I won’t treat you to another commentary on the Confederate statues debate in New Orleans, a battle in the culture wars that threatens to run on longer than the Civil War itself.
But let me suggest, as part of a broader discussion about who should be honored with public monuments, that we do more to recognize Louisiana’s writers.
We haven’t done too well in that regard — not in New Orleans, not in the state at large.
Robert Penn Warren’s time at LSU helped shape his masterpiece, “All the King’s Men,” but there’s no prominent bust or statue of him on campus. Lafcadio Hearn did much to explain New Orleans to the rest of the world in the 19th century with his quirky journalism, but there’s no great memorial to him, either.
Outsiders often seem to value our culture more than we do, as I’ve been reminded by “South Toward Home,” Margaret Eby’s lovely new travelogue of her experiences visiting Southern literary landmarks.
Eby, who grew up in Birmingham and now lives in New York, stopped in New Orleans on her tour to visit places made famous by John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Among her destinations were the Lucky Dogs hot dog carts like the one briefly used by Toole’s comic protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. She also features the statue of Ignatius on Canal Street, an all-too-rare example of literature landing a public monument in Louisiana.
A few Saturdays ago, as my wife and I walked past the bronze Ignatius, she offered to take a picture of me and the character who has, since I first read of him in high school, given me so much to laugh about.
Putting my arms around Ignatius for the snapshot, I was surprised that I could put my arms around him. The man evoked in Toole’s novel as a bloviating blimp seems smaller in the Canal Street statue.
Smaller, yes, but also more approachable, which might fit the logic of Toole’s biting farce.
The Ignatius statue lets you meet him at eye level, a sly reminder that he is, in spite of his strangeness — or perhaps because of it — someone much like you.
Ignatius, described as a 30-year-old in Toole’s novel, is an adolescent at heart, convinced that all the grown-ups around him are dolts, a “confederacy of dunces” poised against him. We’ve all felt that way after scanning each day’s headlines, which is why Ignatius has such universal appeal.
“Once you read Ignatius, you absorb him,” Eby writes. “You begin hearing his voice in your head, that sneering indignation at the oddity and incompetence of other human beings. … When I read ‘Confederacy’ after college, I recognized him. I began to see him everywhere. I saw a little of him in everyone I met, and in myself especially.”
Such was the genius of John Kennedy Toole. There’s no statue of him in New Orleans, but maybe there doesn’t have to be. His sidesplitting novel is probably memorial enough.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.