Ignatius Reilly > New Orleans

By Todd Richardson


It is imperative that I begin this essay by recounting the paratextual narrative that invariably frames A Confederacy of Dunces. For it seems that this narrative is used to preface all discussions of A Confederacy of Dunces, and, being a folklorist, I am not one to break with tradition. More to the point, the remarkable story of the book's publication, as unlikely and unforgettable as the story related within the book's pages, showcases A Confederacy of Dunces' precarious relationship with the actual. Indeed, the book's existence in print is a miracle of sorts; in ninety-nine out of a hundred possible worlds, the book is never found, never published, and never read. Lucky for us, we live in that world where the book did find its way into print: written in the early 1960s by John Kennedy Toole, a native and nearly life-long New Orleanian, A Confederacy of Dunces first appeared in print close to a decade after the author's suicide in 1969. His mother, who is almost always likened to the book's protagonist's mother, uncovered a carbon copy of the manuscript in her dead son's room and convinced the writer Walker Percy, who was at the time a professor at Loyola University of New Orleans, to read it. Percy did, albeit reluctantly at first, and was so impressed by what he read that he championed the book's publication, eventually getting the novel accepted by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. Famously, it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year, and in the process become a legendary American novel.

In a sense, A Confederacy of Dunces' realness is the focus of this essay, and, from my vantage, the book's unlikely history, far from validating the book's realism, highlights just how unreal the book is. It is a singular text, both in its content and its publication, and the analysis of it should be equally singular. Nevertheless, criticism of the book generally employs overly easy, one-size-fits-all approaches when analyzing this deeply idiosyncratic text, particularly in terms of the book's folkloric content. Simply put, critics read the book ethnographically because that's the conventional way to approach literature that is influenced by place, and at first blush, A Confederacy of Dunces would seem ideally suited for such analyses: not only is New Orleans crucial to the story, Toole's status as a native New Orleanian, as well as his tragic demise, imbues the book with a cherished authenticity. Yet praising the book for its representational fidelity obscures the book's more deviant brilliance: A Confederacy of Dunces is remarkable not because it corresponds to anything actual; rather, it is miraculous in that it reveals a fantastic sort of folklore through its idiosyncratic protagonist, Ignatius Reilly.

In his introduction to the book, Walker Percy praised, nearly above all else, the novel's "rendering of the particularities of New Orleans, its back streets, its out-of-the-way neighborhoods, its odd speech, its ethnic whites" ([1984] 1996:viii). Percy's praise of the descriptive precision of Toole's New Orleans echoes throughout the reviews and articles on the novel, reaching a concise apex with John Lowe's insistence, in Louisiana Culture from the Colonial Era to Katrina, that he has "yet to meet a New Orleanian who has read Confederacy who doesn't believe that Toole got the city and its citizens exactly right" (2008:50). Of course I have to take these scholars at their word because I wouldn't know myself: I'm not going to affect a familiarity with the real New Orleans in this essay; outside of the French Quarter, my New Orleans experiences are mostly limited to cab rides to and from Louis Armstrong Airport. I suppose I did get lost driving into town eighteen years ago, ending up in an unfamiliar neighborhood. When I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions, the attendant mocked me, or so I gathered when the long line behind me burst out laughing after he responded to my question with his own: "You ain't from around here, no?" No, I wasn't from around there. I was, and remain, an interloper in New Orleans, a midwesterner who enjoys the French Quarter for its otherness, who visits the city in order to escape the real world. If anything, to become overly familiar with the city would likely mitigate its charms. I would then be forced to objectify and exoticize somewhere else that feels distant from my everyday life yet is close enough that I might travel there without too much hassle or a passport. Reno, Nevada perhaps.

