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Frank McCourt: Making Art from Ashes

Published: 8/19/2012

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt would have turned 82 today. When he died, three years ago, Judy Bachrach looked at the life that led him to write… and brought him fame. Originally published July 2009 on Obit-Mag.com.

“When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all,” is how Frank McCourt grabs us in the first line of Angela’s Ashes. “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”

In which case McCourt’s beginnings as a scabby-eyed child who nearly went blind in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, were the most propitious of days. There he scraped by on stolen apples from a neighbor’s tree and bread dipped in tea (“A liquid and a solid diet, what more do you need?” his mother, Angela, used to ask her children); there he survived typhoid, rotted teeth and rickets. He lost three siblings and outlasted a drunk, abusive father who couldn’t hold onto a job, a house or ultimately his own family; Angela spent her last days in Ireland begging for food.

In other words, McCourt died late last night at 78 in a Manhattan hospice, having triumphed over practically every bad thing that could happen to a child. It was in the Promised Land – America was always that for McCourt – that he eventually fell victim, 12 years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his extraordinary memoir, first to malignant melanoma and then meningitis.

In this Oct. 18, 2005 file photo, author Frank McCourt gestures during an interview at his apartment in New York. In his latest memoir,

In this Oct. 18, 2005 file photo, author Frank McCourt gestures during an interview at his apartment in New York. In his latest memoir, "Teacher Man," McCourt shares his memories of being a public school teacher in New York for 30 years. Brother Malachy McCourt says Frank McCourt died Sunday afternoon July 19, 2009, at a Manhattan hospice in New York City at age 78. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)



In yet another of the great ironies in the author’s irony-packed life: None of this Irish tragedy ever needed to happen. It could have been obviated by one simple strategy: staying put. Frank McCourt was, in fact, born in Brooklyn, New York, conceived, he always claimed, during an act of passion that took place against a city wall. His father, Malachy, a former IRA man who had fled to America, was pretty much forced to marry his pregnant mother – this during the worst year of the Great Depression.

After three more children were born in quick succession, the McCourt family left New York and moved back to Ireland. There circumstances made Brooklyn of the Thirties seem enviable by comparison. In Limerick, young Frank’s twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, died. Three more siblings were born; along with Frank and the parents, they lived in one cramped room occasionally drenched by rain, the bathroom bug-infested. Everyone slept in the same bed. On those nights when the father came home particularly drunk, he rousted the weary children from that bed, lined them up, sang them patriotic songs, and made them all swear to die for Ireland.

But what saved both Angela’s Ashes the book and McCourt’s own young life from irredeemable bleakness was not only the author’s talent, but his decision, which arrived early on, to find salvation in misery any which way he could – but especially through literature, what McCourt called “the dancing words.” It was while recovering from typhoid as a 10-year-old that he first read a few lines of Shakespeare – words spoken by Catherine, the discarded Spanish wife of Henry VIII to Cardinal Wolsey, whom she detests: “I do believe, induced by potent circumstances, that thou art mine enemy,” the queen concludes.

Young Frank thrilled to the queen’s flash of courage. “It’s like having jewels in my mouth when I saw the words,” he recalled years later. “If I had a whole book of Shakespeare, they could keep me in the hospital for a year.”

But in his youth, he had no such comprehensive reading matter. There were no entire books of Shakespeare made available to children in the Irish schools of that era – only bits of his plays were found in textbooks. “Shakespeare was not in the schools,” McCourt told an American interviewer after Angela’s Ashes was published to enormous acclaim.

McCourt, more than anybody, was stunned by his book’s reception: over 5 million copies sold; a National Book Critics Circle Award. “It deserves to be received modestly,” he protested.

In a way, his early protestations were understandable. After returning to the United States at 19, McCourt spent much of his time in obscurity. He first took classes at New York University. Then he taught, first at a Staten Island vocational school, then at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.

“…But all the time this book was beckoning,” he later recalled. “It was an itch because I had notebooks filled with stuff about Limerick, about growing up there, catalogues, lists, snatches of conversation, things about my mother and father, and I had to write it.”

Nonetheless, for years he didn’t. His pen was dry. When he finally had something to show, his astonished editor inquired: “Well, what have you been doing all these years?”

“He’s been in recovery,” said his agent.

“I had to become,” McCourt explained, “as it says in the Bible, as a child, and the child started to speak in this book. And that was the only way to do it, without judging.”

Three more books followed: ‘Tis, Teacher Man, and Angela and the Baby Jesus, written for children. But nothing touched the American psyche like Angela’s Ashes – perhaps because, despite the Irish origins and the Irish dialect and the Irish locale of the autobiography, it was essentially about America. The land of hope, as McCourt saw it. The exit sign.

At the very end of the memoir, this paean from McCourt to the country he is about to embrace says it all. He is still in Ireland, listening to Armed Forces network, and the reader knows that it’s just a matter of time before he joins the voices he hears on the radio:

“…..and it’s lovely to hear the American voices easy and cool and here is the music, oh man, the music of Duke Ellington himself telling me to take the A train to where Billie Holiday sings only to me… Oh Billie, Billie I want to be in America with you and all that music, where no one has bad teeth, people leave food on their plates, every family has a lavatory, and everyone lives happily ever after….”

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