Category Archives: Literature

England’s Augustan Age: On Satirists Alexander Pope And Jonathan Swift

Britain, Christianity, History, Literature, Pseudo-intellectualism, Pseudoscience, The West

The counterculture of England’s Augustan Age was one of the most remarkable in history. It should be a model for the Dissident Right of today

By Juvenal Early

Think of a nominally Christian country in which a beleaguered majority is everywhere beset by the corruption of its leaders and the criminality of rebarbative minorities. Corruption reigns in high places, barbarism and crime reign in the street, and the culture is pervaded by mediocrities, who are celebrated as rebel geniuses, when they’re really just dullards, courtiers, and the usual Establishment lackeys. Can you guess?

That’s right. England in the Augustan Age, 300 years ago.

This was a time after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Catholic James II was usurped by his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. When the Duke of Marlborough proved that it was possible for a General to become richer than a King. This is also the age when the English Language evolved into what we know today.

But although people in the Augustan age were certainly better-read than the savage illiterates of our own times, still, as always, the lowest common denominator prevailed. And so, people eschewed their rich legacy of Dryden and Chaucer and Shakespeare, in favor of the smut purveyed by the odious bookseller Edmund Curll or the profuse dullness (Dulness) on offer from the hacks who infested Grub Street.

In 1721, Robert Walpole became England’s first prime minister, a year after the “South Sea Bubble,” the Wall Street Crash of its day. Scam and corruption were everywhere prevalent. Walpole was a man of his time, enriching his courtiers and punishing his enemies. He stayed in power for 20 years, during which time highwaymen, thieves, and thief-takers—like the infamous Jonathan Wild—held sway, and the average person was under siege.

But a culture always generates a counterculture, and the counterculture of the Augustan Age was one of the most remarkable in history. It should be a model for the Dissident Right of today. The key figures of that counterculture are two of the immortals of literature: Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. I’ve been hearing about Swift and Pope all my life but hadn’t known that they lived at the same time and were friends—although Swift was an Anglican clergyman and Pope a Catholic (not a big door-opener in post-Tudor England).

Swift and Pope joined with Dr John Arbuthnot and playwright John Gay to form the Scriblerus Club. Arbuthnot, a little too fond of eating, created the great English persona John Bull, the honest citizen who’s a tad slow on the uptake. Gay wrote what may be the first musical, “The Beggar’s Opera” (1728), a rollicking send-up of Walpole’s corrupt England. “The Beggar’s Opera” would be modernized by the German communist Bertolt Brecht into “The Three-penny Opera,” Gay’s protagonist Captain MacHeath transformed into Mack the Knife.

The Scriblerians inspired one another. More than anyone since the great Juvenal, they elevated satire to high art. Their targets were numerous, and they tended to consign them to the charnel house of Dulness (sic). The enemy list included Classics scholar Robert Bentley, depraved bookseller Edmund Curll, laughable Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, and critic Lewis Theobald. Above all, there was Walpole, as criminal-friendly as a Soros DA, who would’ve strung up the Scriblerians, if possible. As it was, he saw to Swift’s Irish exile and banned theatre in London after Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” proved such a smashing success. Poor Gay died long before his sequel Polly was staged (in the age of Johnson!).

The best work of the Scriblerians still resonates three centuries later, especially in the case of Swift and Pope. They’ll be discussed for as long as great literature still matters.

Born into a Catholic Family, the same year Papist James II was ousted in favor of William and Mary, Pope’s (1688-1744) prospects were never bright. Fortunately, his family had money and could take shelter from the worst of the anti-Catholic persecution in lovely Windsor Forest. Many career paths were never an option for Pope. Plus, he was born with tuberculosis of the spine. Handicapped in body (he never grew above 4’6”), handicapped by religion (Swift tried to bribe him into the Church of England), denied all but the most rudimentary education, Pope could not have been expected to amount to much. Yet, he made more off the printed word than any writer since Shakespeare.

Inclined toward the Ancients, Pope imitated Horace and wrote first-rate translations of Homer. Classics scholars swear by his Iliad. He edited new editions of Shakespeare that were an invaluable link in the English theatre.