Frankly, the surreality of New Orleans is what attracts me to the place. A few years ago, I was in New Orleans with a friend who was about to get married. In preparation for the trip, I located a voodoo priestess named Madame Severina and hired her to perform a blessing ceremony in honor of my friend's impending marriage. In my correspondence with her, she impressed upon me the authenticity of her voodoo credentials, that unlike the buskers selling readings throughout the Quarter, she was legit, the latest in a long line of hallowed priests and priestesses. I didn't know how to tell her I didn't really care, that as far as I was concerned, the hokier the ceremony the better. Being a cynical, postmodern, consumerist American, I was far less interested in purchasing God's good fortune than I was in collecting a good story to tell my square friends when I returned to my mundane, midwestern mediocrity.1 I suspect Madame Severina thought I was seeking the real thing because that's what people want from New Orleans, which may help explain why so many readers fixate on and fetishize the authenticity of Toole's descriptions of the city in A Confederacy of Dunces. And, in retrospect, maybe it really was the real thing I was looking for; I simply had cartoonish notions about the city and its culture, ideas I had absorbed from reading all the glowing assessments of A Confederacy of Dunces' realism. The book, after all, is a farce, and reading a farce realistically inevitably produces some pretty absurd notions about the way things ought to be.

In "Another Kind of Confederacy," which is included in the book Literary New Orleans in the Modern World, W. Kenneth Holditch praises A Confederacy of Dunces' "faithful recreation of New Orleans settings, traditions, characters, and dialects." Throughout the article, Holditch places special emphasis on the enthusiastic reception of the book by native New Orleanians. He writes, "Frequently, I have heard New Orleanians, young or old, professors and students, executives and workmen, insist that readers from elsewhere could not possibly appreciate Toole's achievement. 'How could anyone not from here understand?' they ask, almost jealously guarding what they see as peculiarly their own" (1998:113). As is usually the case with invocations of authenticity, Holditch validates the product through the emic perspective: if the locals see it that way, that's the way it must be. In Re-Situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art, Frank de Caro and Rosan Augusta Jordan argue in a similar vein that A Confederacy of Dunces is a novel about place. "Many New Orleanians," they write, "took quickly to Toole's novel, recognizing in it something of their vision of themselves, finding in its pages an appreciation of their speech patterns and an approximation of some of their ways of life. A statue of Ignatius [...] placed at the one-time entrance to the department store (now a hotel) where the novel opens is further testament to the book's local resonance" (2004:221). They continue, "Though the novel works on more than one level and is certainly a comic tale of personal foibles, vanities, and calamities, its author clearly intended it in part as a statement of the character of his hometown" (2004:221).

I find these endorsements of the book's realism problematic. De Caro and Jordan, for example, too quickly gloss over the novel's comedic character. As I suggested previously, Confederacy of Dunces is more than just "a comic tale of personal foibles, vanities, and calamities;" it is a farce, and to identify the character of a real place through farce risks making that place farcical. I accept that tourism is crucial to New Orleans' sustainability and that the image of the city as an otherworldly destination draws countless visitors every year, yet this image also allows those who don't live there to dismiss too easily the political, geographic and cultural realities of the city as jokes. For instance, I remember when my grandmother visited New Orleans in the late twentieth century, she brought home a souvenir t-shirt that read "Louisiana: Third World and Proud of It." At the time, I thought the shirt was a hilarious celebration of a funny location, but I see something much more sinister in it now. By attributing local pride to the city's problems, outsiders can dismiss rampant poverty and corruption as mere local color–if the locals see it that way, that's the way it must be.

Holditch goes on to insist that "Ignatius embodies an entire complex of traits that I would identify as constituting a sort of generic New Orleans character" (1998:111). In effect, he's arguing that Ignatius Reilly is a synecdoche for New Orleans. As an outsider I could interpret this to mean that the city is full of offbeat characters, or I might extrapolate his supposition to mean that New Orleans is populated entirely by odious misanthropes. Such are the perils when one reads a comic novel ethnographically. Rather than looking for folklore in the book using standard-issue strategies, rethinking the relationship between folklore and literature can reveal new insights into the text as well as the nature of folklore itself, insights that aren't predicated on the conflation of a fantastic setting with an actual locale.

