"Dear Dr. Percy, You Must Help Me!"
(An introduction is necessary for the following piece. It’s an excerpt from my novel, The Camellia City. In this scene Morgan Baines, a once-successful but now disillusioned author, is taking part in a panel discussion at a writers’ conference; he is responding to a question from the audience concerning A Confederacy of Dunces. Another member of the panel had just put forth his belief that all good writing will find publication.)
“It so happens that I recently read a biography of Walker Percy, so I’m familiar with the facts. Course, in Toole’s story, there will always be mysteries. Like what was in his suicide note? We’ll never know, since his mother destroyed it without divulging its contents. Anyway, when Toole was in his mid-twenties, living in New Orleans, he had a comic novel, sent it to publishers — how many I don’t know. Had it rejected. Then he sent it to Simon and Schuster, and Robert Gottlieb — senior editor there — he was interested enough to start up a correspondence. One that lasted for years. Gottlieb suggested changes, Toole made revisions. Then Gottlieb lost interest. Toole was informed that Simon and Schuster would not be publishing his book. Case closed.
“Now, I don’t think of Gottlieb as a villain. On the contrary. He saw something worthwhile in the manuscript and invested a lot of time in it. He did much more than most. Maybe he ended things callously — I don’t know what was in that final letter to Toole. But Toole could have seen the attention he got as encouraging. He didn’t. Whatever his private demons were, he went into a downward spiral. Bizarre, tormented behavior. He drove here and there — including a trip to Milledgeville, Georgia, where Flannery O’Connor had lived most of her life. Toole wound up somewhere on the Gulf Coast. That isolated spot so dear to newspaper accounts. He connected a hose from the exhaust pipe to the interior of his car.”
Morgan took a sip of water — a moment to acknowledge Toole’s leap into the unknown.
“Here the story of Confederacy of Dunces should’ve ended. In retrospect we romanticize this manuscript, see it as something precious. But normally it would have been disposed of — sealed away in a box and put in the attic, or thrown out with the rest of the junk of the deceased: shoes, old magazines, sunglasses. But the story doesn’t end, and that’s entirely due to the mother.
“Thelma Toole . . . A woman described as implacable, determined, indomitable. Whatever her demons were, she made the publication of his book the purpose of her life. She’d say, ‘I walk in the world for my son.’ ‘The Genius,’ she called him. So she sent the genius’s manuscript to publishers — again, I don’t know how many — and got rejections. Enough of them to make her try another tactic. She read that Walker Percy, famous author, was teaching a writing class at a university in New Orleans. She telephoned him, over a dozen times, to get him to look at her son’s book. But he put her off. Obviously he was determined too — determined not to read the manuscript. Most people would’ve given up in the face of Percy’s response. Not Thelma. She finally waylaid him in the English Department office and thrust a cardboard box at him. She wore a veil — imagine those eyes behind it. ‘Dear Dr. Percy, you must help me!’ What could the poor man do?
“Well . . . He could have refused again. Others would have. Or he could have taken the manuscript but not read it. Or he could have looked at the first page with such a negative attitude that any virtues would be lost. Actually, Percy writes in his introduction to Confederacy that he tried to do just that — he wanted it to be so bad from the start that he could dispense with it. But, with a sinking feeling, he found that the damn thing wasn’t bad enough. He read on. And at some point he realized that he had a remarkable book in his hands. Percy became its champion, pursuing its publication.
“And who doesn’t need someone championing their work? Percy had plenty of help when he was starting out. His family was well-connected in the literary world. Then he had the support of Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate — two mighty valuable people to know. Incidentally, Gordon also helped Flannery O’Connor get her first book written and published. Interesting, isn’t it, the connectivity of things?
“But even with Percy’s backing the road to publication was bumpy. His own publisher rejected the book. As did others — and here, finally, I have a number. Nine publishers rejected it over Percy’s strong recommendation. Why? Why couldn’t Percy get the book accepted? I think it’s because his reputation was that of a highly intellectual writer, almost a philosopher. Percy’s books were never popular, not big sellers. So his taste was suspect. And when they — these editors — took a look at Confederacy, they saw a white elephant, and a grotesque one at that. So they politely declined.
“Of course, eventually it was published — LSU Press was starting up a fiction series and took the book, mainly out of respect for Percy. Anyway, to sweep ahead, the book would be hailed as a comic masterpiece, be read by millions, win the Pulitzer Prize. And again — why? My theory is that it was largely due to Percy’s introduction — an artfully-constructed piece of writing. Being by Percy, and being short and entertaining, people — including, significantly, the reviewers — read this introduction, they learned the history of the novel. A dead author, killing himself following rejection of his masterpiece. Suddenly the book had a tragic romance to it. After that introduction, the reader would want to be one of those discriminating enough to have recognized the value of the book. So even the success of Confederacy is shrouded in falsity.
“And, yes, I understand that there’s now a bronze statue of Ignatius Reilly in downtown New Orleans, eternally waiting under the clock. I’d like to see it someday. As for Toole, I don’t know where he’s buried. But perhaps we live on in our characters.”
(This excerpt appeared, in a slightly different form, in Spillway Review)
The Camellia City is available for purchase.