A poet, Pope wrote his brilliant satires in verse, mostly iambic pentameter. What does poetry have to do with satire? Oscar Wilde, anyone? Going back to Dryden, verse was a preferred vehicle for satire. Even Jonathan Swift used it occasionally. In Post-Revolutionary America, nothing stung like a good poem, and newspapers used it often. Take Jefferson’s friend Philip Freneau, editor of the National Gazette. Here he is in early 1800, jabbing fellow countrymen for going overboard in mourning the recently deceased George Washington:

He was no god, ye flattering knaves,
He own’d no world, he ruled no waves;
But—and exalt it, if you can,
He was the upright, Honest Man.

 Pope’s eloquent venom was meted out to many agents of dullness, for instance:

Walpole and the courtier John Hervey (Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot):

Whether in florid impotence he speaks,
And, as the prompter (Walpole) breathes, the puppet (Hervey) squeaks.
Or at the ear of Eve (Queen Caroline), familiar toad,
Half froth, half venom, spits himself abroad,
In puns, or politics, or tales, or lies,
Or spite, or smut, or rhymes, or blasphemies,
His wit all seesaw, between that and this,
Now high, now low, now master up, now miss [referring to Hervey’s bisexuality].

George Bubb Dodington, a Walpole ally, very susceptible to toadying hacks:

But sick of fops, and poetry, and prate,
To Bufo (toad) left the whole Castalian (spring of the Muses) state.
Proud as Apollo, on his forked hill,
Sate full-blown Bufo, puffed by every quill,…

 Sometimes there was tribute, here to his friend John Gay:

Or simple pride for flattery makes demands,
May dunce by dunce be whistled off my hands!
Blessed be the great! For those they take away,
And those they left me; for they left me Gay;
Left me to see neglected genius bloom,
Neglected die, and tell it on his tomb….

Pope reserved special scorn for bookseller Edmund Curll; Lewis Theobald, a critic who attacked Pope’s edition of Shakespeare at length; and actor-cum-Poet Laureate Colley Cibber. The latter two would find themselves skewered in Pope’s Magnum Opus, The Dunciad, as respective kings of the Dunces.

The scurrilous Curll, a literary thief and plagiarizer, published purloined texts, hack-writer pulp, bios of newly dead celebrities, and even some smut. An opportunist, he’d got the best of Pope early on, but Pope turned the tables later, manipulating Curll into publishing his letters, i.e., presenting Pope’s side of his own story.

Of Curll and his ilk (Grub Street hacks), Pope writes in the Dunciad:

Hence miscellanies spring, the weekly boast,
Of Curll’s chaste press, and Lintot’s rubric post:
Hence hymning Tyburn’s elegiac lines,
Hence Journals Medleys, Merc’ries, Magazines;
Sepulchral lies, our holy walls to grace
And New Year odes, and all the Grub Street race.
In clouded majesty here Dulness shone;
Four guardian virtues round support her throne…

Cibber and Theobald had offended Pope in other ways, including the dullness of their work. Cibber, a comic actor, was elevated to Poet Laureate in 1730, though he was without poetic accomplishment. The critic Theobald nitpicked Pope’s Shakespearian Editions at great length, advertising himself as England’s supreme Bard expert. Both men were deemed suitable candidates for king of the dunces:

I sing. Say you, her instruments the great!
Called to this work by Dulness, Jove, and Fate;
You by whose care, in vain decried and cursed,
Still Dunce the second reigns like Dunce the first.

After his death, Pope’s reputation only grew. He was esteemed by Dr Johnson in the 18th Century; Byron, Lamb, Arnold, and Ruskin in the 19th; and W.H. Auden and Edith Sitwell in the 20th. Only The Bible and Shakespeare have been quoted more. His tormentors outlived him; his reputation buried theirs. They exist only in the footnotes of many Pope biographies.

And what of Swift (1667-1745)? Born in Dublin to a carpetbagging English family, forced by circumstance and Walpole to spend most of his life in Dublin, he felt cheated out his English birthright. An Anglican, he didn’t particularly care for the Catholic Irish. Yet, he excelled in Dublin as a clergyman, and rose to become Dean of St Patrick’s, a post he held from 1713 until his death. An Englishman by temperament, he’s as much a part of the Irish canon as James Joyce and W.B. Yeats. When the English pushed Ireland around a little too much, Swift rose to its defense, and was inspired to write his sublimely satiric “Modest Proposal.”

From 1689 until 1699, Swift worked as the secretary to the writer/diplomat Sir William Temple, in Moor’s Park, Surrey. Temple, whose work hasn’t aged well, was nonetheless a first-rate prose stylist, as Samuel Johnson said of him, “the first writer who gave cadence to English prose.”