My initial fascination with A Confederacy of Dunces didn't come from the book's regional authenticity. When I first read it fifteen years ago, I didn't even think to connect it with the New Orleans I had visited a few years earlier. I was, at the time, festering in a post-adolescent stasis; having recently failed out of college, I was unemployed and living at home with my mother, feeling a general contempt for everything that passed through my consciousness, almost exactly like Ignatius Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces' protagonist. In the opening paragraph of this essay, I qualified Walker Percy's praise of the regional authenticity of the novel as "nearly above all else" because, in his words, "Toole's greatest achievement is Ignatius Reilly himself, intellectual, ideologue, deadbeat goof-off, glutton, who should repel the reader with his thunderous contempt and one-man war against everybody–Freud, homosexuals, heterosexuals, Protestants, and the assorted excesses of modern times" (ix). Percy insists the character is "without progenitor in any literature I know of–a slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one–who is in violent revolt against the entire age, lying in his flannel nightshirt, in a back bedroom on Constantinople Street in New Orleans, who between gigantic seizures of flatulence and eructations is filling dozens of Big Chief tablets with invective" (viii). The way I saw it the first time I read the novel, New Orleans was a canvas onto which Toole painted the masterpiece that is Ignatius J. Reilly.

The novel chronicles Reilly's misadventures after he is forced to get a job when his mother wrecks her car, in large part because of him, causing property damage she cannot afford to pay for. Prior to the accident, Ignatius had spent his days at home watching television and consuming junk food, practicing his lute or writing tirades against all that displeased him, which was pretty much everything except the medieval philosopher Boethius. He had, for a short while, worked as graduate instructor at his alma mater, presumably Tulane, until, as he relates it:

Some poor white from Mississippi told the dean that I was a propagandist for the Pope, which was patently untrue. I do not support the current Pope. He does not at all fit my concept of a good, authoritarian Pope. Actually, I am quite opposed to the relativism of modern Catholicism quite violently. However, the boldness of this ignorant lily-white-redneck fundamentalist led my other students to form a committee to demand that I grade and return their accumulated essays and examinations. There was even a small demonstration outside the window of my office. It was rather dramatic. For being such simple, ignorant children, they managed it quite well. At the height of the demonstration I dumped all of the old papers –ungraded, of course –out of the window and right onto the students' heads. The college was too small to accept this act of defiance against the abyss of contemporary academia ([1984] 1996:61).

Reilly works at a variety of jobs and projects throughout the book –his hilarious turn as a hot dog vendor is perhaps the book's most famous sequence –and he offends pretty much everyone he encounters along the way, inciting more than one riot. In the end, he is forced to flee his native New Orleans, taking his chaos to New York City.

Reading the book, I was, as Walker Percy suggested, repelled by Ignatius Reilly, so much so that the experience changed my behavior insofar as I was uncomfortable resembling him in any way. Like me at the time, Ignatius lived at home with his mother, and while I have to believe I was never as vicious to my mother as he was to his, I will confess that reading the book changed the way I interacted with her, inspiring me to turn up the gratitude and courtesy as a way of proving to myself that I was definitely not like Ignatius. Not at all. Not one bit.

Looking back on it, I believe I can attribute a number of monumental changes in my life to A Confederacy of Dunces. I returned to school with newfound focus and energy, eventually moving out of my mom's and into the creepiest, most dreadful basement apartment available in the city of Omaha –it was all I could afford, but I insisted I absolutely could not live at home any longer because, I thought, the kind of guys who live at home with their mothers, well they're repellent, like Ignatius. Years later, I would opt to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri rather than the University of Nebraska, in no small part because I refused to remain trapped in the womb of my hometown like Ignatius was.2 He may have not had the wherewithal to leave the place of his birth, but I did. I showed him by leaving Nebraska of my own free will.

