Friday, January 2, 2009

A Confederacy of Dunces Tour

If you're here, you probably know a thing or two about A Confederacy of Dunces and Ignatius J. Reilly. If you don't, please stay, read a bit, and then pick up the book.
A Confederacy of Dunces was written by John Kennedy Toole in the mid- and late-1960's and he committed suicide in 1969, before the book was published. Its tragic that we lost such a talented writer before his genius was even recognized. His mother took the manuscript to Walker Percy, a professor at Loyola University, and asked him for his help in getting it published. Percy had seen plenty of unpublished manuscripts and was frankly skeptical that this one would be any better than the stack of underwhelming novels he had already seen. What Percy found was that the deeper he read, the more he liked it. Percy helped Toole's mother get it published and Confederacy went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980.

Confederacy is set in New Orleans and is written in such a way that the city itself becomes one of the characters in it. I have yet to read a book that captures the spirit of New Orleans as fully. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did a magnificant job of capturing Savannah, but not even Anne Rice is up to Toole's mettle.

The title of the book comes from a line in an epigraph by Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." The main character of Confederacy is Ignatius J. Reilly who truly believes that dunces everywhere are in confederacy against him.

I've gone through Confederacy and noted every location in which Toole mentions. In August 2008, I visited New Orleans and chronicled every location I could find. Where applicable, I tried to give you a little history of the sites, as well as a couple photos. I think I've found every place he mentioned, but if you think I've missed one, please let me know.
Also, I think I've nailed down the exact time in which the book was set.

Read on and take a tour of A Confederacy of Dunces...

Thursday, January 1, 2009

D.H. Holmes Department Store

D.H. Holmes Department Store
As A Confederacy of Dunces opens, Ignatius is waiting for his mother outside the D.H. Holmes Department Store in the 800 block of Canal Street. Irene Reilly had driven her only son to the French Quarter and left him to his own devices while she went to the doctor to tend to a painful elbow. Now, as the sun was setting, Patrolman Mancuso spotted a suspicious character and was carefully watching him from behind a nearby pillar.
The D.H. Holmes Department Store was a landmark in New Orleans and “under the D.H. Holmes clock” was a popular place to meet. The building where the store once flourished is now a hotel, called the Chateau Sonesta Hotel which opened in 1995. The D.H. Holmes Department Store opened on Canal Street in 1849 and closed in 1989. It closed after the chain was purchased by Dillard’s the same year.
This is the building…

As New Orleans is prone to do, she honored her native son, Ignatius, by placing a statute of him under the clock. She also placed a plaque on the pillar behind which Patrolman Mancuso was hiding.
Here are a couple of photos showing the statute of Ignatius…

Here’s a shot of the pillar, and Ignatius, and then a close-up of the plaque…

The text of the plaque is one of the first lines of the book and describes Ignatius…
“In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.
John Kennedy Toole”
Toole says that Ignatius killed some time while waiting for his mother. He bought some sheet music for his trumpet and a string for his lute at Werlein’s. In 1853 Phillip P. Werlein moved his music business to New Orleans and set up shop on Canal St. The business flourished and locations were opened across the country. The business was family owned until the company was bought out in 1940. The Werlein family continued to run the New Orleans shop on Canal Street and they still own the building, although the music shop is no longer there. They moved their music business to a much larger, more modern building in Metairie in 1989. The original Werlein building now houses a very successful restaurant and the Werlein Music sign still sits atop the roof. It survived Hurricane Katrina and is a beacon of neon in the French Quarter…

After purchasing the sheet music, Ignatius then wandered into a penny arcade on Royal Street and was disappointed to find his favorite mechanical baseball game absent. I’ve walked up and down Royal and found no sign of a penny arcade, or any other sort of arcade, for that matter. Today, Royal Street is known for its antique stores, jewelers, and art galleries. Most of the stores are small and a penny arcade would fit in quite well.
Here’s a couple of photos of Royal Street…

Night of Joy -- Police Station

The Night of Joy Bar
After Mrs. Reilly and Ignatius escape Patrolman Mancuso at the D.H. Holmes Department Store, they went down Bourbon Street and into the French Quarter. They duck into a bar to grab a drink and get off the street. The bar they chose is called The Night of Joy and it has nude dancing girls there at night.
Ignatius tries to order a Dr. Nut, but ends up with a beer. Mrs. Reilly orders a beer and then ends up drinking several. Ignatius entertains his mother and the bartender with his riveting tale of the Scenicruiser trip to Baton Rouge while Mrs. Reilly drinks away.
They end up meeting Dorian Greene and he buys Mrs. Reilly’s hat for fifteen dollars.
The bar is described as dark and smelling of bourbon and cigarette butts. There are a number of strip clubs up and down Bourbon Street, but most of them are not as dark and dank as the Night of Joy. Most of them have a lot of chrome and mirrors and don’t seem to be anything like Lana Lee’s joint. The current trend in strip clubs is to make them “Gentlemen’s Clubs,” that have nice d├ęcor and don’t look seedy at all.
Here’s a shot of Bourbon Street. On the left, you can see a couple of entertaining ladies who are trying to drum up business by standing outside and persuading customers to enter…

This bar isn’t on Bourbon Street and its not a strip club, but it looks kind of like what I imagine the Night of Joy to look like…

I know there’s no stage in this bar and I know there were no pool tables in the Night of Joy, but I still think this one has the right “feel.”