During this period, Temple became embroiled in the literary Battle of the Ancients and Moderns. Temple took the Ancient position in opposition to proponents of modern books, like Richard Bentley. Swift, always loyal to Temple, produced his first great satire in Temple’s defense, The Tale of the Tub. There would also be the long essay, The Battle of the Books. Swift’s reputation as a writer was established.

Why did he write? Entertainment be damned. He told Pope he wanted to vex the world, not divert it. Swift’s oeuvre is vast and rich, from The Tale of the Tub to The Bickerstaff Letters, The Drapier Letters, and many essays and poems. But, of course, with Swift, it always comes down to Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

Gulliver’s Travels, is Swift’s masterpiece, the acme of satire in the English letters. It is Swift’s disquisition on Walpole’s England and the rottenness of Human Nature. Americans know Gulliver’s Travel as a bowdlerized children’s book, an entertaining little Disney cartoon, and most people think it begins and ends with the Lilliputians. In fact, it’s a darkly humourous parody of Robinson Crusoe (Swift didn’t care for the Whig hack Daniel Defoe)—filled with puns, bodily functions, and scatology—that’s an exhaustive survey of what’s wrong with the world.  It’s also prescient and speaks to our present condition as much as anything written 300 years—heck, 3 days—ago. Far from being a children’s book, most people can’t appreciate Gulliver’s Travels until they’re over 30.

Ship’s doctor, Lemuel Gulliver, takes four journeys. First to Lilliput, where the tininess of its citizens is meant to represent the smallness of mind and vision Swift observed in Great Britain. There’s a Walpole stand-in Lilliput, the rope-dancing Treasurer Flimnap. Gulliver, soon in trouble for urinating on a fire in the queen’s chamber (thereby saving her!), will eventually need to escape Lilliput and find his way home.

On his second voyage, Gulliver reaches Brobdingnag, inhabited by a race of giants, as large in proportion to Gulliver as he was to the Lilliputians. The Brobdingnagians are large of mind, large in generosity, peaceful, and open-minded. When Gulliver—let’s be clear; Gulliver is not Swift, not yet—proudly tells the Brobdingnag king about England, the king is aghast. He sees through Gulliver’s arguments and rationalizations. Through the king, Swift sends up his native land, including the national bank and national debt; the warmongering of its leaders; the war profiteers, like Winston Churchill’s revered ancestor the Duke of Marlborough:

He asked me, who were our Creditors? and, where we found Money to pay them.  He wondered to hear me talk of such chargeable and extensive Wars; that, certainly we must be a quarrelsome People, or live among very bad Neighbors; and that our Generals must needs be richer than our Kings.

On learning about England’s legal system and its legislators, the king tells Gulliver:

You have made a most admirable Panegyric upon your Country. You have proved that Ignorance, Idleness, and Vice are the proper Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator. That Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose Interest and Abilities lie in perverting, confounding and eluding them.

The Brobdingnag King might almost be a paleolibertarian—200 years before the birth of Murray Rothbard. He sums up England as follows:

I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth.

The Brobdingnagians also provide Gulliver with the opportunity to see human bodily decay at close-range, man through a microscope. As enormous as the Brobdingnagians are, Gulliver can easily see the imperfections of human flesh, the pores, the moles, the blemishes. The sight of a human mouth eating is a horror beyond words. Illusions are shattered.

On his third trip, Gulliver journeys to the floating island of Laputa, ruled by people who anticipate 21st Century elites who mandate electric cars and pandemic lockdowns, who demonize their opponents as anti-science. Laputa reveres science too. At their grand Academy of Lagado, the so-called Projectors rule the roost. They are eerie precursors to the rabble who run America’s woke universities. With funding available for the most esoteric of projects, the Projectors seek to extract sunbeams from cucumbers or reconstitute food from piles of human excrement. Wiser by now, Gulliver observes that

The only Inconvenience is, that none of these Projects are yet brought to Perfection; and in the meantime, the whole Country lies miserably in waste, the Houses in Ruins, and the People without Food or Cloaths.

Gulliver’s final voyage takes him to the land of the Houyhnhms (say “HUE-nums), horse-like creatures of pure reason. When he arrives, Gulliver is greeted by a revolting horde of human offal, known as the Yahoos (in case you wondered where that term came from). Gulliver runs away from them, in fear for his life, but recognizes in the Yahoos his own English race.

