Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

A Refutation of Robert Byrne: John Kennedy Toole's a Confederacy of Dunces, Chaucer, and Boethius

Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

A Refutation of Robert Byrne: John Kennedy Toole's a Confederacy of Dunces, Chaucer, and Boethius

Article excerpt

Efforts to study John Kennedy Toole's intellectual development and how it may have influenced his A Confederacy of Dunces (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980) have been surprisingly weak, considering the critical attention paid to the text. After Toole's untimely death, many of his possessions (here called the Toole Papers) were donated to the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane University (which has granted permission for passages to be reprinted here) by his mother, Thelma Toole. The Toole Papers offer the opportunity to confirm or refute claims about Toole that posit what he did or did not know when writing Confederacy.

The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius plays two roles within Confederacy. Not only does the novel's main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, recommend it to others as the foundation of his medieval worldview (137, 139, 219, 255), but a copy of the book plays a role in the novel's plot. As both William Bedford Clark (Essays in Literature 14: 269-80) and Michael Kline (Southern Quarterly 37.3-4: 283-91) have pointed out, Ignatius has a limited view of Boethius and only refers to that part of Consolation where its narrator laments Fortuna and her wheel. Both Clark and Kline argued that, just as Boethius's Lady Philosophy contradicts Boethius's narrator, Confederacy's narrative refutes Ignatius's views: out of the apparent chaos of fate the order of the plot arises. Similarly, in 1994 Richard Simon argued that Confederacy is a study of fate and that the book's resolution repeats a medieval solution to the paradox of free will (Texas Studies in Literature & Language 36: 99-116). Ignatius "finds the same kind of consolation from [Boethius and Fortuna] that Binx [from Percy's Moviegoer] has found in Kierkegaardian repetition and rotation" (103).

These Boethian interpretations of Confederacy were called into question in 1995, when Carmine Palumbo published an interview with Professor Robert Byrne, the undisputed real-life model for many of Ignatius Reilly's mannerisms (Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 10: 59-77). Byrne, who had taught together with Toole at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1960 (after Toole had received his Master's degree), claimed that Toole had only a superficial understanding of Boethius's Consolation, despite having used it explicitly and extensively in Confederacy. "Mr. Byrne explained to me almost immediately that Toole had never, to his knowledge, read Consolation of Philosophy, . …

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