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Frank McCourt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose memoir, Angela’s Ashes (1996), became an instant classic among immigrants’ tales. Writing with wit, humor, and eloquence, McCourt turns a childhood of disease and poverty into an engaging and entertaining tale that avoids self-pity.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood of Poverty and Suffering
McCourt was born in 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, at the beginning of the Great Depression. His parents were unable to find work because of the difficult economic times—when about one in four workers could not find a job—so the family returned to Ireland. Unfortunately, once there, they sank deeper into poverty. McCourt’s father was an alcoholic who drank away his earnings and who eventually left the family, forcing the children and mother to go hungry and endure the cold. McCourt’s mother, Angela, raised her seven children, three of whom died from diseases made worse by malnutrition, on handouts and welfare checks. McCourt nearly died at age ten from typhoid fever. He was a gifted student, but he left school at age thirteen and worked a series of odd jobs and engaged in petty crime in order to help the family survive.
From the Army to the Classroom
McCourt returned to the United States at the age of nineteen and again he worked odd jobs, this time until he was drafted into the U.S. Army at the beginning of the Korean War. The Korean War was a conflict between the Soviet Union-backed North Korea and the United States-supported South Korea, each of which sought to be unified with the other, but neither of which was willing to accept the other’s form of government. Ultimately, after years of fighting, the two remained split. McCourt never saw combat, spending the entire war stationed in Germany. After leaving the Army, McCourt used the G.I. Bill to begin attending New York University, where he studied English. After working at night throughout college, he graduated and began a twenty-seven year career in the New York City school system teaching English and creative writing.
During his years teaching, McCourt spent summers working on a novel he never completed. Several years after retiring from teaching, he began working on a memoir of his difficult childhood, which became the best-selling Angela’s Ashes (1996). Among that book’s many honors are included the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award. McCourt then embarked on writing a second memoir, ‘TIS (1999), which picked up where Angela’s Ashes left off, and then a third volume, Teacher Man (2005), chronicling the time he spent teaching. Since then he has continued to mine his family history for material, adapting an experience from his mother’s childhood into the children’s book Angela and the Baby Jesus (2007).
Works in Literary Context
Presenting the Immigrant Experience
With the publication of his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, McCourt joined a long line of writers who have chronicled the immigrant experience. Telling of both his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, and his experiences in the United States as a young man, McCourt presents compelling tales of the triumphs and tragedies of immigrants struggling to achieve the American Dream. Although McCourt’s memoirs fall within this broader tradition, and his work some-times ”looks like an encyclopedia of Irish cliche,” as Malcolm Jones, Jr. noted, he is able to take this cliched material and turn it into compelling and entertaining reading. As Jones points out, because of his style and storytelling abilities, McCourt is able to ”induce in his readers a blissful literary amnesia” so that ”you hardly notice that some of this material has come your way before.”
Good Humor in the Face of Suffering
One of the most noted features of McCourt’s memoirs is his ability to present suffering with not only eloquence but good humor that makes use of both wit and a self-deprecating tone, in which the writer is willing to point out his own faults and foibles. One commentator writes that Angela’s Ashes is so captivating because of McCourt’s ”ability to entertain an audience by turning horrifying memories into amusing anecdotes.” A critic for Time magazine writes, ”Like an unpredicted glimmer of midwinter sunshine, cheerfulness keeps breaking into this tale of Celtic woe.”
Works in Critical Context
McCourt has enjoyed nearly universal praise from critics who note his wit, eloquence, and storytelling abilities as among his greatest strengths. His three memoirs have all received rave reviews, and he has been likened to some of the greatest biographers of all time. Mary Karr even wrote that ”Frank McCourt’s lyrical Irish voice will draw comparisons to Joyce. It’s that seductive, that hilarious.”
Angela’s Ashes was a smash success upon its publication in 1996. In Publisher’s Weekly, an unnamed reviewer calls it a ”magical memoir,” and Malcolm Jones, Jr. of Newsweek writes that ”McCourt proves himself one of the very best.” Best-selling author Thomas Cahill sums up critical opinion when he writes that Angela’s Ashes
is such a marriage of pathos and humor that you never know whether to weep or roar—and find yourself doing both at once. Through each fresh horror of the narrative, you will be made happy by some of the most truly marvelous writing you will ever encounter.
McCourt continued to receive praise when he came out with ‘Tis (1999), his second memoir, and Teacher Man (2005). One reviewer writes, ”Frank McCourt’s second memoir, “Tis, isn’t as good as its predecessor, Angela’s Ashes, but it s still a moving and impressive work. A reviewer for the Library Journal writes that “Tis is ”as rewarding as Angela’s Ashes.” A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, echoing many others, calls Teacher Man ”An enthralling work of autobiographical storytelling.
- Deignan, Thomas. ”McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes.” Commonweal (November 8, 1996): 26.
- Donoghue, Denis. ”Some Day I’ll Be In Out of the Rain.” The New York Times Book Review (September 15, 1996): 13.
- Elson, John. ”McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes.” Time (September 23, 1996): 74.
- Jones, Malcolm, Jr. ”McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. Newsweek (September 2, 1996): 68.
- Kakutani, Michiko. ”Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood.” The New York Times (September 17,1996).
- King, Nina. ”With Love and Squalor.” Washington Post Book World (September 29, 1996): 1, 10.
- ”McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes.” Publishers Weekly (July 1, 1996): 49.
- Tonkin, Boyd. ”McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes.” New Statesman (November 1, 1996): 45.
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