When discovered by the Houyhnhms, they at first take Gulliver for a Yahoo, but he convinces them otherwise. He takes up residence with their leader, and soon feels comfortable among such rational beings whose worldview is so sympathetic to his own. The king’s conversation enlightens Gulliver. Gulliver has found his perfect home.

But the Houyhnhms are unnerved by his presence, so much does he resemble a Yahoo. So, reluctantly, Gulliver leaves and makes his way back to England, where he is now appalled by human contact, even with his family. They’re all Yahoos to him, and for a long time he avoids interaction. He eventually comes to a sort of détente with his fellow human beings, and lives out his days, spending as much time with horses as possible.

What can we say in conclusion about Pope and Swift? To state the obvious, human nature is immutable and projects devoted to perfecting humans are destined to fail. Also, satire is a very effective weapon. Truth, matched with wit, is a powerful combination.

If you’re a Christian, it’s okay to be a misanthrope like Swift. Let’s be honest, all this love thy neighbor/love your enemy stuff gets carried out way too far. Tough love is much better. If you love your neighbor to the point that you’re tolerating open borders, foreign wars, and drag queen story hour, you’ve got a problem.

In conclusion, we need to emulate men like Pope and Swift. They were the coolest guys in town in their own time, and their work has lived on until ours. If you match truth and wit with intelligence and real learning, you just might leave a legacy that people will be talking about 100 years from now.

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“Juvenal Early” is a contributor to Barely A Blog. His 2020 piece, “The Dissident Right Has An Idiocracy Problem,” created quite a buzz.

* Screen picture credit here

UPDATED (9/23/022): The Genius Of Erik Larson

Art, English, Environmentalism & Animal Rights, History, Literature, Science

Thanks are owed to the good friend who introduced me to the genius of author Erik Larson.

I’m finishing up Thunderstruck, so am learning more about Marconi than my old man, a PhD RF (wireless) engineer, knows. I do appreciate now the magic and mystique of the rather rarefied field of wireless. In fact, I’m quite captivated by it.

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History is riveting—it taught me about the Galveston Hurricane, the most lethal natural disaster in US history, instantiating the arrogance of US climate scientists even in 1900. The state’s scientists dissed and cancelled (as in banned) the Cubans–who understood the science of hurricanes well before us–sacrificing about ten thousand souls.

I learned so much about the intrigue—and role of the British Empire, the Admiralty, in particular—in leading Lusitania, a luxury British passenger ship, right to the German, U-Boat assassins. The book is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

And who knew Chicago had such uniquely problematic soil? Larson does! Just as he conveys a solid grip of wireless technology in Thunderstruck, or the science of hurricanes in Issac’s Storm, Larson goes into the geology of the city and the great architecture and architects of fin de siècle America, all in The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. (George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. wanted to best Gustave Eiffel, so he gave us the American version of  the Eiffel Tower, the Ferris wheel, which, during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, carried up to … 2000 people. All new and wondrous to me.)

There are always parallel murder plots, where you learn about the mass murderer du jour or wife killer on the cross-Atlantic lam. These are made all the more suspenseful if you DO NOT GOOGLE them.

Larson weaves gorgeously written, multi-layered, primary-source based yarns about epic historic events. And he never visits the Internet for his research, but, rather, works in libraries and wherever rare artifacts and documents are stowed.

On LinkedIn, a variety of people keep propagating on my page with fluffy effusions about their writing careers. Having sampled a paragraph or two of these people’s “prose”—and then promptly unfollowed the particular umbrella association that represents them (us “writers”) and advances the careers of these scribblers—I would advise these producers of piss-poor prose, first to quit assaulting the eye. But if they wish to improve, study Larson: structure of plot and sentences, syntax, how he starts a sentence; his use of adjectives, how he builds tension.

Still, there should be a guild that pays most “budding” writers not to write.

UPDATED (9/23/022): One of our readers is a descendant of brave survivors of the 1900s Galveston Hurricane. What tough, admirable people American were. Many still are: MAGA.

Juvenal Early: Chronicles’ Playboy Taki Presses Flesh With Racism-Spotting ‘Poofter’

BAB's A List, Conservatism, Journalism, Juvenal Early's Archive, Literature, Paleoconservatism, Populism, South-Africa

“Murray, from what I can tell, is the latest manifestation of what Tom Wolfe once labeled ‘The Mid-Atlantic Man,’ i.e., the foppish Englishman who makes a generous living off the Americans he’s bamboozled into thinking he’s brilliant.”—Juvenal Early

By Juvenal Early

So, what in the Sam Hill is going on over at Chronicles Magazine?

