on the run. In 1896, O. Henry fled Austin, Texas, to avoid charges that he embezzled money from a bank. We know that he wound up in New Orleans, going under cover while honing his craft as a writer and drinking alcohol at the Olde Absinthe House. According to Allan Brown, author of Literary Levees of New Orleans, O. Henry contributed to several local newspapers, including the Picayune (later to become the Times-Picayune in 1914).
During his time here, O. Henry acquired his pseudonym by taking a name from a local society page. Later on he told his editors that the "O" stood for Olivier. He penned several short stories based on his time in the city, such as "Helping the Other Man", "Hostages to Momus", "Blind Man's Holiday", "Cherchez la Femme", "Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking", and the "Renaissance at Charleroi".
Brown believes that O. Henry lived in a room on Bienville St. in a building located where the Royal Sonesta Hotel stands today, across from the Olde Absinthe House. In "Helping the Other Man", O. Henry writes:
When I arrived at the Crescent City I hurried away--far away from the St. Charles (Hotel) to a dim chambre garnie in Bienville Street. And there, looking down from my attic window from time to time at the old, yellow, absinthe house across the street, I wrote this story to buy my bread and butter.
Interestingly, pictures of the building O. Henry purportedly lived in are hard to come by. Searches at the New Orleans Public Library, Tulane University archives, and Historic New Orleans Collection came up empty. However, there is one picture of the building, circa 1900, and it is affixed to a wall inside the Olde Absinthe House.
The only known picture of O. Henry's New Orleans residence, c. 1900 - building on the left corner. The Olde Absinthe House in the foreground.
The Double Dealer Magazine
Excerpt from the WPA New Orleans City Guide 1938:
"In January, 1921, a group of young intellectuals, deciding it was time that the city break with the old literary traditions and become acquainted with the new, established theDouble Dealer, a cosmopolitan, anti-puritanical, and liberal magazine with decided modern tendencies. The first issue declared: "To myopics we desire to indicate the hills; to visionaries, the unwashed dishes...We mean to deal double, to show the other side, to throw open the back windows stuck in their sills from misuse, smutted over long since against even a dim beam's penetration." These were strange words in New Orleans, whose literature was conceived in the Romantic tradition and had continued so through a hundred years. The publication held out for five years, becoming known nationally as an excellent literary journal. It was devoted almost exclusively to fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, radical and conservative literary movements of the 1920's being represented. The importance of the magazine as a medium for the expression of all literary trends and the extent to which it discovered and encouraged notable talent may be seen in the number of contributors who have since attained literary recognition - Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Toomer, and others."
Lou Bardel's Literary Pub Crawl of New Orleans