But more than anything else, it was Ignatius' refusal to associate himself with anyone else that haunted me, that continues to haunt me. I, too, have trouble relating to people. The Marxist paradox of never joining a club that would have one for a member runs deep in me, a self-consciousness I too often obscure using defensive cynicism and disaffiliation. Yet I refuse to believe that I consider myself as impossibly singular as Ignatius Reilly believes himself to be. In his work-in-progress "sociological fantasy," The Journal of a Working Boy, a sort of Horatio Alger tale if Alger were in fact the grand inquisitor Torquemada, Ignatius writes, "I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one" (144). Indeed, his closest associates are the medieval philosopher Boethius and Myrna Minkoff, whom Ignatius calls "The Minx," a progressive, Jewish New Yorker who was a classmate of Ignatius' at Tulane and with whom he maintains a tempestuous correspondence, seeing her occasionally on her "inspection tours" of the South, on which she stops by New Orleans to, as Ignatius puts it, "harangue me and to attempt to seduce me with the grim prison and chain and gang songs she strums on her guitar:"

When I saw her after her last 'inspection tour,' she was rather bedraggled. She had stopped throughout the rural South to teach Negroes folk songs she had learned at the Library of Congress. The Negroes, it seems, preferred more contemporary music and turned up their transistor radios loudly and defiantly whenever Myrna began one of her lugubrious dirges. Although the Negroes had tried to ignore her, the whites had shown great interest in her. Bands of crackers and rednecks had chased her from villages, slashed her tires, whipped her a bit about the arms. She had been hunted by bloodhounds, shocked by cattle prods, chewed by police dogs, peppered lightly with shotgun pellets. She had loved every minute of it, showing me quite proudly (and, I might add, suggestively) a fang mark on her upper thigh. My stunned and disbelieving eyes noted that on that occasion she was wearing dark stockings and not leotards. My blood, however, failed to rise. (148)

On the next page, Ignatius concludes: "Some day the authorities of our society will no doubt apprehend [Myrna Minkoff] for simply being herself. Incarceration will finally make her life meaningful and end her frustration" (149).

As vicious as Ignatius' assessments of Myrna are, there is obviously something about her that fascinates him. Indeed, with all things he enjoys or cares about, Ignatius disguises his affection with vitriol. For instance, he expresses his excitement about a new Doris Day film in curiously outraged terms: "A new film featuring my favorite female star, whose recent circus musical excess stunned and overwhelmed me, is opening shortly at one of the downtown movie palaces. I must somehow get to see it. [...] Her new film is billed as a 'sophisticated' comedy in which she must certainly reach new heights of perversion and blasphemy. [...] I can only imagine the film's latest horrors, its flaunting of vulgarity in the face of theology and geometry, taste and decency" (272, 318). Likewise, despite his avowed medievalism and near-constant jeremiad against the vagaries of popular culture, his diet is almost entirely composed of mass produced junk foods such as his much beloved Dr. Nut, a no-longer-available New Orleans-based almond flavored soft drink, which he guzzles while watching his favorite television shows, Yogi Bear and American Bandstand, the latter of which he describes as "children being debauched to further the cause of Clearasil"3 (49).

Now it's possible that Ignatius is simply a hater or a hipster or whatever, but I think his situation is fascinating from a folkloric perspective. I think there may even be something about his uneasy relationship with other folk that can help me understand my uneasy relationship with other folk. When I read folkloristic ethnographies and scholarship, I always feel a little left out, and I'm not sure why. I know I have plenty of folklore, but it doesn't seem to act the way folklore I read about acts. It doesn't seem so cohesive and it's never so easily shared. You might even say I begrudge the folklore I'm forced to share with other folk, which is why I feel like if I can make sense of Ignatius Reilly's personal relationship to folklore, I might better understand my own.

I think it starts with Ignatius being a serial disaffiliater: in only the most indirect ways does he associate himself with other people, and, when he does, his affiliation is buffered by space or time or both. He is alienated, certainly, but it's a willful, ecstatic alienation. In a very real sense, it is alienation that gives him his identity, especially if I am to believe the novel's epigraph from Jonathan Swift: "when a true genius enters the world, you will know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." John Kennedy Toole named Ignatius Reilly's misadventures for the fools whom the protagonist does not, indeed refuses to, fit in with, those dunces in confederacy against Ignatius' idiosyncratic existence. Consequently, it is not so much that Ignatius signifies anything himself; it is, rather, the ways in which he does not signify, the ways in which he does not belong, that shape his identity.

