The 1990s witnessed a huge growth in the number of personal memoirs, and the genre itself underwent significant change. Traditionally, the memoir was an autobiographical narrative, usually by a prominent person, that focused not on the personal experiences of the author but on the significant people and events he had witnessed or been involved in. In the 1990s, however, personal memoirs came to be written not only by famous people but by unknown ones, too. Many focused on a certain period in a person's life (thus distinguishing them from the more comprehensive scope of the autobiography). Often the memoir was about the growth from childhood or adolescence to young adulthood. Frequently these memoirs detailed an environment in which some deprivation or vice, such as poverty, alcoholism or sexual abuse, played a large part.
One of the most popular memoirs from the early part of the decade was Darkness Visible (1992), the account by the writer William Styron of his descent into mental illness. Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted (1994) was a bestselling memoir of Kaysen's life in a mental institution. In 1995, Mary Karr published the hugely successful The Liars' Club, a memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional Texas family. In that year, approximately two hundred memoirs were published. Commentators linked the startling growth of the genre to the vogue for confessional television programs and the...
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Angela's Ashes is narrated in the first person, and apart from the first part of chapter one, it is told in the present tense. The present tense narration serves the author's purpose well as it conveys the immediacy of the child's experience and avoids giving the impression, as a past tense might, that the story is being told by an adult reflecting on his childhood.
The language used throughout is colloquial and earthy. Slang, Irishisms, and vulgar expressions are used frequently, and these convey the way people really talked in Limerick during the author's childhood. Having a ''fine fist,'' for example, means that a person has good handwriting. To go ‘‘beyond the beyonds'' is to behave in an outrageous manner.
Some words will be unfamiliar to American ears: "gob" is slang for mouth and "fags" are cigarettes. To call someone an "eejit" is to insult them, and the expression ‘‘diddering omadhaun,’’ as used by a schoolmaster to describe a boy, is obviously not a compliment.
The Irish way of expressing themselves is apparent in such statements as ‘‘That's a great leg for the dancing you have there, Frankie,'' a compliment to young Frankie on his dancing ability. Some expressions are saltier. Mrs. O'Connor, the dance teacher, tells Frankie to stop frowning ‘‘or you'll have a puss on you like a pound of tripe.’’ Irish pronunciation is reflected in ‘‘fillum star’’ (film star), and...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: Limerick, Ireland, is economically depressed, with pockets of extreme poverty. Unemployment is high.
Today: Helped by a growth in tourism and high-tech industries, Limerick flourishes. ‘‘Combat poverty'' groups have been set up, using funds from the European Union.
1930s: A common cause of death in Limerick, and Ireland as a whole, is tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is prevalent because living conditions are unsanitary and malnutrition is rife.
Today: Advances in medicine have made tuberculosis a curable, rather than a deadly, disease. In 1998, Ireland reported 424 cases of tuberculosis, down from 640 in 1991.
1930s: Although independent, Ireland is a member of the British Commonwealth. Ireland remains neutral when war breaks out between Britain and Germany in 1939 and withdraws from the Commonwealth in 1948.
Today: Relations between Britain and Ireland are cordial. The two governments work together to secure peace in Northern Ireland. Both countries are members of the European Union.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the history of Ireland's relations with England. Why do some Irish feel such bitterness toward their larger neighbor? Why has the conflict in Northern Ireland been so difficult to end?
Discuss the different kinds of relief available for the poor in the Limerick of McCourt's youth. How does that assistance differ from the help that is available to the poor in America today?
Investigate the topic of alcoholism. What causes it? Is it on the increase? Why do some people who drink alcohol become alcoholics but others do not?
If you were to write a memoir of your own childhood, how would it resemble or differ from McCourt' s memoir?
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Angela's Ashes has been recorded on audiotape, read by McCourt, in abridged (1996) and unabridged (1997) versions published by Simon and Schuster.
In 1999, Angela's Ashes was made into a film, directed by Alan Parker and starring Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson.
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What Do I Read Next?
'Tis: A Memoir (1999) is McCourt's sequel to Angela's Ashes. It takes up McCourt's life story from his arrival in America in 1949.
A Monk Swimming (1998) is a memoir written by McCourt's younger brother, Malachy, about his life mainly in New York City from 1952 to 1963. It is full of amusing stories about his experiences and the people he met.
Reading in the Dark (1998), by Seamus Deane, is a novel about an Irish boy growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in Derry, a town near the border of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and a focal point for conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
A Dublin Girl: Growing Up in the 1930s (1999), by Elaine Crowley, is a memoir of Crowley's childhood in a slum district of Dublin. Reviewers compared it to Angela's Ashes; it has humor and poignancy, although the atmosphere is not as bleak as in McCourt' s memoir.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ascheron, Neal, ‘‘Ceremony of Innocence,’’ in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 12, July 17, 1997, pp. 24-26.
Atlas, James, ‘‘The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now,’’ in New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, pp. 25-27.
Elson, John, ‘‘Reliving His Bad Eire Days,’’ in Time, Vol. 148, No. 15, September 23, 1996, p. 74.
Foster, R. F., ‘‘Tisn't: The Million-dollar Blarney of the McCourts,’’ in New Republic, November 1, 1999, p. 29.
Jones, Malcolm, Jr., Review in Newsweek, Vol. 128, No. 10, September 2, 1996, pp. 68-69.
Kakutani, Michiko, ''Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood,’’ in New York Times, September 17, 1996.
Donoghue, Denis, ‘‘Some Day I'll Be in Out of the Rain,’’ in New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p. 13. In this review of Angela's Ashes, Donoghue comments on his own experiences growing up in Ireland, which were similar to McCourt's.
''Fighting Irish,'' in National Review, October 26, 1998, p. 40.
This editorial describes how the publication of Angela's Ashes has contributed to an upsurge in America of interest in all things Irish.
Hughes, Carolyn T., ''Looking Forward to the Past: A Profile of Frank McCourt,’’ in Poet and Writers Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 5,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Boston Globe. August 25, 1996, p. N13.
Chicago Tribune. October 22, 1996, V, p. 1.
The Christian Science Monitor. December 4, 1996, p. 13.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 29, 1996, p. 6.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 15, 1996, p. 13.
Newsweek. CXXVIII, September 2, 1996, p. 68.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, July 1, 1996, p. 49.
Time. CXLVIII, September 23, 1996, p. 76.
USA Today. September 10, 1996, p. D10.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, September 29, 1996, p. 1.
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