The French Quarter Police Station
After Claude Robichaux was arrested by Patrolman Mancuso, he was taken to the French Quarter Police Station and handcuffed to the bench near the Sergeant’s desk next to Burma Jones.
The French Quarter Police Station is run, of course, by the New Orleans Police Department, which is one of North America’s oldest police agencies. It was formed in 1718 when New Orleans was still in French hands.
The building which now houses the New Orleans Police Department’s 8th District Police Station was built in 1826 and was originally the Bank of Louisiana.
Here’s a shot of the building’s exterior, and a shot of the plaque just outside the door…

Here’s a shot of the interior, and of the Sergeant’s Desk…

The bench is just behind the desk, under the folded, framed American flag. I would’ve got a couple photos of the bench, but there was someone already in it…Handcuffed, just like poor old Claude Robichaux.

6/21/2010 edit: lkme55, my version of the Night of Joy bar is Molly's on Toulouse St., which you can find at 732 Toulouse St. It's about 25 yards south of Bourbon St. I hadn't really noticed when I took those photos, but you're right...That patron looks just like a Lucky Dog vendor. Perhaps he's taking a break and cooling his heels like his hero, Ignatius.

Bourbon St. -- St. Ann

Bourbon St./St. Ann St.
When Ignatius and Ms. Reilly left the Night of Joy, they walked to her car, which was parked on St. Ann St., just off Bourbon St.

Mrs. Reilly had a difficult time extracting the 1946 Plymouth from the parallel parking space and hit a Volkswagen that was parked behind them. She also “climbed the curb twice” during her efforts, and Ignatius was of course no help as he complained endlessly from the back seat.
Finally, the car “leaped out of the parking spot and skidded across the wet street into a post supporting a wrought-iron balcony.” Toole described Mrs. Reilly and Ignatius hearing the “splintering of wood” as the balcony fell on the roof of the car.
Here’s a photo of the corner…

Notice the balconies on the left? The support posts that are painted white are the only wooden ones on the block. All the others are wrought-iron. It was probably those posts that Mrs. Reilly splintered.
In addition, parallel parking is on the right-hand side of the road. If Mrs. Reilly was going to skid across the street and hit the post, that would be the perfect place to do it.
Here’s a closer shot of the posts…

Just as Mrs. Reilly was smashing the posts, Patrolman Mancuso was walking down Chartres. He turned the corner, looked up St. Ann and saw “the green hunting cap emitting vomit among the ruins.”
Here’s a shot on St. Ann looking towards Chartres. It’s the next intersection…

St. Charles Avenue

St. Charles Ave.
After Mrs. Reilly knocked over the balcony on St. Ann St., Patrolman Mancuso went to her house to talk with her about the situation. While driving there, he admired “the ancient oaks of St. Charles Avenue” as they “arched over the avenue like a canopy shielding him from the mild winter sun that splashed and sparkled on the chrome of [his] motorcycle.” Toole’s description of St. Charles Avenue hasn’t changed much since Confederacy was written, and the magnificent trees still provide ample shade to this day.
Here is a photo of some of them, but it really doesn’t do the trees full justice. They are beautiful…

The Reilly House

The Reilly House
Toole was pretty specific when he talked about where the Reilly house was located. He says that when Patrolman Mancuso reached Constantinople St., “he turned toward the river,” which is to the south. The house was “the tiniest structure on the block” and a “frozen banana tree, brown and stricken, languished against the front porch, the tree preparing to collapse as the iron fence had done long ago.” Toole also said, “near the dead tree there was a slight mound of earth and a leaning Celtic cross cut from plywood.” This was the resting place of Ignatius’ beloved dog, Rex.
Patrolman Mancuso found that the Plymouth was “parked in the front yard” and “its taillights blocking the brick sidewalk.”
This places the Reilly House squarely in the Touro neighborhood, which is a sub-district of the Uptown Area of New Orleans. Over the years, this neighborhood has changed a great deal. It was once a relatively poor area, with depressed home values and a working-class flavor. Today, gentrification has changed the face of the neighborhood and most of the houses have been heavily renovated. While most of this area of New Orleans was spared by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, there was significant damage. Most structures sustained at least some damage from the high winds. Even now, construction dumpsters can be seen on almost every street.
I’ve gone up and down Constantinople St., looking at “tiny structures” and I think I may have found the best candidate for the Reilly House.
Here we have a house that is the tiniest on the block, with an iron fence, and a small front yard. Of course, there is no dying banana tree, but there is a front porch. Speaking of the front porch, Patrolman Mancuso “climbed the worn brick steps” to get to the front door. Last, but not least, notice that there’s a brick sidewalk out front. If you were to park a 1946 Plymouth in the yard, its taillights could block the sidewalk. Take a look…

Toole mentioned an alley that was next to the house, but there doesn’t appear to be one at this house. Of course, alleys are sometimes closed up and annexed by the adjacent property owners and that may have happened in this case. I wasn’t able to find a small house sitting directly next to an alley.
But there is a house with a second story right next door where Ms. Annie could yell down to Ignatius to be quiet…

Here’s another good candidate for the Reilly House, but there’s no brick sidewalk…

Here are a couple of good looking smaller houses, but they appear to be about the same size. The Reilly House was the tiniest on the block.

Here are a couple more. Note the construction dumpsters…

Hibernia Bank

Hibernia Bank
While lamenting to Ignatius about the destroyed balcony, Mrs. Reilly mentions that she has $150 at the Hibernia Bank. The Hibernia National Bank was founded in 1870 and was headquartered in New Orleans. It became very successful and was the primary bank for most of Louisiana for a long time. It was acquired by Capital One in 2005.
Their headquarters building still sits at 812 Gravier St. in the Central Business District.
Here’s a photo of the headquarters building…

In Carrollton, I found this bank, which is the Hibernia Homestead Bank. I imagine Mrs. Reilly would have conducted her meager business in a bank like this one…