The June issue features back-page gossip columnist (and reputed Moneybags) Taki extolling the virtues of his friend Douglas Murray’s latest book, The War on the West (another unoriginal title to add to the Murray canon; here’s the first, also extolled by Chronicles).

Though math geek John Derbyshire lamented the book’s lack of numbers and graphs, and said it had nothing new to offer, Taki terms it a “dozey.”  I assume he meant doozy; dozey sounds like a nighttime sleep-aid.

But, but, but. Wasn’t it only back in January that Murray called out Chronicles Wunderkind Pedro Gonzalez for anti-semitism?  And haven’t there been a dearth of Gonzalez appearances in the last few months on Tucker Carlson Tonight? And didn’t Chronicles call out the heavy peashooters in counterattack to the bitchy Brit? In short, hadn’t Murray’s name become persona non grata in the halls of the Charlemagne Institute (publisher of Chronicles)?

Let me back up a little and give some context.

It starts with Tucker, where else?  If you were following his show with any degree of regularity over the past few years, you no doubt became acquainted with Douglas Murray and Pedro Gonzalez, two of Tuck’s go-to guys, when it comes to having opinions on politics and culture. Tucker has even anointed them (unjustly we think) as public intellectuals in extended gingham-shirt interviews on his FoxNation streaming show.

Pedro writes for several outlets, principally for Chronicles, where he’s an editor and also their current Wonder Boy. Though not without talent, he has a track record of expropriating the ideas of others without giving them credit.

Murray, from what I can tell, is the latest manifestation of what Tom Wolfe once labeled “The Mid-Atlantic Man,” i.e., the foppish Englishman who makes a generous living off the Americans he’s bamboozled into thinking he’s brilliant. With aspirations to be the latest Roger Scruton, if not Michael Oakeshott, Doug’s ended up being “Con-Oink’s” House Poofter. Not bad work, if you can get it. Seems like all the Fox hosts are calling on him now. Barely-a-Blog and the “Hard Truth” Podcast have both devoted column space and air time to Murray’s sins. (Also here and here.)

So, when Murray wrote his hit piece on Bari Weiss’s Substack page, maybe he didn’t know that he was castigating a fellow Tucker-bro.  Or maybe he did, and that’s the whole point. It’s dog eat dog in what currently passes for America’s conservative intellectual battlefield.

Enter Taki and his literal PR job on behalf of Douglas Murray. Taki’s June 2022 “Under the Black Flag” column begins: “Douglas Murray’s book The War on the West has just been published, and it’s a dozey [sic]. He is a friend and fellow columnist in the London Spectator, the oldest magazine in the English-speaking world.”

What are we to think? Maybe it’s a sign of health that a polemical magazine offers differing opinions.  Or maybe it was just an oversight that it made it to print.  Or maybe the deep pockets of which Taki’s always reminding us had something to do with it. By all reports, Chronicles has survived hand-to-mouth since Leopold Tyrmand founded it. Maybe they’re not anxious to upset an important patron. Just spitballing here.

As for Taki’s literary output, it is gossip, you know, albeit, high-class gossip, as the brilliant writer and jet-set doyenne Barbara Amiel says in her memoirs.  (Hmm. Pot. Kettle. Black?) He was, she said, maybe capable of better things: “…really, had he put his mind to it, he could have been a significant writer.” Certainly, he was always invoking his heroes—Hemingway and Mailer come to mind—enough that you knew he had more than a passing acquaintance with the best writers of the 20th Century. You get the idea that he aspired to that level.

But perhaps all that money and all those yachts and all those women and all that tennis and all that judo and all that vodka sapped his talent, left him with no more than his platform at the Spectator—or wherever else he could find an eager publisher.

Indeed, the proper term for what Taki became might be writer manqué.

So where did he come by his affinity for Murray?

Well, if you’ve aspired to greatness, but fallen short, the next best thing is to find yourself in the company of the best available option. Which is often just a flavor of the month, like Dougie-boy. For Murray’s part, I imagine he likes having someone colorful picking-up the checks.

