Frank McCourt McCourt, Frank - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frank McCourt Angela's Ashes

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Biography, National Book Critics Circle Award

Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Ireland, McCourt is an American memoirist.

McCourt's childhood, recounted in his critically acclaimed autobiography, Angela's Ashes (1996), was so bleak and impoverished that the months he spent in a hospital recovering from typhoid fever seemed like a vacation. His parents, Malachy and Angela, were Irish immigrants who met and married in the slums of New York during the Depression; after several years and the births of several children, McCourt's father chose to move the family back to Ireland. It was an ill-fated decision: The fortunes of the family did not improve, largely due to Malachy's heavy drinking and inability to hold a job, and they found themselves living in an unheated room with no running water and the neighborhood latrine right next door. Despite the desperation that marks his story, McCourt writes of positive, even humorous, events along with the horrible. Malcolm Jones Jr. observed: "The genius of the book is that the tears and laughter are rarely separated by so much as a comma." Jones further praised McCourt for enabling readers to "care not just about little Frank but about his brothers, his mother and even his good-for-nothing father." Many critics have suggested that McCourt's storytelling ability is a legacy from his father, who often burst into the house in the middle of the night, having drunk his last penny at a local pub, and woke his sons to regale them with stories of Irish folk heroes and patriotic songs. Michiko Kakutani remarked: "With Angela's Ashes, [McCourt] has used the storytelling gifts he inherited from his father to write a book that redeems the pain of his early years with wit and compassion and grace." Kakutani noted that McCourt's affinity for descriptive prose "does for the town of Limerick what the young [James] Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we've walked its streets and crawled its pubs." Although Angela's Ashes is filled with examples of typical Irish stereotypes—the drunken father, the mother burdened with too many children—critics felt McCourt successfully avoided reinforcing them. Nina King commented: "Angela's Ashes … confirms the stereotypes at the same time that it transcends them through the sharpness and precision of McCourt's observation and the wit and beauty of his prose."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Malcolm Jones Jr. (review date 2 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hard Luck, Good Tales," in Newsweek, September 2, 1996, pp. 68-9.

[In the review below, Jones praises McCourt's memoir but notes that the author's fast-paced narrative belies a desire to rid himself of his memories.]

In its barest outline, Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, looks like an encyclopedia of Irish cliché. His account of an impoverished Irish Catholic childhood gives us the drunken father bawling patriotic songs at all hours of the night, the poor sainted mother weeping by the fire and the wee lads without a crust between 'em. The odd thing is, while you're reading you hardly notice that some of this material has come your way before. Taking up the staples of Irish family sagas, McCourt uses virtuosic black humor and a natural-born storyteller's instincts to induce in his readers a blissful literary amnesia. By the time you're done, you've come to wonder if he didn't invent Ireland all by himself.

From the first page, it's easy to see why literary insiders have been buzzing about McCourt since early summer, after advance copies of his book started circulating and The New Yorker ran a long excerpt. Musical, intelligent, confiding, his confident voice belies the fact that this is the first book from a former New York City schoolteacher. "When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all," he writes. "It was, of course, a miserable childhood: 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."

Born in Brooklyn to Irish immigrants who soon returned to Ireland, McCourt grew up in Limerick, a soggy city where the pervasive...

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Denis Donoghue (review date 15 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Some Day I'll Be In Out of the Rain," in The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p. 13.

[In the following review, Donoghue summarizes Angela's Ashes and reflects on the Irish childhood experiences he shares in common with McCourt.]

All happy childhoods are the same; every unhappy childhood is unhappy in its own way. In Angela's Ashes Frank McCourt maintains that "worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." My own childhood was Irish and Catholic, a combination I didn't find especially disagreeable; but then I had certain advantages. I lived in Warrenpoint, then as now a far more salubrious place than Mr. McCourt's Limerick. I had the advantage of steady parents. My father was a sober man, hard working, domestically reliable, cautious about money, an ungregarious character, a minder of his own business. My mother was a frail creature, often ill, but the only fault she had was on evidence in the kitchen: she was a terrible cook; in every other respect, she was fine.

Mr. McCourt's mother was woebegone for good reason and as if on principle. His father, Malachy McCourt, was an idler, a drunkard, a layabout, a singer of patriotic ballads, a praiser of gone times, a sentimentalist, a slob, a sot addicted to the company of sots. So the miseries of Frank McCourt's childhood are attributable to his father. A more generous welfare system would have helped, but de Valera's Ireland was in the throes of the "economic war" with England, and life was hard. Nonetheless, neither Ireland nor Catholicism was to blame; Malachy McCourt was the sole miscreant. He would have done the same damage to wife and children if he had given up the Faith and stayed in Brooklyn. Fair is fair.

To start at the beginning: Malachy McCourt was born and reared on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. We are asked to believe that he joined the old I.R.A. and committed such gory deeds that a price was put on his head. It may be true, but I doubt it. Maybe he took up arms in the Rising of Easter Week 1916 or in the Troubles of the years leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. Maybe he chose the Republican side in the civil war of 1922–23 and thought it wise to clear off to America in 1923 or later. Frank McCourt gives no evidence, no detail. His father's name does not appear in the list of those who fought in 1916 and were later given pensions for their services. I suspect that the whole story of escaping from Ireland is a fabrication on his father's part, a tale of derring-do recited and repeated with an air of drama to impress the children.

All we know is that at some point—the first chapter is tellingly short on dates—Malachy McCourt immigrated to America. Later he met Angela Sheehan, a recent emigrant from the slums of Limerick. They married on March 28, 1930, and had their first child, Frank, on Aug. 19 of the same year. A year later they had another boy, Malachy. Then twins, Oliver and Eugene, and a girl, Margaret. Their prospects in Brooklyn being poor, the family decided to go back to Ireland, first to Toome, then to Limerick. Relatives provided them with tickets. Angela's Ashes is a memoir of the years in Limerick from 1934, by my count, to 1948 or thereabouts. Angela and Malachy had two more children, Michael and Alphonsus, but they lost Margaret and the twins. Eugene died (like my own brother John) of pneumonia, Oliver probably of the same disease. The book ends in 1948 with Frank fulfilling his father's dream of the boy's going...

(The entire section is 1490 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 17 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood," in The New York Times, September 17, 1996.

[In the review below, Kakutani asserts that McCourt's father bequeathed to him "two things: a childhood of awful, bone-chilling poverty and illness, and a magical gift for storytelling."]

"I know when Dad does the bad thing," Frank McCourt writes of his father in this remarkable new memoir [Angela's Ashes]. "I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O'Connell's shop but I don't want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I'm up with him early...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

Nina King (review date 29 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "With Love and Squalor," in Washington Post Book World, September 29, 1996, pp. 1, 10.

[In the review below, King describes Angela's Ashes as "an instant classic of the genre—all the more remarkable for being the 66-year-old McCourt's first book."]

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: 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."

It takes a tough reviewer to resist quoting this paragraph from...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Malcolm Jones Jr. (essay date 25 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From 'Ashes' to Stardom," in Newsweek, August 25, 1997, pp. 66-70.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses the popular and literary success of Angela's Ashes, describing the book as "the publishing event of the decade."]

Frank McCourt is not without sin. But no one could confess with more charm. In the course of defending the accuracy of his memoir, Angela's Ashes, McCourt admits that he erred at least once, a mistake he discovered last October when he traveled back to Limerick, the Irish city where his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of growing up poor is set. He was autographing books in a bookstore when a man approached and introduced himself...

(The entire section is 2758 words.)