Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
Personal and literary items from Pulitzer-Prize winning Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole, including a handwritten letter, a first edition of Confederacy, and 10 books described as childhood favorites of the author, fetched $12,500 on the auction block at Sotheby’s on Friday.
The estimate for the lot of Toole memorabilia was between $10,000 and $15,000.
The auction of the Toole material was billed as the first of its kind in 30 years, just after Toole’s iconic New Orleans book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The enigmatic author took his own life in 1969, after which his mother launched a decades-long crusade to have Confederacy published.
Among the items in the Sotheby’s auction were a handwritten letter, dated 7 January 1963 and signed “Ken.”
It is addressed to Pat (Patricia), Rick (Milton) and Gordon Rickels, members of the Lafayette family with whom Toole became close in 1959 when he taught at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette).
In the letter, written from San Juan, Puerto Rico, while Toole was serving in the military, Toole sends his sympathies to the Rickels family, on an accident that Milton Rickels (whom Toole called “Rick”) suffered.
Toole writes that he was told of the accident by fellow professor Bobby Byrne, whom many scholars believe was one of the inspirations for Confederacy’s Ignatius Reilly.
“I send my sincere hopes for a quick and comfortable recuperation,” Toole writes. “The three of you were extremely good to me during my year in Lafayette. The thought of misfortune involving any one of you is something that I would feel very personally.”
Toole begins the letter by apologizing for not visiting the Rickelses personally while on leave from the military over the Christmas holidays. In that, some would say he sounds a bit like the quirky and now-beloved protagonist of his book.
“I had no access to an automobile,” he writes. “The prospect of traveling via Greyhound stopped me in the planning stage.”
In his recent biography Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces, author Cory MacLauchlin quotes the 1963 letter and describes in detail the close relationship between Toole and the Rickels family, calling them “two of his dearest friends in Lafayette” during the months in 1959 when Toole taught at USL.
“The Rickelses must have provided Toole a welcome escape from the pressures of his own family,” he writes.
Patricia Rickels taught at UL Lafayette from 1957 to 2007 and died in 2009 as professor emeritus of English and former director of the university’s honors program.
MacLauchlin also writes that before he left Lafayette, Toole gave the Rickels’ child, Gordon, all of his childhood books. The Sotheby’s lot contained 10 children’s books from the library of Dr. Rickels, presumably the books referred to in MacLauchlin’s work.
It also contained a first edition copy of Confederacy, a “compliments slip from Mrs. Thelma Toole” and a 1978 edition of The New Orleans Review, with Dr. Rickels’ notes in red ink. Also mentioned are “three critical studies of Toole from the library of Dr. Patricia Rickles (sic)”.