As previously mentioned, Taki is always reminding us of his colorfulness and his ability to pick-up checks. Then there’s the fortune, yachts, the houses, the women—the “candyfloss,” in the words of Barbara Amiel (before she turned around and squandered her talent on Conrad and the high-life).

Yes, money, Taki does have. He’s been telling us for well over 40 years how much better his life is than ours. He’ll get down and slum with the people, now and then, but don’t try to insinuate yourself into his world. A friend was once at conference featuring Taki. He was part of a group that surrounded Taki at a cocktail reception. Taki was holding forth on Gstaad, the ski retreat in Switzerland where he owns a house. My friend, upper middle class, well-read, well-traveled, a first-rate financial analyst, mentioned that he’d been in Gstaad recently, and had been very impressed with the place’s beauty. Taki sized him up, and replied dismissively: “you were never in Gstaad.” Why’d he do that? Push comes to shove, he’s probably just a snob at heart

And he’s just the kind of white whale a bloke like Murray dreams of hooking. Murray’s a punch-down kinda guy, or at least that’s the impression I have. He’ll suck up to who he has to, but I can’t see him sharing a pint with Joe Sixpack. A custom fit for the Greek Boy? Snobs of a feather?  Just asking.

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“Juvenal Early” is a contributor to Barely A Blog. His 2020 piece, “The Dissident Right Has An Idiocracy Problem,” created quite a buzz.

When Juvenal approached me about the above piece, I applauded his instincts. Taki is, after all, quoted in Into The Cannibal’s Pot (p.18), enthusing over South Africa being “the greatest triumph of chatter over machine-gun clatter. It’s not perfect, and crime is at an all-time high in South African cities,” babbled Taki, “but at least the massacres are a thing of the past and life goes on much better than before.”

The loss of my homeland lauded … The Nasionale Party trashed by the so-called Smart Set. 

Once upon a time, the epistolary fluff ensconced at The American Conservative was detonated daily by the “pugnacious” Lawrence Auster. When Auster died, a void opened up. The “typically shapeless pieces” coming out of paleoconservative quarters, at once “weird and solipsistic”—Auster’s delicious descriptions—have escaped scrutiny. Going by the pen name “Juvenal Early,” a disillusioned former donor to Chronicles has stepped up to clear the same “shapeless” thickets once hacked down to size by Lawrence Auster.
Enjoy.
ilana

 

* Douglas pic credit

Satire In The Big Easy: ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ By John Kennedy Toole

BAB's A List, Barely A Blog, Comedy & Humor, Culture, English, Juvenal Early's Archive, Literature

The plot concerns Ignatius’s long war of attrition against the 20th Century ~ Juvenal Early

By Juvenal Early

New Orleans (N’awlins, as they say in the South) has always been a city full of characters.  Port cities are like that, and, as the Mississippi River’s window on the world, New Orleans has been the ne plus ultra of character cities, throughout its colorful history. It’s a veritable bouillabaisse of Acadians, swarthy Mediterranean types, rednecks, Cajuns, Creoles, Africans, Arabs, and anyone else who ever went down to the sea in ships. The most Catholic of cities, New Orleans did Carnival so well, its Mardi Gras became a major industry. Throw in jazz, politics, the Mafia, the flesh trade, and several quirky genius chefs, and you’ve got an unusually high quotient of characters.

Set in The Big Easy, John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces (© 1976), gave the world Ignatius J. Reilly, a latter-day Thomist, a Medievalist, a Grand Inquisitor, a man for whom the standard New Orleans character was degeneracy incarnate. Given his druthers, Ignatius would’ve chosen to live in a world purged of said characters. Fictional though he was, Ignatius has ended up becoming perhaps the grandest New Orleans character of them all. In homage, the real people of New Orleans erected a statue to Ignatius, and right on Canal Street.

Ignatius is fat, unkempt, lives with his mother, is a perpetual student of Medieval philosophy, and critic pop culture. He complains constantly about the misery visited upon him by his faulty pyloric valve (abused as it is, by Ignatius’s diet). As described in the book’s first paragraph, he is distinguished by his odd dress: baggy pleated trousers, oversized flannel shirt, a scarf, and topped off by a green hunting cap with earflaps—all this, mind you, in one of the capitals of The Long Hot Summer.

The plot concerns Ignatius’s long war of attrition against the 20th Century. The elevated language he spouts in defense of his worldview—and the way people react to it—makes for non-stop Rabelaisian pageantry.

