For most of his life, until he was well into his 60s, Frank McCourt wasn’t a writer, he was a teacher. But it is as a writer, the author of the wildly successful memoir Angela’s Ashes, that he will be remembered. He died on Sunday in New York of meningitis. He was 78 years old.
McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930 he would later, much later, memorably describe the scene of his conception in his memoir but he grew up in Ireland. His parents were both Irish immigrants, and they moved back there, to Limerick, in an effort to stay ahead of McCourt’s father’s drinking problem. They didn’t succeed. Malachy, Frank’s father, worked intermittently as a laborer, but he drank constantly.
McCourt was the first of seven children whom their mother, Angela, cared for indomitably. But even she was no match for the grinding poverty that Malachy’s drinking brought upon the family, and for the cold and damp of Limerick. They became so poor that three of the children twin brothers and a baby girl died of disease and malnutrition. “It was, of course, a miserable childhood,” McCourt famously wrote in Angela’s Ashes, in a passage that’s worth quoting in full. “The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.”
What kept McCourt alive then, and would make him as a writer, was his humor and his love of words. “In reality, our life was worse than Frank wrote,” said McCourt’s brother, also called Malachy. “Insane outbreaks of laughter saved us.” McCourt once said that as a child he dreamed of being a prison inmate in the United States, for the food and the warmth. Instead he became a hospital inmate: he caught typhoid at age 10 and spent three months well-fed in a well-heated hospital. The hospital also had a well-stocked library. It was there that he read his first lines of Shakespeare, and began a lifetime as a devoted reader.
Malachy senior was a tender father at times, and a dazzling storyteller, but he was dominated by his addiction to alcohol and eventually all but abandoned the family. At 11, McCourt became their principal source of income, stealing and working odd jobs. Although he quit school, he continued to read whenever he could. At 19, he returned to the United States, served in the Army during the Korean War, and earned a degree at New York University under the G.I. Bill.
Although he kept a journal, and dabbled in journalism and the theater, McCourt spent most of the next 30 years teaching English and creative writing in New York City schools for a modest salary. He had a natural flair for it. On his very first day in the classroom one of his young charges threw a sandwich at another kid. McCourt picked it up and ate it in front of the class, while the students watched, stunned. He had taught his first lesson: an object lesson in what it means to survive starvation.
For many years McCourt tried and failed to write about his childhood. The family talent for storytelling kept him alive in the classroom, but he couldn’t get the words down on paper. He kept company in bars with writers like Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, but his own voice stubbornly refused to emerge. The psychological weight of his past may have weighed him down. It also took a toll on his personal life; first one, then a second marriage ended in divorce. He left the Catholic church, too, and the split was not amicable. “I was so angry for so long, I could hardly have a conversation without getting into an argument,” he said. “It was only when I felt I could finally distance myself from my past that I began to write about what happened.”
It was while he was babysitting his granddaughter he had a daughter from his first marriage that he had the idea of writing like a child: detached, simple, in the present tense. “I had this extraordinary illumination, or epiphany,” he said, “Children are almost deadly in their detachment from the world… They are absolutely pragmatic, and they tell the truth, and somehow that lodged in my subconscious when I started writing the book.”
The result was his memoir Angela’s Ashes, which appeared in 1996, when McCourt was 66. The book told the story of his early years in a voice purged of anger and bitterness and self-pity. In an extraordinary act of forgiveness, he wrote about his father with humor and even compassion. Angela’s Ashes was published quietly, as the personal memoir of an Irish childhood. “My dream was to have a Library of Congress catalogue number, that’s all,” McCourt said. But it became first a critical sensation, then a runaway bestseller. In 1997 McCourt won the National Book Critics Circle award and the Pulitzer Prize.
McCourt followed Angela’s Ashes with two more volumes of memoir. ‘Tis picked up where his first book left off, on his arrival in New York City; it sold spectacularly but received mixed reviews. Teacher Man which was both a critical and a commercial success recounted his backbreaking years teaching English and creative writing, 18 of them spent at New York’s famous magnet school Stuyvesant, where he was a legend as a compelling teacher. “George Bernard Shaw said those that can do, and those that can’t teach,” McCourt was fond of observing. “Just goes to show that Shaw didn’t know his arse from his elbow about teaching.” Although he often spoke of a novel in progress, it has never been published.
Fame and fortune transformed McCourt’s last years. He bought a second home in Connecticut, next door to Arthur Miller. There is now an Angela’s Ashes walking tour in Limerick, and the university there awarded him a doctorate. He spent three months as a writer in residence in London, at the Savoy Hotel, and another term at the American Academy in Rome . But by all accounts McCourt himself was in no way transformed by his success. Though that doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy it immensely. “I wrote a book about growing up miserable, and the next thing I know I’m here,” he said. “It’s absurd, isn’t it It’s extraordinary.”