In The Toole Archives

In A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole’s Ignatius refers to a two-page thesis that resides in Tulane University’s Howard Tilton Memorial Library on the third floor in the rare books collections. The third floor there houses part of the regular university stacks, some private study offices, the office for information literacy, and some library personnel offices, but the special collections are not housed there–if they ever were.

Taking fiction for truth, I stumbled blindly out of the heat and humidity to the Tilton Library third floor first. I love sliding around the confusing streets of New Orleans. If my brain were a muscle, New Orleans is imprinted there in it’s muscle memory. Partly, I know my way around the streets and byways, and partly I inuit them. The campus of Tulane is one of the New Orleans places I both know and feel. I taught there for a year in 1995/1996, and going to the campus yesterday, I was on autopilot. I went immediately to Pine Street, slightly off campus, where I parked my car when I worked there. But, to go to the library, I wanted to pull into the street parking within the campus gates right next to Tilton Library–where I discovered that the collections and rare books are housed in Jones Hall, directly across the street, not where Ignatius claimed his two-page thesis resides in Tilton Library. So I re-hoisted my gear and tramped across the street.

I love being in library archives, and despite the respect and care I try to give what I go through there, I’m pretty sure I screw up the order every time I visit a collection. I don’t mean to, but it gets confusing. Half my time is spent figuring out what folders to return items to, despite all my care, mental notes, and attempts to follow the good practices the archivists share for the use of archival material.

And, like the lady in the old New Yorker cartoon who claimed she wanted her son to work in a bank because “It’s so nice and cool in a bank,” Special Collections was like being in a nice and cool bank. Outside, people were dying in the heat and humidity, but I was nearly alone in a big, cool room in a library I love.

I  briefly went through two of the boxes in the Toole Collection. Getting into those items is a joyous experience. I loved seeing the items that, at the time they became the property of Ken Toole, were just the ordinary things belonging to a schoolboy in the 1950s and 1960s, but now have a super-real quality. Everything is a clue to living the very particular life he lived. Everything, or almost everything, is something he touched without thinking they would become historical artifacts. A lot of Toole’s mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, is everywhere in the collection.

The mere fact that she kept all these things, and kept them together enough to be donated for this collection, is nothing short of a miracle. What would be the detritus of most people’s lives, are special because of her mother’s devotion to the idea her son was a genius. But, whether he was or not, she kept, apparently, everything of his she could get her hands on. Mothers everywhere do this, and it is humbling to become conscious of just how much it means that any mother does such things. It’s miraculous, really. The Toole artifacts survived three hurricanes; Besty, Camille, and Katrina; numerous evacuations, and countless floods. The first year I lived in New Orleans, several feet of water flooded St. Charles Avenue, and I watched the children of the gentry excitedly catch catfish by hand out on the avenue. They survived the heat and humidity of this wet place, the vicissitudes of the comings and goings and purges of spring cleanings, changes of heart and fortune, the furies and temporary passions of family life, and now they reside in relative safety on the second floor of the Jones Building on Tulane campus. Archivists will protect them as well as they can before every evacuation. They’re as safe as they can be in the place they belong. And anyone can go there and touch Toole’s past.

It was apparent from my brief visit, that the archives still have much to yield. My project is limited, though, and the first thing I was struck by were the photographs of Toole in costumes. Any child’s upbringing in New Orleans is influenced by the distinct, local culture of Carnival, Momma, cooking, music, local theater, school theatrical productions. This influence is apparent in some of the photos of Toole as a child dressed in costumes. This was not typical of most children in America. For most American kids, a photo in costume for Halloween–that’s it. Here are a few of the photos of Toole as a child in costumes. The masker. In the last of these, Toole appears to be standing on Canal Street. One of the archivists identified a streetcar in the right side of the photo, and the Roosevelt Hotel is the tall, modern building in the background. Note the streamers on the ground, suggesting the photo was taken after a parade passed.