A Confederacy of Dunces is a picaresque novel, lurching hilariously from one episode to the next, from one lively conversation to another. Ignatius is a man who can attract the wrong kind of attention just by waiting for his mother in front of a store. Whenever he speaks to people—which is often—he gets deeper into trouble. Completely without self-awareness, he insults virtually everyone whose path he crosses, assuming they’ll take it as constructive criticism from someone who obviously knows better. By the end of the book, he’s pissed off everyone to high heaven, and they all want a piece of him. The clashes and conflicts, conflated into his conversation, makes for some of the best social satire of the Sixties.

Irene Reilly wants her son to get a job. Setbacks old and new have depleted the family nest egg, and they need a new revenue source. As man of the house, Ignatius must sally forth and be the breadwinner, but his long college training in Boethius and the Middle Ages have fitted him for nothing outside of academics, and he burned his bridges there long ago. What to do? Reluctantly, Ignatius, age 30, begins his search.

He quickly lucks into a job with Levy Pants, a moribund sweatshop. The loyal but dull-witted office manager, impressed by Ignatius’s pompous language, hires him as a file clerk. Whereupon Ignatius dumps the company records in the garbage, fills the file cabinets with plants, and writes insulting letters to the company’s biggest customers. For good measure, he organizes the labor force—mostly black—and impels them to attack the company office, the vanguard holding a banner—made from one of Ignatius’s crusted sheets—proclaiming a “Crusade for Moorish Dignity.” He is, of course, summarily fired.

Next, Ignatius finds work pushing a hotdog cart for Paradise Vendors, Inc., and, of course, he ends up eating much more than he sells. His pyloric valve, as he tells everyone, completely shuts down. Dressed up as a pirate—head bandanna, sash, plastic cutlass, and earring—he roams the French Quarter, looking to cash in on the tourist trade (ironic, of course, since most tourists come to the French Quarter specifically for the great variety of Creole, Cajun, and Southern cooking). He catches the eye of a prominent member of the gay community—a sodomite, as Ignatius would say. Initially appalled, Ignatius hits on a brainstorm. If gays can be organized politically, they will eventually take over. Taking power, they will also control the military, rendering it effeminate, ineffective, and fabulous! A non-aggressive US Army means World Peace. It all fits into Ignatius’s master plan. (Hey! It’s not all that farfetched.) Ignatius sets to work with predictable results.

There is much more: the conflict at home with his mother; forays to the local movie palace, where he declaims loudly about the degradation of cinematic art; a couple visits to The Night of Joy, a Bourbon Street skin joint, where Ignatius hopes Boethius will save the world from its worst appetites. The plot builds and builds to the inevitable denouement and the unlikely Deus Ex Machina.

Most scenes are replete with wonderfully lively dialogue, at once zany and…well, altogether real. Toole knew his hometown and he captures the peculiar Brooklynese patois heard among certain of its down-market denizens (think Stanley Kowalski). Wondrous too is the elevated pomposity of Ignatius, truculence as poetry. As a special bonus, Toole throws in Mr Burma Jones, doubtless the greatest black character ever created by a white writer.

But why take my word for it. Let the book speak for itself.

There is conflict:

“You got any identification, mister?” the policeman asked…

“What?” Ignatius looked down upon the badge on the blue cap. “Who are you?

“Let me see your driver’s license.”

“I don’ t drive. Will you kindly go away? I am waiting for my mother.”

“What’s this hanging out your bag?”

“What do you think it is, stupid?  It’s a string for my lute.”

“What’s that?” The policeman drew back a little. “Are you local?”

“Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?” Ignatius bellowed over the crowd in front of the store. “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. If you have a moment, I shall endeavor to discuss the crime problem with you, but don’t make the mistake of bothering me.”

Movie commentary (during a public screening):

Popcorn spilled down his shirt and gathered in the folds of his trousers. “What degenerate produced this abortion?”

“Shut up,” someone said behind him.

“Just look at those smiling morons!” …

When a love scene appeared to be developing, he bounded up out of his seat and stomped up the aisle to the candy counter for more popcorn, but as he returned to his seat, the two big pink figures were just preparing to kiss.

“They probably have halitosis,” Ignatius announced over the heads of children. “I hate to think of the obscene places that those mouths have doubtlessly been before.”

Criticism of the Ladies Art Club:

“Oh, my God!” Ignatius bellowed…” How dare you present such abortions to the public!”

