A Transnational Confederacy (of Dunces)

On Thursday, I’m heading to the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in New York. I’ve always got a lot to do right before a conference: polish up the paper I’m presenting, take two dress shirts and my wool slacks to the cleaners, figure out how to get from the airport to my hotel without wasting too much money. Write down the restaurants I can’t miss. And, of course, I have to pick out, organize, and pack my reading material for the trip.

I split my travel reading into two categories: “conference texts,” which help me prepare for the panels and major themes of the conference, and “fun reading.” This trip, my conference texts are actually pretty fun—a ton of Junot Díaz, since several panels that the ACLA will be discussing his work. For my “fun reading,” I’m taking John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a book I’ve started five or six times but, for various reasons, never finished.

Looking at all the books together, it seems to me that the two categories play off of each pretty well. Díaz’s most famous character, Oscar Wao, is an obvious literary descendant of Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly. Both are obese and socially inept, with outsized ambitions for the literary projects they’re forever scribbling at in notebooks in their bedrooms. But in this post at 80grados.net Puerto Rican poet Sofía Irene Cardona suggests that the resonances between the two authors go even further than that. Where Díaz is acknowledged as an author whose work transcends national borders, and where The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is seen as much as a work of Latin American or Caribbean fiction as a US novel, A Confederacy of Dunces is often treated as regional novel circumscribed by a specific North American city, New Orleans.

But Cardona argues that that’s a mistake. In fact, she goes as far as to claim that Toole is “uno de los nuestros,” basing her argument in part on the distinctive, Caribbean nature of New Orleans, in part on some scattered references to Puerto Rico in Confederacy, and in part on Toole’s specific biography: apparently, he lived in Puerto Rico for nearly three years in the early 1960s, teaching English on a military base on the island. And, ostensibly, that time was crucial for the formation of his novel. Not that Toole necessarily loved his time there. Cardona reports that his letters home were full of vitriol. “What a frightening civilization,” he wrote, “exists on the island: ignorant, cruel, malicious, infantile, self-centered, undependable, and very proud withal.”

A reader of A Confederacy of Dunces will, no doubt, be reminded by that sentence of many of Ignatius J. Reilly’s opinions on New Orleans culture. And that’s what Cardona draws out in her post. She points out that his opinions of Puerto Rico “no estaría lejos de la percepción que tienen muchos boricuas de sí mismos.” By critiquing Boricua culture as an outsider, he prepared himself for critiquing his home city—which shared some of the same dysfunction. That, mixed with the obvious tenderness with which he writes about New Orleans, gives warrant to Cardona’s decision to claim Confederacy as “una novela puertorriqueña o, por lo menos, en vista de su evidente nuevaorleanidad, caribeña.”

Ironically, Cardona observes that, through the character Myrna Minkoff, Toole treats New York as the opposite of New Orleans. Why ironic? Because I’m flying to New York to hear a bunch of panels on a New York (well, New Jersey) writer, Junot Díaz, and to give a paper on a New York writer, Harlem Renaissance luminary James Weldon Johnson. And the argument I’ll make is basically the same as Cardona’s: that Johnson, who spent much of his life in contact with Latin America and the Caribbean, is—in a similar sense—a Latin American writer, and that Latin America shaped the Harlem Renaissance in the same ways that Puerto Rico shaped A Confederacy of Dunces.

Johnson was from Florida, another contact zone between Latin America and the United States, and I’m flying out of Texas, still another. That’s why I love traveling to these conferences, these confederacies of comparatists—they always fill me with wonder at the complexities of place, and at the ways those complexities travel and fill new places.

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