Saddest of all, towards the end of his life, Toole became convinced that Gottlieb had stolen ideas from his book and put them into a novel called Superworm by George Deaux, which has a few superficial similarities to A Confederacy of Dunces. But just look at the walrus! Daniel’s testimony, scrawled in ink and submitted as official evidence, offers a disturbing look at the ins and outs of your average bewitchment: “I was taken very ill again all over & felt a great pricking in ye soles of my feet, and after a while I saw apparently the shape of Margret Scott, who, as I was sitting in a chair by ye fire pulled me with ye chair, down backward to ye ground, and tormented and pinched me very much, and I saw her go away at ye door, in which fit I was dumb and so continued till ye next morning, finding a great load and heaviness upon my tongue … There appeared to me the shape of some woman, who seemed to look and speak most fiercely and angrily, and beat, pinch’d and afflicted me very sorely telling me I should not have said so, or told such things & to yt purpose.” Yet Fletcher’s filmed commentary on his project is an absurdist version of what was once the religious self-discipline of diary-keeping. In an interview with NPR’s Camila Domonoske, she said, “I think the responsibility really is to just help raise the awareness of poetry and its value in our culture … To me that means talking to people—getting off the usual path of literary festivals and university reading series and talking to people who might not even yet be readers of poetry … I would love to go to places where people might be struggling, where people might wonder if there are voices out there for them … I feel that as a person of color I’ve always been interested in the stories that are quiet and the stories that often get overlooked …. Gottlieb left the door open to Toole to approach him with more revisions, or even new work. Magnus went on to relate how ‘Using their tusks, these animals clamber right up to the cliff-tops, as if they were going up a ladder, in order to crop the sweet, dew-moistened grass, and then roll back down into the sea again, unless, in the meantime, they have been overcome with a heavy drowsiness and fall asleep as they cling to the rocks.’ Hunters would sneak up on the napping behemoths, tie ropes around their tails, and, from a safe distance, wake the animals with a hail of stones.”
At an exhibition of diaries in London, John Mullan has chanced upon something sublime: “One of the weirdest diaries (if that is the right word) sampled here is one Peter Fletcher’s record of all his sneezes since July 2007. He recognized Toole’s talent and worked hard to encourage it. We may chuckle at the walrus, sure, or name magazines after it, or claim that it is Paul McCartney. Not very interesting, you might think (perhaps not very trustworthy: can he always be recording the circumstances before they are forgotten?). Importantly, he wanted to portray wonders that were resonant to an audience in Catholic Southern Europe … To do so, he used practical, local information, but, ironically, also based much of his description on classical scholarship and Southern European perceptions of the north. Which is just what a true Christian was once trying to do.”
The new poet laureate is Tracy K. The point, he explains, is to cheat his own preconceptions about what is important in his life. But before Toole shelved his novel and succumbed to these final paranoias, he had two years of correspondence with Gottlieb, and considerable encouragement … Dunces didn’t reach final publication because Gottlieb requested changes that Toole felt unable to make—not because Toole was turned away. When Thelma Toole took the manuscript to other publishing houses following her son’s death, they mostly turned her down flat. He was re-igniting images of the ‘septentrional lands’ rather than generating them: selling mythologies back to the traditions that had created them. The morse was one such arctic wonder. Smith, who teaches at Princeton. She hopes to use the position to broaden poetry’s utility throughout the country, where she hopes it can serve as a balm in troubled times. Each entry describes where he was and what he was doing when he sneezed. Gottlieb, at least, recognized many of the book’s fine qualities.”
Up for auction at Christie’s: a 1692 deposition from Mary Daniel, a teenager from Salem who testified that she’d been accosted by Margaret Scott, convicted witch. As Natalie Lawrence writes, Olaus Magnus’s seminal History of the Northern Peoples (1555) sought to portray the wonders of the far-off north—mostly by concocting them or stealing them from other old books—and one of these wonders was the walrus, or morse, a creature so inexorably magical that it was liable to fall asleep while clambering around and supping the dew from the wet grasses: “Magnus wanted to present the North as an impenetrable region of wonders and marvels—flesh-eating Scricfinns, magicians, vast whirlpools, and flaming volcanoes—at the very edge of the known world. From Conrad Gesner’s Icones Animalium, 1560. Image via Public Domain Review
Ours is a sad era, for we have lost our ability to marvel at the walrus. I think that inevitably I’m aware of these margins and I’m curious about them because I know what it feels like to be [outside] of one … I think it will be very easy to say, Let’s have a diversity of voices, perspectives, experiences, aesthetics that we draw from. Have you ever seen something so extraordinary? Sam Jordison writes, “Gottlieb described the non-publication of Dunces as his most ‘conspicuous failure’… Toole’s mother, Thelma, was furious with him and blamed him for the fact that the book wasn’t published while her son was still alive. And let’s listen.”
Sometimes editors reject masterpieces, though they’ll seldom admit it unless they’re under oath. In the sixteenth century, a walrus marked the outer limits of exotica—to conceive of one was to dabble in a realm of chimera and myth. Robert Gottlieb ultimately turned down John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a decision that haunts him even now—especially since it came after a protracted, warm correspondence that left Toole feeling hopeful and ashamed.