“Please move along, sir,” a bold lady said…

“You ladies need a course in botany. And perhaps geometry, too.”

“You don’t have to look at our work,” an offended voice said…

“Yes, I do!” Ignatius screamed. “You ladies need a critic with some taste and decency…The water in this bowl looks like motor oil.”

Helpful Race Relations:

“Shit! You think I like the Night of Joy? Ooo-wee. I wanna get someplace. I want to get someplace good, be gainfully employ, make me a livin wage.”

“Just as I suspected,” Ignatius said angrily. “In other words, you want to become totally bourgeois. You people have all been brainwashed. I imagine you’d like to become a success or something equally vile.”

“Hey, now you gettin me. Whoa!”

“I really don’t have the time to discuss the errors of your value judgements.”

Don’t forget LGBT:

“Please be serious for a moment. Stop fluttering around here.”

“Moi? Fluttering? What do you want, Gypsy Woman?”

“Have you people thought of forming a political party and running a candidate?”

“Politics? Oh, Maid of Orleans. How dreary.”

“This is very important!” Ignatius shouted …”you may hold the key to the future.”

“Well, what do you want to do about it, Eleanor Roosevelt?”

“You must start a party organization. Plans must be made.”

“Oh, please,” the young man sighed…

“You may be able to save the world!” Ignatius bellowed in an orator’s voice….

“This kind of conversation depresses me more than you could ever imagine,” the young man told him.

And the aforementioned Burma Jones at the Night of Joy:

“You oughta tell your customer use they ashtray, tell them peoples you workin a man in here below the minimal wage. Maybe they be a little considerate.’

“Listen here, Jones” Lana Lee (said)…” All I gotta do is phone the police and report you’re out of work. You understand me?”

“And I tell the po-lice the Night of Joy a glorify cathouse. I fall in a trap when I come to work in this place. Whoa! Now I jus waitin to get some kind of evidence. When I do, I really gonna flap my mouth at the precinct.”

“Watch your tongue.”

“Times changin,” Jones said, adjusting his sunglasses. “You cain scare color peoples no more. I got me some peoples form a human chain in front of your door, drive away your business, get you on TV news.”

When Ignatius is home alone, he fills Big Chief writing tablets with his unique invective, gems of nihilism, as his half-foe/half-ally Myrna Minkoff describes it:

I can at last describe to you our factory…The scene which met my eyes was at once compelling and repelling. The original sweatshop has been preserved for posterity at Levy Pants. If only the Smithsonian Institution, that grab-bag of our nation’s refuse, could somehow vacuum-seal the Levy Pants factory and transport it to the capital of the United States of America, each worker frozen in an attitude of labor, the visitors to that questionable museum would defecate into their garish tourist outfits. It is a scene which combines the worst of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; it is mechanized Negro slavery; it represents the progress which the Negro has made from picking cotton to tailoring it.

You won’t want to put this novel down. But you also won’t want to rush through it.  You’ll want to savor every dialogue. There’s nothing else like it. Sadly.

Everyone loves this novel. Everyone I know who’s read it is also saddened, disappointed, and angered to know that it’s all we’ve got. John Kennedy Toole spent most of the 60s writing A Confederacy of Dunces and trying to get it published. Failing in the latter, he took his own life in 1969. His mother, believing ardently in her son’s genius, shopped the manuscript around, until she was finally able to press it into the hands of another Louisiana novelist, Walker Percy. In the novel’s preface, Percy describes how he reluctantly took up the dog-eared pages and was dismayed, after reading the first few pages, to find that it wasn’t bad enough to dismiss. He read on and gradually came to relish its genius. He managed to find a publisher for it, and a year later it won the Pulitzer Prize.  See if you don’t think it’s not the funniest novel you’ve ever read.

I could say a lot more about the book. Subplots involving a half-dozen of the novel’s eccentrics; Toole’s not-so-hidden messages; the sexual tension between Ignatius and Myrna Minkoff; strippers and cockatoos; theology, geometry, and the consolation of philosophy. But in the end, it’s just a great book to read. What’s it all mean? Who knows? Just read it.

With apologies to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (which is the great Mardi Gras novel), A Confederacy of Dunces is the great New Orleans novel.

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“Juvenal Early” is a contributor to Barely A Blog. His first essay was “The Dissident Right Has An Idiocracy Problem.” It made waves! He has a BAB archive.