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Suicide and the South

by Penne J. Laubenthal

When he was only 31 years old, the brilliant and talented John Kennedy Toole killed himself by using a garden hose to asphyxiate himself with exhaust fumes from his car. His novel A Confederacy of Dunces, a book he considered a comic masterpiece, had been rejected by Simon and Schuster despite initial interest. Toole became increasingly depressed, drank heavily, and relied on pain medication. On January 20, 1969, Toole disappeared from New Orleans and apparently drove to Milledgeville, GA, where he visited the home of the late southern author Flannery O’Connor who had died from complications from lupus just five years previously. Toole may have been making his way back to New Orleans when, on March 26, he took his own life in Biloxi, Mississippi. Because his suicide note was destroyed by his mother, we have no insight into the circumstances leading to his death.

Toole’s epic novel was published in 1980 by LSU Press after his mother pressured novelist Walker Percy into reading it. With great reluctance, Percy read the manuscript and loved it. The rest is history. A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and it is on the reading list of many college literature courses. A bronze statue of the novel’s protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly stands under the clock at the Canal Street entrance to the Chateau Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans.

Suicide is a common theme in Southern literature. Walker Percy's own father, as well as his grandfather, committed suicide and the theme of "to be or not to be" echoes throughout Percy's novels, especially the quasi-autobiographical The Last Gentleman. In The Last Gentleman, the protagonist's father commits suicide when he (Will Barrett) is only a young boy and his entire life is haunted by that act.

Southern playwright Beth Henley puts suicide at the center of her award winning play Crimes of the Heart, and the impending suicide of a young woman drives the plot of Marsha Norman's chilling comic drama 'night Mother. which won a Pulitzer in 1983. William Faulkner's Quentin Compson commits suicide before his twenty-first birthday.

The list of southern writers who committed suicide includes Jesse Hill Ford, John Gould Fletcher, southern historian W. J. Cash, and most recently Hunter S. Thompson. Poet Randall Jarrell's death was never officially ruled as a suicide, but most scholars believe that he deliberately walked into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

As readers we are drawn to writers who take their own life, often searching the pages of their work for clues to their agony and evidence of their struggle against their demons. Perhaps we hope to find some reason to keep on living, keep on trying, keep on hoping. To find some touchstone that will direct us not to do as they ultimately have done.

No examination of suicide is complete without a reference to that great father of the "absurd" Albert Camus. His relentless examination of the meaning of life led him to conclude that indeed "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

But the good news for those of us who, for one reason or another, chose to go on living is that in the conclusion of that landmark essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" Camus utters those delicious words "Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux." In spite of the futility of pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again and again and again, one must indeed imagine Sisyphus happy.

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