Considering his status as an unaffiliated, anachronistic isolate, Ignatius is not necessarily short on folklore, however. He has a spectrum of traditions and customs that guide his everyday life, from his grotesque-dandy costuming to his obsessive letter-writing to his avowedly medieval worldview. It's just that all these traditions and customs are unshared and uniquely his. It's akin to the sort of folklore that Leonard Primiano has dubbed unaculture. "Folklore," Primiano writes, "must enlarge its focus to emphasize the individual as the creator and possessor of a single folkloric world view, who constantly interprets and negotiates his or her own beliefs. This does not imply that an individual is not influenced by a number of physiological, cultural, social and environmental forces, but that given the human capacity to interpret these influences, people develop their own folklore within as well as around themselves" (1998:48). I agree with Primiano on this: there must be space within folklore studies to discuss the idiosyncratic nature of folk worldviews, yet the concept of unaculture only partially explains the folklore I discern in Ignatius' curious existence.

Maybe it's not folklore, but rather, folkness, a state of consciously sharing one's identity with a group, that I'm really struggling with in those ethnographies and in my life, a state Ignatius Reilly absolutely refuses. Now, folkness may seem like a positive thing, something everyone would want, but it grows more elusive the more I think about it. As an American, I worship individuality in both its positive and negative manifestations. I frequently exercise my inalienable right to be incomprehensible to my community. Moreover, as an academic, I'm trained to always consider the singularity of my scholarly and/or creative expression: to unreservedly agree with one of my peers, to echo someone else's thesis without changing it to make it distinctly mine constitutes a waste of intellectual resources. Consequently, it does not pay to too closely associate myself with others, lest they take credit for my hours of work or obscure my contribution — gainsaying is professionally preferable to agreeing, and detachment is rewarded even when it's not explicitly recommended. In short, I'm supposed to disassociate myself in order to make an impression all my own. Folkness, in my case, is a liability, both professionally and personally, so I sort of understand Ignatius' situation.

And I suppose Ignatius does share folkness with his nemesis Myrna Minkoff. Indeed, the two are more similar than either is willing to admit, sharing a variety of expressive traditions, which they approach in contradictory ways. For instance, after Myrna resolves to fix the race issue once a for all by making a film about interracial marriage, Ignatius responds by creating "The Crusade for Moorish Dignity," which he hopes will liberate the largely satisfied African-American employees of Levy Pants, where he was an office-worker for a time. Likewise, when Myrna brags of her sexual liberation, Ignatius dedicates himself to getting homosexuals elected to high office: "Degeneracy, rather than signaling the downfall of a society, as it once did, will now signal peace for a troubled world. We must have new solutions to new problems" (270). In each instance, the characters are sharing and shaping each other's expressions, they're just doing so in an antagonistic manner, forming a sort of unholy, hateful dyad-folkness, it seems, isn't always folksy.

Simultaneously, Ignatius shares a sense of belonging with at least one other individual. Thinking over his plan to save the world through degeneracy, Ignatius likens himself to his hero Boethius, writing, "He truly served as a guide, philosopher, and friend to many Christians; precisely because, while his own times were corrupt, his own culture was complete." Ignatius feels marooned in the wrong epoch, yet he still connects with and is comforted by a kindred spirit in Boethius. More than a good writer to him, he is the folk with whom he shares his values and expressions and identity. And it is this relationship, I believe, that best expresses the elusiveness of Ignatius' folkness: he isolates himself, but he's never alone.

As I already implied, Ignatius Reilly is my imagined folk. We're a dyad. Not necessarily a harmonious one, but a dyad nonetheless. Indeed, my insistence that I not share traditions and customs with Ignatius Reilly, my refusal to live like him, shaped many of my decisions and actions, important events that have profoundly determined the course of my life. Simultaneously, it is the similarity of our isolations which draws me to both the book and to him as a character, time and again. He is, for me, part Myrna Minkoff and part Boethius, both my nemesis and my kindred. And either way, he's my folk, a folk I never physically interact with, that I can never physically interact with.

