by Willard Manus
We should all give a low bow of thanks to Louisiana State University Press for its many worthy publications, past and present.
LSUP, you will recall, was the company that took a big chance on publishing A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole, a picaresque comic novel set in New Orleans that most major houses had passed on, some disdainfully. Toole, who was born in New Orleans, took the rejection hard and committed suicide a few years later, leaving the mss. to his mother, Thelma. She made it her mission to try and get DUNCES published; after chasing editors for years, she finally thrust its dog-eared pages into the hands of the novelist Walker Percy who, being a polite southerner, agreed to dip into it.
Once he started reading, though, he couldn't stop. Recognizing Toole's talent and the book's potential, he turned the mss. over to LSUP, which decided to take a chance on it, although in a very small first-printing. DUNCES caught on with readers almost immediately and the book went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies in eighteen languages, and to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Now LSUP has followed up with IGNATIUS RISING, the first biography of John Kennedy Toole. Written by Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy, the book is based on interviews with people who knew the writer and Thelma, as well as unpublished letters, documents and photographs. As the introduction states, "Toole is revealed to have been many things: a coddled only child; an academic prodigy; a soul tortured by conflicting feelings for his mother and about his sexual identity; a fun-loving cut-up; a master of mimicry; and a conversationalist nonpareil; an impeccable, popular college teacher; a straitlaced constant worrier by day and a back-street blues devotee by night; a writer who cherished the many nuances of his native city, New Orleans; and a man ultimately depressed, overweight, hard-drinking, promiscuous and mad."
Even more cracked was Thelma, a woman who went from beautiful southern belle to overbearing, bizarrely dressed, hard-drinking virago who survived by giving piano lessons and by putting the bulk of her energies into promoting her son's book. When a stage adaptation of DUNCES was produced, she turned up in an "elaborate outfit of hat, gloves and orchid corsage...compromised by the fact that she was wearing bedroom slippers. With grand, sweeping gesture, she declared in ringing tones that 'this was the greatest night in the history of the theatre.'"
The portrait of Toole that emerges is painful to contemplate: he had so much going for him, was so kind and generous to his friends, yet could not survive the blows the world landed on him. IGNATIUS RISING is a worthy tribute to the tragic author of one of America's most illustrious comic novels.
Other recent LSUP titles include: SELECTED POEMS OF ROBERT PENN WARREN and Vol. II of SELECTED LETTERS OF ROBERT PENN WARREN--THE SOUTHERN REVIEW YEARS, 1935-1942. Warren, a towering figure in American letters, wrote poetry, fiction, criticism and textbooks, and his creative gifts and intellectual acuity are much on display in these two important volumes. Of special interest are his insightful letters to such other southern literary giants as Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Ann Porter and Eudora Welty.
As part of its Voice of the South continuing series, LSUP has also reprinted four outstanding contemporary novels: James Wilcox's MISS UNDINE'S LIVING ROOM; Christine Wiltz's GLASS HOUSE; Shirley Ann Grau's THE HARD BLUE SKY; and R.H. W. Dillard's THE BOOK OF CHANGES. Recently, LSUP brought out the first biography of Peter Taylor, the esteemed short story writer and novelist (he won a Pultzer Prize--and several other major literary awards-- for A Summons to Memphis). PETER TAYLOR--A WRITER'S LIFE by Hubert H. McAlexander is as gracefully and intelligently written as anything by Taylor himself.
LSUP also publishes fresh, provocative poetry, such as Steve Scafidi's SPARKS FROM A NINE-POUND HAMMER. (Louisiana State University Press, POB 25053, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, (225) 578-6666).