Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
The real life inspirations for Ignatius J. Reilly and Myrna Minkoff likely walked its halls, so it seems appropriate that the University of Louisiana at Lafayette was the high bidder on a recent auction of memorabilia from John Kennedy Toole, the author of “Confederacy of Dunces.”
The UL Lafayette Foundation announced Wednesday that it was behind the winning $12,500 bid last Friday for a rare letter penned by Toole and other memorabilia from the enigmatic Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In 1959, Toole taught English at UL Lafayette, then called the University of Southwestern Louisiana.
The university has connections to Toole’s iconic work and may have inspired two of his legendary characters. The late Bob Byrne, a former UL Lafayette English professor, is considered one of the primary inspirations for Ignatius Reilly. Myrna Minkoff, referred to by Ignatius as "that minx," was presumably inspired by longtime professor Pat Rickels.
“The archive is significant because of the apparent influence of Toole’s UL Lafayette colleagues on his Confederacy masterpiece,” said Julie Bolton Falgout, executive director of the UL Lafayette Foundation, in a news release.
Among the items in the Sotheby’s auction were a handwritten letter sent to Rickels and her family, dated 7 January 1963 and signed “Ken.”
Pat Rickels and her family became close with Toole in 1959 when he was an associate professor in UL Lafayette’s English department. 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.
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.
The lot also featured a first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces, once owned by Pat Rickels.
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, which was auctioned off, 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.
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 containing the first published excerpts of the book, with Dr. Rickels’ notes in red ink. Also mentioned are “three critical studies of Toole from the library of Dr. Patricia Rickles (sic)”.
“It’s important to retain such artifacts and documents in the state. It’s also appropriate to preserve these John Kennedy Toole items at UL Lafayette because of their connections to our campus and the university’s growing reputation as keeper and interpreter of Louisiana’s rich culture and history,” said Dr. Jordan Kellman, dean of UL Lafayette’s College of Liberal Arts.
Falgout said the university has identified at least two donors interested in contributing to the Toole archive’s preservation. She and other university officials are seeking private contributions to preserve or make additional acquisitions, as well as donors willing to give significant art or literary works.
The university said it plans to show the Toole materials during a special exhibit next year.