A teacher at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan before writing Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt became a phenomenon when the book was published in 1996. His memoir won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography, the American Booksellers Book of the Year award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among others. A film adaptation was released in 1999. McCourt’s other books,’Tis (1999), Teacher Man (2005), and Angela and the Baby Jesus (2007), were well received but not as assiduously embraced as Angela’s Ashes. McCourt also authored two musical reviews, A Couple of Blaguards (pr. 1984; cowritten with Malachy McCourt, Jr.) and The Irish and How They Got That Way (pr. 1997). He died in 2009.
A characteristic element of Angela’s Ashes is the voice of the narrator, who provides a brutally honest depiction of a family in crisis. McCourt’s story begins from the vantage point of a four-year-old boy, and, as he ages, he utilizes more sophisticated observational skills and vocabulary, always in the present tense, to display his growing worldview. This narrative device is reminiscent of the technique used by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (serial 1914-1915, book 1916), but it is typically one that is not sustained through the entirety of an autobiographical narrative. By the final chapter, the memoir’s viewpoint is that of a young man keenly aware of nuance, with a highly developed sense of humor and a clear understanding of hypocrisy in his society.
McCourt’s use of language, with its musical quality and picturesque imagery, creates a landscape unique to the book. He interweaves both comedy and tragedy with Irish language constructions, particularly the dialects and phrases of Northern Ireland and Limerick, to make readers participants, rather than observers, in the action.
Written as a series of remembrances, the anecdotes making up Angela’s Ashes have no cohesive plot line to tie them together, but they gain some unity from the developing maturity of the narrative voice. While the book focuses on the ravages of savage poverty in Limerick, another equally important theme is Frank’s belief in the American Dream—the idea that one can change one’s fate through hard work—and his determination to realize it. Other pervasive ideas are the failed example of manhood as perpetuated by Frank’s father, the need for respect of his mother, and the notion of a seemingly inadequate self confronting others. The publication of Angela’s Ashes coincided with a new spirit of openness in Irish society, particularly in regard to the abuses of the past, and helped augur a new era that welcomed the voices of those previously silenced.