Tuesday 1 May 2012

'A Confederacy of Dunces' - a missing manuscript and a found history

This is the story of a researcher who went searching for a manuscript and discovered the memories he found instead were more valuable - I just loved this when I read it so thought I'd share it!

Cory MacLauchlin has recently published a biography of the writer John Kennedy Toole.  Butterfly in the Typewriter: the Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of the Confederacy of Dunces tells the long and sad tale of  John Kennedy Toole and his novel A Confederacy of Dunces. MacLauchlin tells how, after writing the book, Toole corresponded with an editor for two years.  When after this time they still could not agree on the revisions Toole shelved the manuscript.  He didn't write any more novels and after suffering a mental breakdown committed suicide at the age of 31 in 1969.  However the story of the book didn't end there as Toole’s mother found the manuscript and eventually found a supporter for it in the author Walker Percy, who found a publisher.  It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.  However the original manuscript which Toole's mother passed on to Walker Percy has never been found.

MacLauchlin states that
"I have been researching and writing about Toole for seven years, digging through archives, interviewing his friends and family, trying to decipher Toole’s character, his fears, his desires, his angels and demons. And I have often contemplated that missing manuscript. "
He tells how he almost thought he had found it when talking to Lynda Martin, the sister of Toole's best friend in High School.  He flies on a plane to go meet her, full of excitement at possibly finding the original manuscript.

The subsequent deflation when he realises it is a copy and not the original is quickly dispelled when Lynda Martin offers to recount her memories of John Kennedy Toole.  I think this bit of the article is a wonderful example of the importance of oral history, of the first-hand record, the completely not-impartial sharing of stories, of life.  Cory MacLauchlin expresses it far more eloquently than me here:
Earlier that morning, I thought I was going to find a rare artefact of literary history, which would help me gain a clearer picture of Toole’s descent towards suicide. But Lynda’s memories were far more profound to me than dissecting how Toole edited his famous novel. Of course, I had to report to my agent and my editor that I had not found the manuscript. But I took heart in what Lynda freely offered me: a vivid portrait of a young aspiring artist, exploring a city filled with unique characters. No documents in the Toole Papers offered such a depiction, a depiction far more valuable than his manuscript.
As he says, of course he would still like to find the original manuscript some day and I don't intend to denigrate the importance of original manuscripts in my re-telling of this story either.  When I thought was so lovely about this story was his surprise at what he did find, at these wonderful memories which won't be around forever and which, unlike the manuscript, could not still be discovered another 30/40 years down the line.. until of course MacLauchlin turned up to find the manuscript and instead ended up filming her oral testimony of John Kennedy Toole.

No comments:

Post a Comment