The constructed others we live with, folks like Ignatius, and others even harder to articulate, come closest to actuality in fiction; elsewhere, they remain unrealized, ghosts populating our psychic maps. This is not to say that such characters don't influence our lives; they assert themselves ostensively by shaping our actions and, by extension, our worlds. That they don't have individual wills scarcely matters as even imagined behaviors can have actual consequences. Sometimes, folkness emerges via a chain of relations so esoteric we must access them through fiction acting like ethnography. Or maybe it's the other way around, ethnography, albeit a fantastic ethnography, acting like fiction. Either way, it is there that I best connect with the imagined folk with whom I actually live, something discovered during the time I spent with Ignatius Reilly in an otherworldly New Orleans.

On my last visit to New Orleans, I set out to visit as many locations from A Confederacy of Dunces as possible; I guess I wanted to field-test the novel's actuality by comparing what I had only encountered imaginatively with its real world inspirations. I started with the setting of the novel's opening, the spot where Ignatius, waiting for his mother, nearly starts a riot outside Holmes Department Store on Canal Street. Holmes Department Store is no longer there–the building is currently occupied by Chateau Bourbon Hotel–but the spot was easy enough to find because a statue of Ignatius Reilly had been erected there. It was late in the day, and a steady stream of tourists and freshly off-the-clock workers walked by me and the statue, indifferent to both of us. I stood there staring at the likeness, and, more than anything, I was struck by how small the statue was. Throughout A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius Reilly is described as a behemoth, yet the statue appeared to be built to three-quarters scale–he appeared more like an overweight hobbit than the mass of humanity Toole described, the character who had so strongly affected my life. In honor of the location, I sat down on a nearby bench and started reading the novel. On the second page, I encountered the line, "Looking up, [Ignatius] saw the sun beginning to descend over the Mississippi at the foot of Canal Street" (2). Noting that I was also there at sunset, I looked down Canal Street, yet the setting sun wasn't there. It was a cloudless day, and I was deeply confused by the sun's absence until I noticed that it was actually setting at the other end of Canal Street. Toole, it seems, had configured his fictional New Orleans backwards, switching east with west. The realization did not disappoint me. It made me love the novel more than ever, and I read on, laughing out loud as I did.


1. Lest any of the earnest folklorists who read this scold me for the insensitivity and irresponsibility of my outlook, understand that I wasn't conducting fieldwork. I located the esteemed Madame Severina online. Her website was sufficiently spooky-looking so I paid her far too much to put on a good show for a couple of vacationers–I can't help it that she thought "a good show" meant one that was ethnographically accurate, or so she seemed to suggest via her well-rehearsed pleas of authenticity.

2. Prior to the novel's conclusion Ignatius had only left New Orleans once, taking a Scenicruiser bus to Baton Rouge to interview for a teaching job, an ordeal he shares with nearly everyone he encounters: "I vomited several times. The driver had to stop the bus somewhere in the swamps to let me get off and walk around for a while. The other passengers were rather angry. They must have had stomachs of iron to ride in that awful machine. Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins [...] I think that perhaps it was the lack of a center of orientation that might have upset me. Speeding along in that bus was like hurtling into the abyss" (12-3).

3. Among the many other things he claims to despise: Canned foods, which he suspects are damaging to the soul, the Enlightenment, which he deems "an insidious gospel," the Smithsonian, in his words a "grab-bag of our nation's refuse," and folk music, "discordant abominations," he insists, "the veneration of which is at the very root of our current predicament" (33).

Works Cited

De Caro, Frank and Rosan Augusta Jordan. 2004. Re-Situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Holditch, W. Kenneth. 1998. Another Kind of Confederacy: John Kennedy Toole. Literary New Orleans in the Modern World. Ed. Richard S. Kennedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 123-135.

Lowe, John. 2008. Louisiana Culture from the Colonial Era to Katrina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Primiano, Leonard Norman. 1995. Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife. Western Folklore. 54(1): 37-56.

Toole, John Kennedy. [1980] 1996. A Confederacy of Dunces. New York: Wings.

This article was first published in the 2016 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Todd Richardson is an Assistant Professor of English in the Goodrich Scholarship Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.